What are Effects of Goal Orientation on Student Achievement?


The extent to which students have a learning or performance goal orientation is associated with a variety of student behaviors and beliefs. These have been divided into cognitive strategies and engagement and motivational beliefs and actions.

Cognitive Strategies and Engagement

Learning goals foster cognitive engagement and effort (Meece, Blumenfeld, & Hoyle, 1988). Fifth- and sixth-grade science students who placed greater emphasis on learning goals also reported more active cognitive engagement. Students with performance goals (pleasing the teacher or seeking social recognition) had a lower level of cognitive engagement. Wolters, Yu, and Pintrich (1996) found that task value and interest were related to learning goals. The use of cognitive strategies and information processing is related to goal orientations of students at different levels of schooling. Learning that is potentially more meaningful or complex, requiring deep-level processing, appears to be the most vulnerable to the negative effects of performance goals (Graham & Golan, 1991). When the emphasis was on ability, as in the performance goal situation, there was interference with memory for tasks that required a great deal of cognitive effort. Performance goals also undermined the problem-solving strategies of children (Elliott & Dweck, 1988). In contrast, learning goals were the strongest predictor of seventh- and eighth-grade students’ cognitive strategy use (Wolters et al., 1996). These goals were also predictive of deep processing, persistence, effort, and exam performance of college students (Elliot, McGregor, & Gable, 1999).

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Motivational Beliefs and Actions

The particular goal orientation affects motivation beliefs such as the role of effort in learning, self-efficacy beliefs, the tendency to use self-handicapping strategies, help seeking, and helpless patterns.

Self-Efficacy: A learning goal orientation was generally found to be associated with higher self-efficacy. Wolters et al. (1996) reported that seventh- and eighth-grade students who reported greater endorsement of a learning goal also tended to report higher levels of self-efficacy. Learning goals were also positively related to self-efficacy in the subjects of writing and science (Pajares, Britner, & Valiante, 2000). In contrast, performance goals were related to low self-efficacy (Pintrich, Zusho, Schiefele, & Pekrun, 2001).

Self-Handicapping: Self-handicapping strategies, such as low effort, are associated with performance goals (Midgley & Urden, 2001). Elliott and Dweck (1988) found that children with performance goals were more likely to avoid challenge and exhibit low persistence. These strategies undermine student achievement. Another type of self-handicapping strategy associated with performance goals is cheating (Anderman, Griesinger, & Westerfield, 1998). The authors explained that, by cheating, not only do students protect themselves against perceptions of low ability, they improve their grades.

Help Seeking: The particular goal orientation was also found to influence help-seeking behaviors (Butler & Neuman, 1995). Second- and sixth-grade students were more likely to seek help when the task was presented to them as an opportunity to develop competence. When tasks were presented to students as a measure of their ability, they were less likely to seek help. Students were more likely to seek help in classrooms with a learning goal focus and to avoid help seeking in a performance goal structure (Butler & Neuman, 1995; Ryan, Gheen, & Midgley, 1998).

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Helpless Patterns: Finally, one of the most debilitating effects of performance goals is the vulnerability to helpless patterns (Dweck, 1986). Goals that focus students on using performances to judge their ability can make them vulnerable to a helpless pattern in the face of failure (Dweck & Sorich, 1999; Heyman & Dweck, 1992; Midgley et al., 2001).

In conclusion, performance goal beliefs are generally seen as the most maladaptive pattern as students are more extrinsically motivated, focused on outcome and not on learning (C. Ames, 1992), and focused on being superior to others (Nicholls, 1990). At the same time, there is continued agreement that the learning goal pattern is the more adaptive one, fostering long-term achievement that reflects intrinsic motivation (C. Ames, 1992; Heyman & Dweck, 1992; Kaplan & Middleton, 2002; Meece, 1991; Midgley et al., 2001). As Kaplan and Middleton asked, “Should childhood be a journey or a race?”


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