Mastery Motivation

boy with math card

Mastery motivation is persistence at mastering challenging tasks or activities.

Two preschoolers are attempting to solve a challenging puzzle task. One child makes a mistake but continues to attempt to solve the problem; the other child makes a mistake and gives up. In early childhood, persistence at mastering challenging tasks is known as mastery motivation, and plays a key role in promoting learning and mathematics achievement (Turner & Johnson, 2003), particularly for young children at risk (Berhenke, et al., 2011). Young children vary in their levels of mastery motivation, so it’s critical for early childhood educators to promote persistence at challenging tasks.

There are specific strategies that teachers can use to promote children’s mastery motivation.

For example, children have greater mastery motivation when they:

  • are exposed to challenging materials (such as math games),
  • receive positive feedback,
  • are allowed autonomy (the freedom to direct their learning),
  • and receive scaffolded support (or one step-ahead help) as they engage with you during challenging activities.

On the other hand, children who are not provided with challenging materials, who receive negative feedback, and whose environment is overly controlling, tend to demonstrate less mastery motivation.

Math games are great examples of challenging tasks that encourage children to solve problems in a goal-directed way. They can be used repeatedly and the level of challenge can be varied as children learn. The game structure engages children and allows autonomy in their choices or “moves” within a game. Teachers play an important role in helping to promote mastery motivation by choosing challenging games, scaffolding support for children as they learn to play the game, and providing positive feedback.

Classroom connection

The Most Magnificent Thing

Read the The Most Magnificent Thing at circle time. This book is about a little girl who is building and tinkering. Note that a little girl is the main character, so the book doesn’t feed into a gender bias about constructing/engineering. In the book, she gets very frustrated and has a tantrum—pretty relatable for preschoolers! But she also has a strategy for calming herself down–she goes for a walk, as suggested by her (adorable) dog. Be sure to introduce new vocabulary: perseverance is the ability to keep on trying even when you are frustrated, you’ve made mistakes, and want to quit.

Have a discussion about perseverance after the book reading.

  • You can ask children, “How do you feel when you try really hard and finally accomplish your goal? Do you feel more proud of yourself when you try really hard, or when things come really easy?”
  • It can help children to learn to say to themselves, “I’m not going to be good at this right away, I’m going to make mistakes, and that’s okay.“