Goal Orientation Theory

Updated on Dec 23, 2009

Goal orientation theory is a social-cognitive theory of achievement motivation. Goal theory originated early in the 20th century but became a particularly important theoretical framework in the study of academic motivation after 1985. Whereas other motivational theories (e.g., attribution theory) examine students' beliefs about their successes and failures, goal orientation theory examines the reasons why students engage in their academic work. Although goal orientation theory is predominantly studied in the domain of education, it also has been used in studies in the domains of sports psychology, health psychology, and social psychology.


In order to understand the basic properties of goal orientation theory, it is important to understand how goals are conceptualized in the research literature (Pintrich, 2000). First, in this framework, goals fall in two major classes. These classes have been referred to by various names in the literature, but for the sake of simplicity, two terms are used in this entry. The first type is called a mastery goal. Students hold mastery goals (also referred to as being mastery-oriented) when their goal is to truly understand or master the task at hand; students who are mastery-oriented are interested in self-improvement and tend to compare their current level of achievement to their own prior achievement. In contrast, the second type is called a performance goal. Students hold performance goals (also referred to as being performance-oriented) when their goal is to demonstrate their ability compared to others. Students who are performance-oriented are interested in competition, demonstrating their competence, and outperforming others; they tend to use other students as points of comparison, rather than themselves.

Second, mastery and performance goals are each divided into approach and avoid goals. In terms of mastery goals, mastery-approach oriented students are interested in truly mastering an academic task; in contrast, mastery-avoid oriented students are interested in avoiding misunderstanding the task. In terms of performance goals, performance-approach oriented students are interested in demonstrating that they are more competent than other students (i.e., have more ability than others); in contrast, performance-avoid oriented students are interested in avoiding appearing incompetent or stupid. Below are examples for each type of goal orientation:

Mastery approach: Jennifer's goal in French class is to become fluent in the language because she is interested in the language and wants to be able to converse with others and read French literature.

Mastery avoid: Jason's goal in French class is to avoid misunderstanding the grammatical lessons presented by his teacher.

Performance approach: Haley's goal in French class is to demonstrate to her teacher and to other students that she is better at speaking French than many of her classmates.

Performance avoid: T.J.'s goal in French class is to avoid appearing incompetent at speaking or reading French.

It is important to note that students can hold multiple goals simultaneously; thus it is possible for a student to be both mastery-approach oriented and performance-approach oriented; such a student truly wants to learn and master the material but is also concerned with appearing more competent than others.

In addition, some researcher have operationalized performance goals somewhat differently and referred to them as “extrinsic goals” (Anderman & Johnston, 1998; Pintrich & de Groot, 1990). When students hold an extrinsic goal, their reasons for engaging in academic tasks are to either earn a certain reward (e.g., a good grade) or to avoid a punishment.

Third, students' goals can be conceptualized at differing organizational levels. Personal goals refer to students' individual, personally held goals; the types of mastery and performance goals described above are examples of personal goals. In contrast, classroom goal structures refer to students' beliefs about the goals that are emphasized by their teachers in their classrooms. Most researchers distinguish between a classroom mastery goal structure and a classroom performance classroom goal structure; however, most do not make the approach/avoid distinction with classroom goal structures. When students perceive a classroom mastery goal structure, they believe that instruction in the class is characterized by emphases on improvement, learning new material to a level of mastery, and self-comparisons; when students perceive a performance goal structure, they believe that the class is characterized by competition, an emphasis on grades and relative ability, and outperforming others.

Some researchers also discuss school-level goal structures. A school can be perceived by students as being mastery oriented (i.e., the culture of the school focuses on learning, improvement, and task mastery) or as being performance-oriented (i.e., the culture of the school focuses on grades, achievement, competitiveness, and outperforming others).


Much research examining goal orientations has used self-report survey instruments. Students are asked to complete surveys that assess students' personal goals, and their perceptions of classroom and/or school goal structures. Some researchers collect survey data at one point in time in order to get a snapshot of students' goal orientations, whereas others collect survey data at multiple time points, in order to examine changes in goals and perceived goal structures.

