Student Goal Orientation, Motivation, and Learning

By — The Idea Center
Updated on Dec 16, 2008

Of the factors that influence student learning, motivation is surely one of the most potent. Teachers can affect student motivation in ways that either facilitate or impede learning. This paper describes why this is so, and offers specific suggestions for promoting positive student motivation.

Some time ago, Janzow and Eison (1990) wrote a very illuminating chapter in an issue of New Directions for Teaching and Learning about a topic that persists as a thorn in the side of all teachers even today. The topic was student orientation toward grades and the influence of that orientation on all they do in a course. Janzow and Eison asserted that students displayed two basic orientations toward their studies: a grade orientation (working for the grade) or a learning orientation (working to learn). They even described an instrument (the LOGO) that would allow instructors to identify these tendencies in their students. This chapter struck a chord with so many faculty because it reflected the all too often seen “nails on the blackboard” attitude of some students to be interested only in the grades they were getting rather than in learning anything. Actually that’s not totally fair; students are usually interested in learning something from their classes, but they are strategic enough to realize that the real currency of the marketplace is the grade they earn, not what they learn.

Achievement Goal Orientation

Recent theory and research in educational psychology has backed up the Janzow and Eison model with a more general theory called achievement goal orientation (Dweck and Leggett, 1988; Ames and Archer, 1987). Achievement goal orientation is a general motivation theory, which refers to the fact that the type of goal toward which a person is working has a tremendous impact on how they pursue the goal. Like the learning oriented students in Janzow and Eison’s model, individuals who have what is called a “mastery goal orientation” in the achievement goal orientation literature are willing to put forth a lot of effort to “master” a skill or concept. In general, folks with a mastery goal orientation will work very hard, persist in the face of difficulty and frustration, will take risks and try things that they don’t already know how to do, all in the service of mastering the task at hand. On the other hand are the grade oriented students in the Janzow and Eison model, who in the more general motivational model are described as “performance goal oriented.” Individuals who have this orientation are working toward the goal of appearing competent or at least avoiding appearing incompetent. As a result, they are less likely to persist if they make an error or have to put forth a lot of effort because either of these two outcomes would label them as incompetent. They prefer to perform tasks that they know they can do, they’re not willing to take risks and they want to do better than everyone else.

As teachers we have all seen both of these types of students. Some of our students (the mastery oriented ones) are interested, willing to try new things, ask questions in class, and seek out new ideas. They are such fun to teach because they almost teach themselves. And we have seen students who are only interested in what is required for the grade (the performance oriented ones), the “will that be on the test?” crowd. They are no fun to teach because they don’t appear to share our enthusiasm for the content or the thrill of discovery in the discipline.

This area of motivational research is getting a lot of attention in the psychological literature these days precisely because we can see evidence of the phenomenon all around us. Researchers are looking at the goal orientation of students from both sides. They’re interested in what causes a student to be oriented in one way as opposed to the other. And they’re interested in the effect that each orientation has on learning. Some of the findings of this research are shown in Table 1, which is just a part of a much larger synthesis of the research described by Pintrich and Shunk (2002). It is obvious from even these few examples that we would all like to have all our students be mastery oriented all the time.

When the model was initially proposed, the goal orientations were thought to be related to personality types or continuing personal attributes; learners were either mastery oriented or performance oriented as a matter of temperament. Fortunately, this rather naïve and limiting perspective was replaced by one that said that goal orientation was not a characteristic of the person, but rather a consequence of the situation. In some situations a person might display a mastery orientation (for example, when engaged in a favorite hobby) and in other situations the same person might display a performance orientation (for example, during an exam). Of course, nothing in psychology is ever so easily divided into two types, and subsequent theorists came to assert that these two orientations were not opposed to each other on the same continuum but rather that a person could have both types of orientations even within the same situation. So, for example, if my hobby were playing tennis (which it is) and some more skilled player agreed to play a match with me, I might have both mastery goals (to try out a lot of new strategies against this better player) and performance goals (to not want to look stupid or clumsy in front of her) all in the same match.

Students might also show that same set of conflicting orientations in our classes. Sometimes in the heat of an exciting discussion of a complex topic, we might glimpse some mastery goals as students struggle to keep up with the flow of ideas and yet seem excited and want to get their opinions heard. At the same time we might see the same students only writing down what the teacher says because that’s the “truth” of the matter. Or they might at the end of this wonderfully stimulating discussion ask the dreaded questions “so, will this be on the test?” or “so, what’s the right answer?” – a sure sign of performance goals (of wanting to be right).

More recently the researchers studying goal orientation have refined the model to accommodate some of the discontinuities they were seeing in some of the results. The first refinement came with the split of performance orientation into two subtypes (Middleton and Midgley, 1997): performance approach orientation and performance avoidance orientation. Performance approach took the drive to appear competent and put it in a positive light. Individuals with a performance approach orientation want to be the best, to appear to be the most competent. As a result, they will work hard and put in a lot of effort in order to surpass their peers. They don’t have learning per se as a goal, but they will work to learn, just for the wrong reason. Individuals with a performance avoidance orientation are trying to avoid making mistakes and appearing incompetent. They are the ones more likely to hold back and not take risks in order to lessen their chances of failing. They take the known path, the unchallenging tasks, and they frequently are reluctant to show their work to others until it’s perfect.

The second major modification of the goal orientation theory was the addition of a fourth orientation: work avoidance (Meece, Blumenfeld, and Hoyle, 1988). Here the names say it all. These are the folks who will perform only as much as they absolutely have to. They will put as little effort into their work as they can. I doubt there is a single teacher anywhere who hasn’t at one time or another had to cope with such a student. These are the ones that know down to the last point where they stand with regard to the grade and somehow manage to get exactly the minimum number of points necessary to get the passing grade. Their attention to detail and their understanding of the course requirements is often more accurate than the instructor’s. If only they would expend that much effort in the actual learning!

The research on goal orientation is uncovering a lot of very interesting differences in the way a student acts depending on the goal orientation operating at the moment. Goals influence what a student chooses to study, how strategic they are in their study patterns, how persistent they are in the face of difficulties, and whether or not they are willing and able to go beyond the course requirements. Obviously we would like to have an entire class of mastery oriented students. But we don’t. The question is rather—what would it take to encourage all our students to adopt a mastery orientation, however briefly, in our classes?

Table 1: Comparison of Sample Behaviors of Mastery Versus Performance Oriented Students

Mastery Oriented Students

Performance Oriented Students

Main interest is in learning the skill/content Main interest is in appearing competent or better than others regardless of level achieved
Willing to take on difficult tasks beyond present capability Sticks to tasks that are familiar, known quantities
Views mistakes as learning opportunities Views mistakes as evidence of lack of competence and therefore to be avoided

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