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

Encouraging a Mastery Orientation

Mastery Oriented Students. We can begin by looking at the mastery oriented group and attempting to discern the reasons behind their orientation toward these goals. The broader literature on motivation provides some possible insights into their behavior. One theory of motivation holds that students are motivated to engage in behaviors 1) that have value to them and 2) where they have a reasonable expectation to succeed.

Behaviors have value because they are intrinsically interesting, novel, or curiosity arousing, because they have an immediate use in solving an individual’s current problem, because they contribute to the long range plans of the individual, because they are valued by the social group of which the individual is part, and because they represent a challenge to the learner’s skills. If the tasks that we are setting for our learners fit any of these molds, they are more likely to want to master them.

Expectations of success at a task are influenced by past experiences of success, the perceived difficulty of the task, the persuasiveness of others who are encouraging us to continue, initial feedback on success, and the degree to which the demands of the task fit the skills of the individual. If the tasks we are setting for our learners have any of these characteristics, the learners are more likely to be willing to take them on.

In light of this theory (known as expectancy value theory) our learners are more likely to adopt a mastery orientation if the task on which they’re working fits these two sets of criteria. What is encouraging to instructors is that we have a lot of control over both of the two sets. We can choose tasks our students value and we can structure the learning situation so that their probability of success is a reasonable one. Certainly we can continue to support their efforts while they work on the task so that they are encouraged by their progress.

Another motivation theory that relates to the mastery goal orientation we’d like our students to adopt is self-determination theory. This theory asserts that individuals are more motivated to work at a task if there was an element of choice or control involved. Individuals who have choices associated with their efforts are more likely to adopt a mastery orientation. This theory relates nicely to the expectancy value theory because if an individual has choices about what and how he’ll work, he can choose tasks that interest him and which he feels competent to perform – the aspects of expectancy value theory just discussed.

The final theme that comes from students who adopt a mastery orientation has to do with safety versus risk and the consequences of failing. When learning, one can never be in a risk-free environment since learning is a risky business. It involves attempting something you don’t already know how to do, hence the risk. However, if the benefits of succeeding outweigh the costs of failure, taking a risk is worthwhile. So in a learning situation an instructor should work to reduce the cost of failure. There are many ways of doing this. First and most influential is the reaction that the instructor has to student failure. If the instructor reacts to a student error with interest and support rather than criticism and withdrawal, students are more likely to view their mistakes in a constructive light. Second is the consequence of making a mistake. If it only results in demerits, students will attempt to hide their mistakes and miss the opportunity to learn from them. If on the other hand mistakes are followed by additional opportunities to learn without severe penalties, students will be more willing to identify their mistakes and correct them. Third is the model that the instructor presents to the class when he or she makes a mistake. Rather than becoming defensive or trying to bluff through an error, if the instructor acknowledges the mistake and models how someone should approach correcting that mistake, the students have learned a very good lesson about how they should cope with their own mistakes. Fourth is to offer credit for making progress, not just reaching a preset criterion. Helping students become reflective about their learning so that they base their self-worth on how far they’ve come rather than on how they compare with others is an important component of getting them to adopt a mastery orientation. Fifth is to encourage the development of a learning community in the class where everyone is expected to make progress and encouraged to help everyone else make progress.

The bottom line on encouraging students to adopt a mastery orientation involves giving worthwhile assignments where the focus is on learning and making progress rather than being perfect.

Performance Oriented Students. If we look closely at the behavior of students who are displaying performance approach, performance avoidance, or work avoidance orientations, we might be able to speculate on the type of environment that might encourage them to move in the direction of mastery orientation. For example, students who are performance approach oriented want to be better than everyone else in their peer group for they may see that as the only way to gain attention and recognition for their efforts. Is it possible that by providing them attention and recognition for their own progress, and their own effort, we may end up weaning them away from comparison with others as their benchmark of achievement? Certainly the research on collaborative vs. competitive reward structures seems to indicate that minimizing competition and rewarding collaboration results in better learning (Johnson and Johnson, 1985) for a whole variety of reasons. Recent efforts towards shifting grading methods away from norm referenced comparative forms of grading to criterion referenced individual achievement grading will also help move the students’ focus away from how they compare with others to how much progress they have made and how much further they need to go. Even the shift to portfolio type grading as opposed to tests as the basis for grades plays a role in shifting student attention toward mastery.

In the case of performance avoidance oriented students, their goal is to play it safe and only do what they know will be successful. We must ask ourselves why they are adopting that orientation at this point. What is it about failure that is so bad that it must be avoided at all costs? In reality there is nothing wrong with failure; the problem lies in our reaction to and interpretation of failure. For many individuals, failure is an indication of lack of ability. For others failure simply means that they don’t know how to do that specific thing at this specific time. In fact a much healthier interpretation of failure is that it is an opportunity for learning. So why do our students work so hard to avoid it? Possibly the answer lies in the reactions of their teachers and the modeling of how to react to failure, as noted earlier. First of all, teachers should focus on wrong answers not as failures, but more accurately as misunderstandings. No student sets out to give a wrong answer; as far as they’re concerned, they’re giving a correct answer. They may just be answering a different question. So instructors should take errors as “teachable moments,” opportunities for learning to occur, and react accordingly. That provides students with a different model of how to react to mistakes with renewed determination to understand rather than with resistance or frustration. The same opportunities present themselves when instructors make mistakes. These, too, are teachable moments. They give the instructor an opportunity to model how to cope with a mistake in a positive way rather than becoming defensive and annoyed.

