An ethnographic case study: Analysing students’ learning goal orientations at a lower-middle decile secondary school
In Aotearoa/New Zealand young people generally commence their secondary school education at Year 9. The numerous changes associated with this transition can include new subjects, larger school populations, unfamiliar learning environments, different day-to-day structures and routines; all of which can affect students’ motivation and confidence in their learning. Research focusing on students’ transition from primary to secondary schooling has tended to indicate a lessening in students’ motivation and has shown the types of learning goal approaches of these students can also change. As a teacher with13 years’ experience of teaching at secondary school level, I noticed that achievement at NCEA levels, in my current school, have remained static since my arrival seven years ago. This drove my interest in exploring further the influence of achievement goals on student learning at Year 9. Goal theory research in the field of motivation has increased dramatically over recent decades. Contemporary theories on learning goals have focused on whether mastery, performance or multiple goals best suit the learning needs of students, and whether students develop certain preferences with regards their goals when it comes to learning and achievement. More recently, the relevance of social goals in relation to learning and achievement, and therefore to learning goal theory, has identified that students do not use learning goals in isolation. The type of goal or multiple goals student adopt in their learning has important implications for their motivation, engagement or success and by implication, teachers’ approaches to their teaching. This ethnographic case study explores how 26 Year 9 students at a lower-middle decile secondary school set their learning goals. The study establishes whether students intentionally adopt a specific type of learning goal and explores the reasons for particular preferences. It also examines whether social goals have any impact on the type of goals students preferred or adopted. Through a questionnaire and then semi-structured interviews, students reported their views on their learning and social goals. In addition, five students from the study formed a Student Advisory Group to offer advice and recommendations on issues relating to the research instruments used. This study found that participating students did not intentionally prefer a specific goal over another. Further to this, students were generally not aware of the particular types of goals that were available to them and therefore were not consciously adopting a learning goal to any extent or purpose. The students were unclear of how different learning goals supported their learning. However, these students were more perceptive when understanding the implications of how social goals influenced their learning. The results from this research show that heightened awareness and understanding associated with the adaptive nature of learning goals by students and teachers would support student achievement. This would enable students to make intentional and logical choices regarding the strategies related to learning goals. Teachers may find these findings useful when considering how their students set their learning goals, and what influences these decisions. It may also serve as a starting point for a discussion with students on how they focus their learning and why.