Students Who Really Care Do Better in School

Remember the apple polisher? In my school days, apple polishers were kids who kissed up to the teacher. They would tell their biology teacher, I've wanted to be a biologist since I was 3; or say to the English instructor, I'm reading Faulkner's novels on my own time, just for fun. They'd ask for permission to work ahead.

The phrase may be archaic, but kids still try to game the system, from grade school to college. And we're not talking about total frauds, those modern-day Eddie Haskells dripping insincerity. Some of these kids believe that ingratiating themselves with teachers and professors is the proper path to success. They really do want to do well in school, but they see being popular with the teacher as a measure of their success.

This can be a dilemma for teachers and professors, who naturally want their students to set high achievement goals. Plus, teachers understandably like students who express an interest in learning. But how do these kids actually do academically? Educators, policy makers and parents all have a keen interest in the dynamics of school success. Can posturing translate into real learning? Do less-than-genuine motives help or hamper students in the long run?

A research team recently decided to examine this link between motive and mastery at the university level. Psychologist Benoit Dompnier of Pierre Mendes France University and colleagues figured out a way to sort the fakers from those genuinely hungry for knowledge, and compare their classroom success over time. They recruited a large group of college freshmen at the end of the fall semester and recorded their grades. This served as a benchmark for measuring future achievement. As they were about to begin the spring term, the psychologists asked them a number of questions about their goals in class. Did they aim to learn as much as possible? To master all the course material? And so forth.

The researchers didn't really expect students to say, no, I don't want to learn much. These first questions were prelude to further questioning, designed to plumb the students' underlying motives for learning and mastery. In other words, upon closer inspection, were their lofty goals inspired by a genuine sense that learning is useful and good and leads to excellence in life? Or did they really reflect a desire for social acceptance and popularity? The responses allowed the researchers to divide the students into two groups—the truly dedicated and the kiss-ups.

Then all the students went about their work as usual, attending lectures, reading and studying, taking exams. When the spring semester ended and the final course grades were recorded, the researchers crunched them together with the data on goals and motives. The results, reported in the August issue of the journal Psychological Science, were indisputable: expressing a love of learning led to real academic achievement only for those students whose desire for learning was genuine. By contrast, those whose expressed love of learning was insincere—whose real goal was to be seen as a nice person—ended up doing more poorly in the classroom.

This may not be shocking, and indeed the psychologists offer a fairly simple explanation: students who see learning as a path to competence in school and life—that is, students who want to be smart rather than popular—tend to adopt study strategies that enhance real mastery: deep processing and effortful memorization, intrinsic pleasure in reading. Those who are seeking approval leave their motivation at the professor's desk.

These findings may illuminate some disturbing results from another, unrelated analysis. A review of almost 100 separate studies found that the connection between learning goals and classroom performance steadily diminishes from elementary school through college. This suggests that, as kids make their way through the educational system, they learn that claiming to love learning is socially desirable. They increasingly do it not because they believe it, but because they can see that their teachers like it. After all, they're not stupid.