Friday 28 October 2016

A Brief Attempt to Understand Understanding

The following is a guest post written by Dan Bailey, Konkuk University, English Department.  He's written a couple of posts on TEFL Tips before, What do you mean you don't teach writing? and Motivating students in a web-enhanced class. You can reach him at

The following is an answer I gave to a midterm assignment for one of my classes. Please forgive the overly-academic tone and try to understand the original purpose of this composition was to be a term paper. I thought it would be cool to share because a lot of these ideas presented here came to me during the past week. The first section attempts to describe the relationship between self-perception of competence and task-value. The second passage looks at attribution theory and attempts to describe how learners view success and failures. The last section attempts to tie together constructs related to the self (self-concept, self-competence, self-efficacy, self-esteem, and expectancies). In the third section, I introduce something called the hierarchical model of conceptual change. This is an undeveloped idea of mine that I hope to contribute more to in the next few years. Basically, it’s a model that tries to explain how conceptual change occurs in a learner.

On self-perception of competence and task-value: 
Self-perception of competence and task-value influence each other over time. If a learner places value on a task then they will cognitively engage in that task until they have built up the self-schema to consider themselves competent. The learner’s identity becomes defined as they becomes more competent at the task. Identity development with respect to competence towards a task will influence task-value. For example, your competence in teaching promotes your identity as a teacher and fosters value towards teaching. This is an example of a positive relationship between competence and value. Alternatively, the learner loses value towards a task if competence is not developed. Devaluing the task may help justify the learner’s lack of ability.

A longitudinal relationship may exist between expectation of success and subjective task value, and they are two important predictors of achievement, but they do not necessarily predict each other. For instance, a learner may place high value on a task due to personal reasons or societal ones while having little expectancy for success towards completing the task. Furthermore, a learner may have high utility value with low competence. In other words, a learner may think math ability will be useful for their life while at the same time hold very low competence in their ability to learn math.

I believe task-value should be developed first in order to encourage engagement and lead to competence. Competence can negatively affect task-value, but task-value, which is often socially driven, has less effect on competence. For example, if you don’t feel competent as a teacher, you might justify your lack of competence by degrading the value of being able to teach. On the other hand, having a degraded value of teaching may or may not influence your competence as a teacher.

According to expectancy value theory, subjective task-value can be thought of as the motivation that allows an individual to answer the question "Do I want to do this activity and why?” Understanding the utility of a learning objective is foremost important when cultivating motivation. Accurately calibrated competence towards achieving a learning outcome rarely occurs at the initial stages of learning (because of a lack of feedback and trial-and-error experience) and therefore cannot be expected to trigger consistent motivation. The learner will be motivated up until they fail in which time they may lose competence and motivation. To avoid this situation, first the learner should understand why they are doing something (i.e., develop value) and then they can learn how (i.e., develop competence). Competence needs experience to be accurately calibrated and learners begin experience by first identifying value. Once value such as utility is established, educators should hope that early successes in learning promotes sustained motivation. Developing talk-value should be a priority.

I would like describe the process through which successes and failures individuals experience affect their subsequent motivation and performance via attribution. I will describe this process through the achievement attributions of ability, effort, task difficulty, and luck.

With respect to ability, success would have a positive effect on motivation. Success attributed to ability will empower self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-competence. This in turn, may act to motivate the individual to perform better than they otherwise might. This success would be attributed to internal ability. In other words, the individual would take ownership of their success.

Failure due to lack of ability has opposing effects for learners who are self-regulated compared to their less regulated counterparts. For a self-regulated student, failure due to lack of ability is part of the learning process. Consistent failure due to lack of ability for a self-regulated learner would be an indication to recalibrate the environment or learning objective to better suit their ability. A self-regulated learner is aware of their zone of proximal development and operates accordingly. On the other hand, failure for a learner who is not self-regulated would be demoralizing and demotivating. Failure would cause anxiety which, without established affective learning strategies, would cause avoidance behavior in which the less capable learner would either not attempt a learning task, attempt an easier task, or approach a difficult task with the intention to fail. An example of attributing failure internally for a less capable learner would be learned helplessness. In other words, they believe their lack of ability is fixed and cannot change (i.e., learned helplessness). This feeling of helplessness demotivates the learner. These less capable learners may also attribute their failure externally in the form of blame. This blame could lead to neurotic behavior and anxiety with a less regulated learner while a more regulated learner would accept a sense of agency and attempt to manipulate external influences in order to avoid the perceived negative external influence.

