To be more effective, become a learner

In our modern world, we need to be constantly learning. As technology changes, it impacts our ability to be effective.  So we need to learn as adults. This isn’t a new insight.  We’ve been talking about life-long learning for at least a couple of decades now.

However, it seems that our personal orientation to learning has a significant impact on our ability to effectively learn, and to transfer that learning to our daily activities.  I recently read an article by Raymond Noe, Michael Tews and Alison McConnell Dachner about learner engagement. One of the many conclusions they came to was that our learning orientation has an impact on our learning outcomes.

There are two types of orientations: the performance orientation and the learner orientation. People who have performance orientation are interested in measuring the results of their activities, for example did they get an “A” or a “B”. People who have a learner orientation are more interested in the experience of learning itself.

The paper suggests that people with performance orientation will avoid learning, because it might result in failure.  This makes sense, as they are concerned about successful outcomes.  Performance orientations are also more likely to experience “off-task attention” when learning.  That is, they are more easily distracted from the process of learning. This means that they are less engaged with the material, and, ironically, usually results in lower performance.

A while ago, I posted about a study on learning orientations that showed that while it takes a bit longer, people with learning orientations tend to perform better than those with performance orientations in the context of organizational change.

I’ve started to wonder whether we need to change the way we provide feedback to students.  Grades seem to reinforce a performance orientation that might be counter productive. My guess is that our society is hooked on measurement. Employers use university grades as a hiring screening tool. Parents use grades to figure out how their kids are doing in school.  In the workplace, we are moving to performance evaluation systems that are becoming more like report cards. This could backfire on us. Perhaps we should be evaluating process, that is how effectively someone learns, as well as the outcome.

Source: Noe, Raymond, Tews, Michael, and McConnell Dachner, Alison (2010) “Learner Engagement: A New Perspective for Enhancing Our Understanding of Learner Motivation and Workplace Learning”, The Academy of Management Annals, 4: 1, 279-315. First Published on June 15, 2010.


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