From level-thinking to progress-thinking

I'd like to introduce two concepts: level-thinking and progress-thinking. Below, I will explain what I mean with these two terms and argue for putting less emphasis on level-thinking and more on progress-thinking.

Level-thinking is a way of thinking in which people, when they assess other people or themselves and when they set goals, emphasize the achieved level and desired level.  Progress-thinking is a way of thinking in which people, when they assess or set goals, emphasize achieved and desired progress. These two ways of thinking have a number of different characteristics and consequences which I will describe below.

Assessment: in level-thinking we primarily look at who good someone is at something and at what the person has achieved. When we apply this approach to groups we easily notice performance differences between individuals. This way of looking at reality has some negative consequences. Falko Rheinberg (1980) demonstrated in a study that teachers who compare achievement levels of students tend to attribute these differences to stable personal characteristics which they then base their expectations of these individuals on (read more). In progress-thinking the emphasis is on the progress which the individual needs and achieves. This way of thinking (1) creates high expectations, both in the teacher and the student, (2) raises the level of engagement of students, and (3) lowers stress levels of students (Trudewind & Kohne, 1982; Rheinberg, 1979, Rheinberg & Krug, 2005).

Goal-setting: in level-thinking we set goals in terms of achievements and results. We visualize a desired situation which is static. We will have achieved a situation which is pleasurable and comfortable. For example, we may think about a situation in which we have status, money, possessions, a college degree, a good job, etc. In level-thinking we reason as follows: "Once I will have achieved that result my life will be good." In progress-thinking the desired situation we strive for is dynamic. We focus on what we want to become better at and the desired situation is one in which we visualize ourselves in action. In progress-thinking we are never ready: also in the desired situation we keep working on making further progress. Being progress-focused is a constant. We will never achieve a situation in which further progress is no longer needed or possible. This difference corresponds with the difference between achievement goals and learning goals. Research has shown that achievement goals, in general, have more negative effects while learning goals tend to have more positive effects (Grant & Dweck, 2003; Meece et al., 2006; Lau & Nie, 2008; Murayama & Elliott, 2009; Nie, 2015, Benita et al., 2014).

Motivation: level-thinking and progress-thinking have some very different motivational consequences. As can be read here, fantasizing about a positive future in which we have accomplished a desired situation (graduated!) can give us the illusion that we have already achieved that situation to some degree which makes us more passive (read more about this). Thus a level-thinking approach to goal setting thus makes us less active and persistent. On the other hand, if you always expect future situations in which further progress will remain both needed and possible it is unlikely that you will become passive. You prepare yourself for ongoing effort. A second motivational aspect which I want to mention is the following. People who mainly aspire for achieving levels (of fame, wealth, status, grades, etc) tend to be less satisfied when achieving those things than they had previously expected (see for example Niemiec et al., 2009).

This probably has a lot to do with a phenomenon which is called sensory adaptation. This is a mechanism of habituation which causes us to get used to the circumstances in our environment. Even to desirable things such as luxury and wealth we will get used so that we gradually lose our ability to keep noticing them, let alone enjoying them. That is why such things are not reliable determinants of sustained satisfaction. Our brain has the tendency to constantly evaluate situations we find ourselves in, in terms of being more or less desirable. Once we have adapted to a desirable situation we will again find new sources of dissatisfaction in the things around us. When we set our goals differently, in terms of learning and making progress, the psychological consequences will be different. Making meaningful progress motivates and will keep on motivating, no matter what level you find yourself on.

I don't argue for radically letting go of level-thinking. To a certain degree we cannot and should not do that. In jobs a certain level of minimal competency is generally required in order to fulfill the job's demands. It could be dangerous to not pay attention to these minimal requirements when selecting or appointing people. In education we also need some degree of level-thinking. Schools prepare for further education and/or for the labor market. A minimal entry level is then required which should play an important role in designing the education and teaching students. This is why I do not argue for abolishing level-thinking. But I do argue for a shift in emphasis from level-thinking to progress-thinking. Teachers who are only led by level-thinking are only interested in grade levels. Teachers who are primarily led by progress-thinking, do not deny the importance of grades but look beyond them. They focus on the learning process of individual students and analyze with these students what they have already mastered and what they should further put effort into.

Conclusion: when we put a bit more emphasis on progress-thinking in our assessments and goals, we are likely to achieve more.