Achievement Goals

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Achievement goals are the orientations for how and why people engage in achievement situations. They refer to the underlying purposes of engagement in the scenario. These orientations guide interpretation of events in an achievement environment, and produce characteristic patterns of cognition, emotion and behaviors (Kaplan & Maehr, 2007).


Mastery and Performance Goals

Early theory and research on achievement goals led to the proposal of two broad classes of goals, mastery-oriented and performance-oriented.

Mastery Goals

Mastery goals (alternatively called Learning goals, or task-focused goals) are concerned with the development of skill. A mastery-oriented student is one whose primary goal is to improve her ability. Adoption of mastery goals has been found to be correlated with better self-regulation, deeper processing strategies, more positive affect, and increased topic interest (WHAT CITATION TO COVER ALL?). However, mastery goals are less well correlated to measures of actual achievement, such as grades (Harackiewicz et al., 2002).

Performance Goals

Performance goals (alternatively called normative goals, or ego-focused goals) are concerned with demonstrations of skill. A performance-oriented student is one whose primary goal is to demonstrate her ability. Adoption of performance goals has been linked with a variety of effects, some positive and some negative. Performance goals are generally correlated with surface processing strategies, and negative affect and off-task behaviors following failures. However, performance goals have also resulted in less clear links with achievement scores (such as grades), topic interest, and affect in general. Performance goals sometimes have a positive correlation with these outcomes, and sometimes have a negative correlation.

Approach/Avoidance Distinction

To address the mixed findings regarding performance goals, Andrew Elliot and colleagues proposed incorporating a distinction between approach goals and avoidance goals (e.g. Elliot, 1999; Elliot & McGregor, 2001). This idea was inspired by earlier research on motivational drives, which included such a distinction. Approach in this case refers to an orientation towards seeking positive outcomes, while avoidance refers to preventing negative outcomes. These dimensions were originally only added to performance goals to help make sense of the conflicting findings, leading to a trichotomous framework of mastery, performance-approach, and performance-avoidance goals. Subsequent studies have used factor analysis and extended this distinction into a full 2 X 2 framework. The four goals in this framework are:

  • Mastery-approach: This goal refers to wanting to develop skill or competence.
  • Mastery-avoidance: This goal refers to not wanting to lose skill or miss an opportunity to improve skill.
  • Performance-approach: This goal refers to wanting to demonstrate skill or competence.
  • Performance-avoidance: This goal refers to not wanting to demonstrate a lack of skill or competence.

It is important to note that all of these goals are framework to understand the purposes a person has in engaging in achievement situations. They do not refer to the activities a person may engage in in service of these goals. For example, a performance-avoidance motivated student may still expend a lot of energy studying for a test. The important dinstinction is that this student's goal of not looking bad may lead him to engage, behave, think, and feel very differently than a student who studies with the goal of looking good, or one who is concerned with making sure he has mastered the material.

Performance-avoidance goals generally lead to negative outcomes, while performance-approach seem to lead to positive outcomes in terms of achievement. Most prior research had looked at mastery in exclusively approach terms, so the research that had shown a benefit for deeper processing, improved interest and affective response, and only small correlations with achievement generally applies to mastery-approach goals. Less is known about the effect of mastery-avoidance goals on cognition, emotion and behavior.

Experimental Manipulations

A fair amount of research on the effect of achievement goals has been correlational, administering questionnaires at the beginning of a semester and then observed the outcomes (i.e. via subsequent questionnaires and achievement measures, like final grades). However, experimental work has been done as well. A meta-analysis (Utman, 1997) synthesized the results on experimentally induced mastery and performance goals. It showed an advantage for mastery goals on complicated tasks, in older children, and for those working in groups. It should be noted that not every study found this advantage; performance goals were better than mastery in some of studies included in the meta-analysis.

Links to Other Theories

Achievement goals have been linked to other theories as well. The strongest connection has been between achievement goals and implicit theories of intelligence (i.e. Blackwell, Trzesniewski, & Dweck, 2007). Implicit theories of intelligence are the beliefs people intuitively have about intelligence. An entity theory of intelligence holds that intelligence is set; a person can have a certain "amount" of intelligence, and there is nothing else one can do about it. An incremental theory of intelligence holds that intelligence is malleable; a person's intelligence is a measure of his skill and effort, both of which can change. People who maintain an entity theory of intelligence are more likely to develop performance goals, while those who hold incremental theories are more likley to develop mastery goals.

Self-efficacy is another theory of motivation which could play a role in achievement goals. Self-efficacy is the belief a person has about whether or not she can complete a given task. There is a role for this construct in achievement goal theory because achievement goals are fundamentally concerned with a person's competencies; if a person believes she can do something or not will influence a person's reactions to the environment. For example, two performance-approach oriented students may behave very similarly when they are both high in self-efficacy, but very differently if one is low in self-efficacy.

Open Questions

Although achievement goals have been a major area of research over the past 30 years, much of that time has dealt with reconciling opposing viewpoints and findings. Today, a general consensus seems to exist in terms of the number of achievement goals (3 or 4, depending on the inclusion of mastery-avoidance), and some of their outcomes. However, there are still some open questions, some of which are particularly relevant to the PSLC:

  • Are some motivations more beneficial in certain situations? It seems like there could be a strong link between the type of learning outcomes sought (and the style of assessment used) and achievement goals. If a teacher is particularly interested in developing fluency, such as learning one's multiplication tables, or memorizing all of the state capital's, perhaps fostering performance-approach goals would be beneficial, as they seem to be linked to effort and surface strategies such as rehearsal, which are good for such tasks. However, if the goal is to develop a conceptual understanding that allows one to make good inferences about a complex topic, then mastery goals would seem to be more beneficial. This potential discrepancy between learning outcomes sought and achievement goals introduced could be a fruitful area of study, as well provide real value for optimizing learning environments.
  • Laboratory experiments have shown a benefit for mastery orientations (see Utman, 1997, for a review), but classroom studies have been less clear about those benefits, specifically in terms of achievement. This may also be due to a mismatch between the type of learning that occurs with mastery orientation and the type of assessments used. Could assessments of robust learning account for this?

There are other open questions that may be less particularly relevant to the PSLC:

  • Most of these studies look at achievement goal orientations in exclusive terms, but students may in fact be adopting a variety of them. What would it mean for a student to be high in both mastery-approach and performance-approach? Or for someone to be very performance-approach oriented but particularly not mastery-avoidance oriented? Are the effects that have been reported in the extant literature additive? Or do they interact to create unique profiles?
  • Just how flexible are these orientations? How much is state, and how much is more like trait? (EXPAND)
  • Do achievement goals produce fundamentally different outcomes in different age groups? For example, do performance-oriented college students have a different pattern of cognitions, strategies, and affect than performance-oriented middle schoolers?