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Effectively writing learning protocols needs context

Updated: Mar 16, 2022

Mastery goals in the classroom foster learning by protocols

For teachers

#learning diaries #learning protocols #achievement goals #goal structure #context

By Julia Klug

Who knows me, knows that I am a huge fan of working with learning diaries or learning protocols. Using learning diaries can promote students’ self-regulated learning, the transfer of what they have learned to everyday practice and it can even enhance their academic achievement via different ways. Diaries guide students to reflect upon their learning, which can produce a so-called reactivity effect – they do better only because they think about it. They can also detect even small ameliorations in what they already know and can do, which is motivating to see and to go on.

The context matters

However, recent research suggests, that not only the diary itself and how it is structured is important, but also the context in which you implement it in class matters for success. Jasmin Moning and Julian Roelle investigated whether the goal structure you live in your classroom matters for optimal effects of learning protocols.

Goal structures in the classroom

The goal structure refers to achievement goal theory, and describes which kind of achievement goals are set in a classroom. Mastery goals focus on students’ individual competence development, whereas performance goals focus on demonstrating competence compared to others. You as a teacher can work on your preferred goal structure by highlighting what is important for you or by giving respective feedback. For a mastery goal structure, you evaluate students’ individual improvement and emphasize their understanding and effort. For a performance goal structure, you reward high performances, compare students’ performances with each other and use a normative grading.

A type of learning protocol

The type of learning protocol the authors chose in this study, was a very free one, where students simply reflect upon a content they have dealt with in written form. They can freely develop their ideas and autonomously choose on which aspects they want to reflect more deeply. However, they get some questions that guide their organization of the text (e.g. what is the most important content?), their elaboration of the text (e.g. try to illustrate important content by giving an own example) and their monitoring (e.g. which content have you already understood well, which not?), because these kinds of prompts have proven to be useful for learning.

Students got an introduction to learning protocols and their value and got some examples of how they could look like. It seems to be a good idea, if you want to work with learning protocols in your class, to make their value and your expectations more explicit.

The study

In the study, 166 ninth-grade students wrote a learning protocol about a text they studied before. About half of the students were in a mastery goal setting, the other half in a performance goal setting. The students in the mastery goal setting were told that learning protocols are useful for comprehension, that they should try to enhance their comprehension by writing and that they get feedback regarding their comprehension improvement. In the performance goal setting, the instruction was that the protocols show how well students understood the content, that they all differ in their comprehension and that they get feedback regarding the quality in comparison to the other students.

The results

When students worked on the learning protocol in a mastery goal structured context, they proceeded in a qualitatively better metacognitive way than the students in the performance goal structured context, meaning that they found their gaps and difficulties in comprehension more carefully. Probably, when the aim is to self-improve, students consider finding what is difficult for them or what they did not understand as more important, whereas when showing off in front of others is the goal, openly reflecting upon weaknesses is in conflict with that goal.

In terms of organizing and elaborating in the learning protocol, there was no difference according to the goal structure. These processes seem similarly helpful in performance goal contexts. Students may have created own examples for elaboration to show their understanding of the content.

Mastery goal structures were not only beneficial for deeper metacognitive processes, but also for higher learning outcomes in terms of knowledge and for efficient learning. In the mastery goal structured setting, students gained more knowledge with the same effort. Students in performance goal settings probably have to invest more effort for the same gain since they have to deal with demonstrating their comprehension instead of improving it for themselves.


If we want to use learning protocols or learning diaries in class – and we definitely should – we can remember some things:

  • We can design the diaries/protocols using some prompting questions that guide students in reflecting the content. These questions could facilitate organizing the content, elaborating on it, and monitoring the learning process.

  • We should introduce the diaries/protocols and their value to our students.

  • We should embed them in a mastery goal structure.

  • To create a mastery goal structure in our classroom, we can emphasize students’ understanding and effort and give feedback on students’ individual improvement instead of highlighting differences in competence and rewarding showing off.

In the end, what we do as teachers, and which context we create, matters, also for promoting self-regulated learning via diaries! Panadero, E., Klug, J., & Järvelä, S. (2016). Third wave of measurement in the self-regulated learning field: when measuring and intervening come hand in hand. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 60 (6), 723-735.

Moning, J. & Roelle, J. (2021). Self-regulated learning by writing learning protocols: Do goal structures matter? Learning and Instruction, 75.

Ames, C. (1992). Classrooms: Goals, structures, and student motivation. Journal of Educational Psychology, 84, 261–271.

Nückles, M., Hübner, S., & Renkl, A. (2009). Enhancing self-regulated learning by writing learning protocols. Learning and Instruction, 19, 259–271. learninstruc.2008.05.002

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