Effort is another variable that influences attribution. A self-regulated learner with a wide variety of learning strategies are able to capitalize from their effort more efficiently than less regulated ones. This added efficiency in their learning process has a positive effect on motivation. A self-regulated learner attributes successes and failures to effort or lack of effort. To find motivation through both failure and success, the learner should be both self-regulated and experienced. An experienced learner will be able to compare present successes and failures to prior ones (i.e., utilize temporal learning strategies). This is an excellent example of why learning portfolios are valuable tools. Learners can draw motivation from failures when they compare and contrast present examples with past ones. For instance, a learner will be able to identify patterns in their scores that coincide with the amount of effort they invest (e.g., 3 hours of study = A, 2 hours = B, 1 hour = C). Less self-regulated and inexperienced learners may lose motivation due to failure. They would, as in the case with ability, attribute their failure externally. Again, I use the term blame because blame helps the low performing learner justify their poor outcomes. They may blame themselves by thinking regardless of the amount of effort invested they still performed poorly, or they may blame an inconvenient situation that disrupted the amount of effort they could invest.

The third achievement attribution is task difficulty. Successful learners are able to break difficult tasks into manageable pieces while less successful one cannot and therefore experience a sense of feeling overwhelmed. A less proficient learner may attribute failure due to the excessive nature of a task while a more proficient learner will better match their ability to task-difficulty.

With regards to luck, a successful learner attributes less to luck than an unsuccessful one. For instance, if an unsuccessful learner succeeds with minimal effort (i.e., guessing) then they will consider themselves lucky. They are unlucky if they fail. For higher proficient learners, they are aware of how they are doing in the moment which means less guessing and therefore less attribution to luck.

Hierarchical Model of Conceptual Change 
I believe a hierarchical order exists when viewing the conceptual change that occurs in language learning, and learning in general. This hierarchical model of conceptual change goes from self-concept (most global and cemented), to self-perceptions of competence, to self-efficacy, and finally to expectancies (most domain specific and malleable to change). While I place expectancy below self-efficacy, I believe the two are reciprocally related more so than the others because of their plasticity with the environment. Self-esteem is the positive or negative view of our self-concept and could possibly be used to gauge efficiency of the hierarchical chain. In other words, if expectations, efficacy, and competence are accurate, then a healthy self-concept will emerge represented by a positive self-esteem. On the other hand, this could be our perception of self-concept suggesting that self-esteem may just be a figment of our imagination.

I believe self-concept (self-identity, self-perspective, or self-structure) is most important when considering the relationship between these constructs. Having an accurate self-concept means knowing yourself (i.e., your strengths and weaknesses). Self-concept can contain a combination of identities and each identity can be influenced separately by more domain specific competences and efficacies. Within each identity exists unique agency that affords different levels of environmental control. Therefore, expectancy, efficacy, and competence are more malleable to change with respect to the environment while self-concept is more engraved within the learner’s self-schema.

I would like to introduce the construct of self-regulated learning behavior in my contrast and comparison of the constructs within my hierarchical model of conceptual change. All of the constructs work either for or against the learner depending on their calibration. An individual who identifies as a self-regulated leaner with a wide variety of learning strategies will operate in the positive realm because they utilize environmental feedback. This utilization of feedback allows them to hold realistic expectations and calibrate self-efficacy and self-competence. On the other hand, less capable learners practice avoidance behavior and exhibit learned helplessness.

The self-regulated learner achieves accurate conceptual awareness of their self-concept through feedback from their environment. In other words, the self-regulated learner knows themselves, knows what to expect, and knows they have the skills to accomplish their goals. Through this accurate understanding, the learner reinforces their self-concept.

Competence can be relatively global (e.g., competent at all math) or local (e.g., competent at algebra) while self-concept is generally global (e.g., good at math and bad at English). My hierarchical model posits that accurate competence within local areas has an incremental effect on local competence. Consequently, inaccurate competence will have the opposite effect.

Calibrating self-competence from environmental feedback can be accomplished at the self-efficacy and expectation levels. The self-regulated learner utilizes learning strategies to calibrate their self-efficacy and competence. For example, the learner can gauge their self-efficacy through social learning strategies such as asking for feedback from others and/or metacognitive learning strategies such as reflecting on personal growth over time (via learning portfolio). Through accurate self-efficacy, the learner knows what to expect when beginning learning objectives.

Alternatively, having accurate expectations will reinforce accurate self-efficacy. I rank expectancy below self-efficacy because expectancy is related to value (utility, cost, etc.), and can be influenced by emotion, making self-expectancy prone to change even more so than self-efficacy.

All constructs mentioned in this hierarchical model of conceptual change share a similar attributional relation with failure and success. Self-regulation of learning through the use of a wide variety of direct and indirect learning strategies help maintain a calibrated leaner at all levels (self-concept, competence, efficacy, and expectancy) of my hierarchical model. This is accomplished through failure more than successes. Humans have a tendency to learn more from their failures than successes and a self-regulated learner manages these failures by transforming them into teachable moments. Failure is necessary for calibration. Without failure, efficacy and competence cannot be accurately known leaving us with a false concept of ourselves. The learner measures these constructs of themselves through failures. The self-regulated learner grows from these failures while the less proficient leaner struggles.


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