Student goal orientation, motivation and learning

Student goal orientation

Most of human behavior is directed by achieving goals and fulfilling needs. Goals can range from personal to professional, from short-term to long-term and so on. They can also be objective and physical or subjective and psychological. Goal orientation refers to a student’s reasons for taking part in different achievement behaviors in a certain situation. 

These goals may be driven by different factors depending on each individual like a desire to learn (mastery goal) or a desire to perform better (performance goal). While a combination of the two is ideal for learning and achievement, the factor that influences student learning the most is motivation. Goal orientation impacts motivation which in itself impacts learning. Teachers and the way they deliver lessons can also affect student motivation in ways that either facilitate or impede learning.

What is the goal orientation theory?

Goal orientation theory is a social-cognitive theory that considers goal setting as a key motivational process. It became particularly popular in the 1980s as a framework in the study of academic motivations. 

When other theories were examining students’ beliefs about their success and failures, goal orientation theory focused on the reasons why students engage in their academic work. Goals are the results that a person is trying to accomplish. As students try to achieve multiple goals, the theory indicates that the type of goal and the level of commitment has an influence on how they pursue goals and their motivation to learn.

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What are the three types of goal orientation?

Initially, there were two types of goal orientation: mastery and performance goals, which are also referred to as learning and performance goals, task-focused and ability-focused goals, task involved and ego-involved goals. However a third dimension of goal orientation has recently been added: performance-avoidance goal orientation.

1. Mastery goals

Mastery goals are defined as goals that mainly focus on learning new skills, mastering a task and trying to gain better understanding and improving competence. It encompasses success as a result of hard work and effort.

Setting mastery goals means defining success in terms of improvement and learning. This makes them more effective, since your satisfaction is not related to external indicators but rather to your personal perseverance. Motivation is therefore easier to maintain and you are less likely to give up in difficult circumstances or setbacks.

2. Performance goals

Performance goals focus on demonstrating competence or ability and doing better than others. There is a huge emphasis on comparing oneself to others and receiving favorable judgment from them. By their self-centered nature, performance goals are rather shallow. 

Attempting to surpass others or striving to be the best in a group are just a few examples of it. Moreover, performance goals tend to undermine long-term performance. As they are not learning-driven, you’re less likely to take up more challenging tasks and strive for excellence. If you don’t achieve your initial goal, you usually get unmotivated and discouraged because you base your self-worth on external validation and inputs.

3. Performance avoidance goals

In contrast to performance approach goals where individuals want to demonstrate their superiority, performance avoidance goals refer to the desire to avoid failure, negative judgment and appear inferior to others. Avoidance oriented goals are goals in which individuals are motivated to avoid looking incompetent or less skilled than their colleagues.

Difference between mastery oriented students and performance oriented students

In the classroom, mastery oriented students tend to be very enthusiastic about learning new things; they ask questions and seek out new ideas. On the other hand, performance oriented students seem to only be interested in what is required for the grade; they are the “will this be on the test” crowd.

Generally, students with mastery goals are hard workers that will persist in the face of difficulty and frustration, take risks and try new things, all for the sake of learning and mastering the new task at hand. Other characteristics of mastery oriented students are :  

  • They are always interested and motivated to learn new things
  • They choose tasks that boost opportunities for learning
  • They constantly seek out new challenges
  • They believe that competence is acquired and developed through practice and effort
  • They exhibit more self-automated learning and behavior
  • They willingly collaborate with their colleagues to enhance learning
  • They consider errors and failure as a normal part of learning and use them to work harder and improve
  • They are satisfied with their performance as long as it allows them to learn and make progress
  • They seek feedback that accurately describes their abilities and helps them improve

On the flip side, performance oriented students prefer tasks that they know they can complete and they like to show that they can do it better than everyone else. They are not willing to take risks and are less likely to persist if they make an error. Here are other characteristics of performance oriented students :

  • They are more likely to only be motivated by external factors such as gratification or punishment
  • They believe that competence is inherited and people shouldn’t have to try hard
  • They choose tasks that will maximize their chances of succeeding
  • They avoid tasks that can make them look incompetent
  • They collaborate when doing so makes them look better than others
  • They interpret failure and errors as a sign of incompetence and inability
  • They are only satisfied if they succeed
  • They seek feedback that flatters them
  • They are more likely to cheat to get good grades

It’s important to remember that students can have multiple goals at once, thus; it is totally possible for a student to be both mastery oriented and performance oriented, depending on different situations. For example, when a student is participating in a competition with someone highly qualified, their goals can be to put their skills in practice and try to learn from this challenging situation to improve them or, it can be to try hard and show their opponent that they’re as highly qualified as they are. 

Which type of goals are better for students? 

Researchers agree that mastery goals are more productive and beneficial to students than performance goals. As mastery oriented goals appear to be optimal for academic engagement, they increase student efficiency and their motivation to learn. 

Students try harder and work longer to accomplish their learning goals. They also begin to take on more challenging tasks and evaluate their progress as they go. With mastery goals, there is always something to strive for and students are interested in competing with themselves rather than gaining external validation. 

Nevertheless, performance goals are not to be completely banished from the classroom. In fact, they can be quite valuable when used as a supplement to mastery goals. In this sense, mastery goals should remain the main focus and performance goals should be used as checkpoints along the way. 

How to encourage mastery goals among students? 

There are multiple ways for teachers to encourage mastery goals among their students in order to help them have a sustained, successful learning journey. One way is to allow students to choose specific tasks or assignments for themselves. This means that students will most likely choose something that reflects their personal interests and hence be more motivated, but it also allows the teachers to gain a better understanding of their students and on this basis, make their courses more suitable and enjoyable for them. 

Another way to encourage mastery oriented goals is to focus on each student’s individual effort and achievement, rather than comparing students’ successes to each other. To do so, you can motivate your students by giving them detailed feedback on how they can improve their skills and performance, encourage them to collaborate on projects rather than competing and so on. 

In addition to encouraging students to pursue mastery goals, it is also important for teachers to keep an eye on the goals’ progress and achievement by revisiting them along the way and making the right adjustments. Strategies must be frequently revised to maintain student motivation and ensure student learning and success. 

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