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Can Classroom Culture Breed Success?

By Gordon Eldridge

We all intuitively recognize the importance of classroom culture for the success of our students, but it is sometimes less obvious exactly which elements of classroom culture contribute to student success, and how they actually do this.
Rebecca Givens Rolland from Harvard University has recently conducted a meta-analysis of 49 studies investigating certain aspects of classroom culture in classrooms from Grades 6 through 12, and their impact on student achievement.
Ms. Givens Rolland was particularly interested in the following two factors and their impact on achievement:
1. Classroom goal structures: to what extent did students perceive the goals of the classroom to be performance-oriented (where students perceive they are expected to demonstrate competence) or mastery-oriented (where students perceive they are expected to develop competence through an iterative learning process)?
Within performance-oriented goal orientations, recent research has distinguished between performance approach goal orientations, where the demonstration of competence relative to other students is emphasized, and performance-avoidance orientations, where the culture leads students to attempt to avoid “negative appraisals of their abilities” (Givens Rolland, 2012: 397).
2. Teacher support: to what extent did students perceive the teacher as supporting them and their achievement? The various studies in the meta-analysis defined the construct of teacher support as including concepts such as trust in the teachers, teachers’ competency, teachers’ social-emotional involvement, level of cognitive support etc.
What were the results?
1. Classroom Goal Structures
• Studies that included Grade 6 students showed positive correlations between mastery goals and student achievement (measured both on standardized measures and by teacher-allocated grades). No relationship was found for students above Grade 6.
• Studies that included Grade 6 students showed negative correlations between performance goals and student achievement (measured both on standardized measures and by teacher-allocated grades). No relationship was found for students above Grade 6.
• Studies that included Grade 6 students showed a negative relationship between the performance and mastery goal structures in the classroom, suggesting that for Grade 6 students, these structures were somewhat incompatible.
• Students’ own personal goal orientations were correlated with the perceived goal orientations of their classrooms. This correlation was even stronger for Grade 6 students.
• One longitudinal study reported an increase in self-reported cheating when students moved from high to low mastery-oriented classrooms, and a decrease when students moved from low to high mastery-oriented classrooms (Anderman and Midgley, 2004).
• Students who perceived their classrooms as having a higher mastery focus, on average, had higher levels of self-efficacy and self-esteem.
2. Teacher Support
• For students above Grade 6 there was a positive correlation between teacher support and student achievement. No relationship was found for Grade 6 students.
• Students who perceived their teachers as being more supportive reported higher levels of mastery goals.
• Students who perceived their teachers as being more supportive also had higher feelings of self-efficacy and greater expectations for success.
What might this mean for our classrooms?
As Ms. Givens Rolland notes, her study suggests that early adolescence may be a critical period. Grade 6 was the only grade to show significant correlations between goal orientations and student achievement. She suggests the possibility that young adolescents may be more vulnerable to perceptions of competition in performance than older students. This idea is strengthened by the fact that Grade 6 was also the only grade where mastery goals and performance goals were seen as being incompatible.
Somewhat counter-intuitively, the Grade 6 students seemed to rely less on teacher support. Ms. Givens Rolland suggests that it may be possible that younger learners derive more support from parents or peers, and so are less reliant on teacher support; or alternatively, that teacher support may play a different role as students develop.
In general, although only Grade 6 students increased their achievement significantly as a result of classroom mastery goal orientations, there was a strong correlation across all grades between mastery goals and students’ feelings of self-efficacy and self-esteem. In contrast, performance goals, and particularly those in cultures where performance-avoidance is common, can lead to maladaptive behaviors such as cheating and a reduction in help-seeking.
This finding is echoed in other studies, though Ms. Givens Rolland’s reading of the overall evidence is slightly more nuanced. She suggests that personal performance goals as such may not always be maladaptive. Rather “the combination of such goals with low levels of mastery may be what predicts decreases in adaptive functioning over time” (2012: 422).
It seems quite possible that we are not even consciously aware of some of the things we do that encourage our students to interpret our goal orientations in certain ways, or perceive us as more or less supportive. The findings of this study could serve as a good lens through which to carefully examine the cultures of our own classrooms, and the possible impact they may be having on our students.
Mr. Eldridge is Curriculum Director at the International School of Brussels, and a regular TIE columnist.
Givens Rolland, R. (2012) “Synthesizing the Evidence on Classroom Goal Structures in Middle and Secondary School: a Meta-analysis and Narrative Review” in Review of Educational Research, 82 4, pp. 396-435.
Anderman, E. and Midgley, C. (2004) “Changes in Achievement Orientations, Perceived Academic Competence and Grades across the Transition to Middle-Level Schools” in Contemporary Educational Psychology, 22, pp. 269-298.

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