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 aims a person has while engaging in an achievement setting, whether they are academic (such as in-class assignments or test preparation) or not (such as sports, work settings, etc.). These orientations guide interpretation of events in the achievement environment, and produce characteristic patterns of cognition, emotion and behaviors (Kaplan & Maehr, 2007). Early theory and research on achievement goals led to the proposal of two broad classes of goals, mastery and performance (i.e. Dweck & Leggett, 1988). Subsequent work contributed a differentiation between approach and avoidance orientations in addition to the mastery/performance split, creating a 2X2 framework (i.e. Elliot & McGregor, 2001). These four goals (mastery-approach, mastery-avoidance, performance-approach, and performance-avoidance) have been empirically tested and found to predict different patterns of outcomes, in terms of achievement, learning, cognitions, emotions, and behaviors, both in classroom and laboratory settings.

Achievement Goals

Mastery Goals

Mastery goals (alternatively called learning goals, or task-focused goals) are concerned with the development of skill or competence. 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 (Harackiewicz et al., 2002; Kaplan & Maehr, 2007). 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 ensure an acceptable demonstration of 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 (Kaplan & Maehr, 2007; Dweck & Leggett, 1988). 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 (see Midgley et al., 2001; and Harackiewicz et al., 2002, for a discussion on the consistency of findings).

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 (Elliot & McGregor, 2001). 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 competence 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 frameworks 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 distinction is that this student's goal of not looking bad will 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 (Harackiewicz et al., 2002). Elliot was able to re-examine existing research to show that the prior mixed results for performance goals was due to this conflating of performance-approach and performance-avoidance goals(Elliot, 1999). 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 observing 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 but mainly 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 the 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 has 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, as they would be more focused on demonstrations of existing ability, while those who hold incremental theories are more likely to develop mastery goals, since they are more focused on changing their skill levels, which are considered malleable.

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. Self-efficacy has an influence on competence evaluations, which directly affects achievement goals.

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 capitals, 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:

  • Many 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? Achievement goals were originally conceived of as a response to motivation theories that relied heavily on dispositional constructs, and were more heavily focused on “a more specific, contextual level of analysis” (Elliot, 2005). However, much of the more recent research has used a more dispositional assessment level of achievement goals. It is unclear exactly how predictive a dispositional assessment at the beginning of a semester is on how an individual will respond in any given situation. How much of the response will come from the disposition, and how much from the situation-specific aspects of the environment?
  • 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-school students?


  • Blackwell, L.S., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Dweck, C.S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development, 78, 246-263.
  • Dweck, C.S., & Leggett, E.L. (1988). A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality. Psychological Review, 95, 256-273.
  • Elliot, A.J. (1999). Approach and avoidance motivation and achievement goals. Educational Psychologist, 34, 149-169.
  • Elliot, A.J. (2005). A conceptual history of the achievement goal construct. In A.J. Elliot & Dweck C. S. (Eds.), Handbook of Competence and Motivation, (52-73). New York: Guilford Press.
  • Elliot, A.J., & McGregor, H. A. (2001). A 2 X 2 achievement goal framework. Journal of Personailty and Social Psychology, 80, 501-519.
  • Kaplan, A., & Maehr, M.L. (2007). The contributions and prospects of goal orientation theory. Educational Psychology Review, 19, 141-184.
  • Harackiewicz, J. M., Barron, K. E., Pintrich, P. R., Elliot, A. J., & Thrash, T. M. (2002). Revision of achievement goal theory: Necessary and illuminating. Journal of Educational Psychology, 94, 638–645.
  • Midgley, C., Kaplan, A., & Middleton, M. (2001). Performance-approach goals; Good for what, for whom, under what circumstances, and at what cost? Journal of Educational Psychology, 93, 77-86.
  • Utman, C.H. (1997). Performance effects of motivational state: A meta-analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 1, 170-182.