For students who have adopted a performance avoidance orientation, the answer appears to be transforming the classroom environment into a safer place, one where mistakes are accepted as opportunities to learn rather than behavior to hide. Positive instructor comments, joint pursuit of the solution, and a supportive community of learners are all strategies that might coax a performance avoidance individual over to a mastery orientation. Finally we have our work avoidant students. First we should examine our own attitudes toward these students and their behavior. In reality they may not just be lazy; they may be trying to be strategic in the use of their resources. After all, ours is not their only course or source of work. Students live real lives outside the classroom and the circumstances of those lives often take precedence over the artificial deadlines of academia. We can hardly criticize them for wanting to get the biggest bang for their buck; we certainly do that ourselves. Perhaps we should examine more closely what we’re asking them to do. Is the value of the task obvious? To us, yes, but maybe not to the students. If they understood and accepted its value, perhaps they would be more willing to put effort into it. Is the amount of benefit equal to or greater than the amount of work they will have to put into it? Is there a way to structure the tasks so that the focus is on the critical aspect of the task? For example, in many math-based classes, like statistics, the secret to success is the initial set-up of the problem. If the students don’t get that part right, nothing else will be right. However, from long years of schooling, the students are more likely to focus on getting the right answer by whatever means. If the key to success is getting the problem set-up right, why not focus most of our students’ efforts (and their grade) on that? They can certainly work through one problem completely to show that they know how, but why not make the bulk of their work revolve around the key skill of problem analysis? Another example of cost/benefit analysis in a course like statistics is to consider what exactly do professionals in the field do when working in this area? I can tell you with absolute certainty that no one in psychology knows the formulas for all the statistical tests we use, even the ones we use most frequently. If that is true (and it is), then why should students spend their limited time memorizing formulas? A professional in the field knows how to look the formulas up or use computer software to do the actual calculations. The important task that cannot be automated is knowing which statistic to use when. That’s the professional aspect of the task and that’s what I’d want my students to focus on so that’s where the grade is focused.

I grant you that there are some students whose work-avoidance orientation is not so lofty as efficient resource allocation. Some really are just trying to slide by. In their case an instructor may not be able to effect a change in orientation. Perhaps the best one can do with those students is to minimize the aggravation that you feel when interacting with them. Since their goal is to know what they have to do for a given grade, perhaps the best way of dealing with them is to make those criteria very clear and readily available to them so they can meet the standards without having to constantly ask about the requirements. A clear syllabus, easy to understand and track, that’s available 24/7 on a class website might be the best answer to dealing with their needs. However, that doesn’t mean that we are giving in; it means that the criteria we set for our students are focused on the most important things we want them to learn. If they’re only going to put in the minimum necessary effort, at least let’s focus that effort on something we think is worthwhile even if they don’t agree.

Achieving Nirvana

I don’t really think you can achieve nirvana when it comes to student motivation, at least not for everyone. So perhaps the most important step is coming to grips with the reality and accepting that you’ve done your best to encourage a mastery orientation in the majority of your students. To do so:

1. Choose knowledge and skills that are worth learning;

2. Pitch the tasks you set for your students just beyond their base capability but well within their reach and expect them to succeed;

3. Make the classroom a safe place to take the risks involved in learning by the way you treat students’ attempts to learn;

4. Encourage the building of a community of learners in your class, where everyone supports everyone else’s attempt to learn;

5. If possible, give the learners some choices in what or the way they learn;

6. Be a good model of a mastery-oriented learner in all you do yourself;

7. Accept the fact that yours is not the only or even the most important venue in which your students function.


Ames, C., & Archer, J. (1988). Achievement goals in the classroom: Students’ learning strategies and motivation processes. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 260–267.

Dweck, C., & Leggett, E. L. (1988). A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality. Psychological Review, 95, 256–273.

Janzow, F., & Eison, J. (1990). Grades: Their influence on students and faculty. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 42, 93–102.

Johnson, D., & Johnson, R. (1985). Motivational processes in cooperative, competitive and individualistic learning situations. In C. Ames and R. Ames (Eds.), Research on motivation in education (Vol. 2) (pp. 249-286). New York: Academic Press.

Meece, J., Blumenfeld, P., & Hoyle, R. (1988). Students’ goal orientation and cognitive engagement in classroom activities. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 514-523.

Middleton, M., & Midgley, C. (1997). Avoiding the demonstration of lack of ability: An under-explored aspect of goal theory. Journal of Educational Psychology, 89, 710-718.

Pintrich, P., & Schunk, D. (2002). Motivation in education: Theory, research, and applications. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice-Hall.

Marilla Svinicki did her undergraduate and masters work at Western Michigan University and her Ph.D. at the University of Colorado at Boulder. After teaching at Macalester College in St. Paul, she moved to Texas to become part of the founding staff of the University of Texas at Austin Center for Teaching Effectiveness. In 2004 she retired from CTE to become a full time faculty member in Educational Psychology. She is editor in chief of New Directions for Teaching and Learning, a leading source of ideas for teaching in higher education and has written and lectured nationally and internationally about the application of psychological research to teaching practice. Her latest book is Learning and Motivation in the Postsecondary Classroom, available from Anker Publishing (www.ankerpub.com).