What is My Goal Orientation?

Educators have determined that students have different reasons or purposes for achieving in different courses. Dweck and Leggett (1988) believe that the achievement goals students pursue “create the framework within which they interpret and react to events.” They have identified two types of achievement goals: mastery and performance. A mastery goal is oriented toward learning as much as possible in a course for the purpose of self-improvement, irrespective of the performance of others. A performance goal focuses on social comparison and competition, with the main purpose of outperforming others on the task. Think about how you approach different classes. Are you interested in learning as much as you can in a class, or is your major goal simply doing better than the majority of students so you can attain a satisfactory grade? Of course, in some classes, you may value both learnings and be getting good grades because you can have multiple goals in school. It is not uncommon for students to have a mastery goal orientation in one class and a performance goal orientation in another. It is also possible to have a performance and mastery goal orientation in the same class. An analysis of the distinction between mastery and performance goals in Table shows how students define schooling and learning in different ways.

Mastery Performance
Success defined asImprovement, progress, mastery, innovation, creativityHigh grades, high performance compared with others, relative achievement on standardized measures
Value placed onEffort, academic venture some nessDemonstrating high performance relative to effort
Basis for satisfactionProgress, challenge, masteryDoing better than others, success relative to effort
Error viewed asPart of the learning process, informationalFailure, evidence of lack of ability
Ability viewed asDeveloping through effortFixed

The goal orientation that students adopt in a course influences the effort they exhibit in learning tasks and the type of learning strategies they use. Thus, when students adopt a mastery goal orientation, they are more likely to have a positive attitude toward the task (even outside the classroom), monitor their own comprehension, use more complex learning strategies, and relate newly learned the material with previously learned the material. In contrast, students who adopt a performance orientation tend to focus on memorization and other rote learning strategies and often do not engage in problem-solving and critical thinking. In general, they do not think about what they learn but rather look for shortcuts and quick payoffs. Students with performance goals want to look competent (e.g., Safe Susan) or avoid looking incompetent (e.g., Defensive Dimitri). In general, the research suggests that adopting a mastery goal orientation has positive academic outcomes (Ames, 1992). However, it has been found that performance goals, but not mastery goals, were related to academic performance in introductory college classes (Harackiewicz, Barron, Carter, Lehto, & Elliot, 1997).

The researchers argued that in large lecture classes where instructors’ grade on a curve and success is defined as outperforming others, performance goals can lead to academic success. Another important issue to consider is that multiple-choice tests often are used in such settings and may assess more factual rather than deeper understanding of the material. Thus, the grading method and/or type of tests used may create a performance oriented classroom environment. In the same investigation, the researchers found that mastery goals predicted interest in the introductory class, whereas performance goals did not. We have an interesting dilemma: each goal was related to one indicator of success (academic performance or interest) but not the other. In this situation, it appears that students who endorsed both goals were most likely to like the course and achieve well.

In the following section, two students present different views on goal orientation. The first student admits that his primary goal orientation is to meet requirements, not learn. The second student reports that his goal orientation is influenced by the value he placed on different courses. What factors influence your goal orientations?

Your goal orientation in a particular course can greatly impact your motivation, even before you ever open a textbook or take your first lecture notes. Analyze your goal orientation in each of the classes you are currently taking. Do you have the same goal orientation in all of your classes? Do you think you exhibit both orientations in some classes? Do you find that your learning behavior differs depending on your goal orientation? Also, think about a hobby or particular interest you have. How long can you persist on the task before getting tired or bored? How is your behavior related to your goal orientation?

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