There are many existing survey-based measures of goal orientations. One of the most commonly used measures is the Patterns of Adaptive Learning Survey (PALS; Midgley et al., 1998). The PALS contains measures of students' personal goals, as well as their perceptions of classroom goal structures. These measures have been used with a wide range of age groups, including young children, adolescents, and college-aged students. Other measures, such as the AGQ of Elliot and colleagues (Conroy, Elliot, & Hofer, 2003) and measures developed by Dweck (e.g., Dweck, 1999) also can be used to measure students' goal orientations across a variety of domains. Most survey measures of achievement goals assess students' reasons for engaging in academic tasks; however, Nichols and his colleagues conceptualized their measures of goal orientations in terms of how students feel about learning (Nicholls, 1989).

Some researchers have used other methodologies to examine goals. For example, Patrick, L. Anderman, and their colleagues developed an observational instrument that can be used by observers to assess goal structures in classrooms (Patrick, Anderman, Ryan, Edelin, & Midg-ley, 2001). Turner, Meyer, and their colleagues have examined transcripts of teacher-student discourse to examine how goals are communicated to students by teachers (Turner et al., 2002).


Motivation researchers who study goal orientations acknowledge that both students' individual characteristics and contextual influences affect the types of goals that students adopt in various learning environments. Studies indicate that the environments in which students learn influence students' goal orientations in important ways.

Individual Differences Studies that have examined gender differences in goal orientations have produced mixed results. Many studies that have examined gender have found that males tend to report being more performance-oriented than do females (L. H. Anderman & E.M. Ander-man, 1999; Roeser, Midgley, & Urdan, 1996); however, other studies have found no gender differences (e.g., Midg-ley & Middleton, 1997).

Fewer studies as of 2008 have examined ethnic differences in goal orientations. Results from studies that have been conducted are inconclusive. Much additional research in this area is needed. In one large-scale study, Midgley and Middleton (1997) compared goal orientation using a sample of European American and African American adolescents. Although no differences were found for performance-approach or avoid goals, African American adolescents reported somewhat higher mastery goals than did European American students. In a longitudinal study, Freeman and her colleagues found that across eight waves of data collection, African American students reported overall being more mastery oriented and more extrinsically oriented than did European American students (Freeman, Gutman, & Midgley, 2002). In a qualitative study of African American students' goal orientations, Edelin (1998) found that when students were asked to discuss their achievement goals during interviews, most of the students talked about holding extrinsic goals. Interestingly, students occasionally mentioned mastery goals, but rarely mentioned performance goals (i.e., outperforming others).

One area that has received additional attention in the literature is the relation of students' beliefs about intelligence to goal orientations. Dweck and her colleagues indicate that students who hold incremental beliefs about intelligence (i.e., they believe that intelligence is modifiable) tend to adopt mastery goals. In contrast, students who hold entity theories of intelligence (i.e., they believe that one's intelligence is a fixed entity that can not be changed) tend to adopt performance goals (Dweck, 1999).

Are performance goals bad?

If studies have shown that performance-approach goals are related to higher achievement, whereas few studies have shown a direct relation between mastery goals and achievement, then shouldn't teachers structure classrooms so students are challenged to reach optimal achievement as measured against “average?” While it appears clear that performance-avoidance goals result in few benefits, mounting evidence indicates performance-approach goals may have adaptive value—e.g., they have been positively associated with task value, academic self-concept, effort, and achievement (Harackiewicz, et al., 2002).

In a series of studies, Elliot, Shell, Bouas Henry, and Maier (2005) divided students into groups of performance-approach, performance-avoidance, or mastery conditions. The result? When students believed their work would result in future opportunities to reap rewards, students in the performance-approach group out achieved those in the mastery group. And when they thought there was no future contingency hanging on their work? They performed just as well as those in the mastery group. In other words, there appeared to be no penalty for being in an environment that encouraged performance-approach—indeed, there appeared to be benefits.

In another study, Barron and Harackiewicz (2003) examined achievement goals in a small undergraduate psychology classroom that promoted critical thinking, writing, oral presentation skills, and participation—a setting the authors felt would have been conducive to a mastery orientation. Students who adopted higher levels of performance-approach goals at the outset were more likely to earn a higher grade—but, to also have less interest by the end of the semester, whereas those adopting mastery goals tended to demonstrate increased interest. In order to succeed in this setting, students taking a performance-approach orientation would have had to go beyond mere memorization of facts and adopt deeper processing strategies. The results of this study suggest that it could be that performance-approach and mastery goals serve two ends for the student—achievement and interest.

However, others have questioned the benefits of encouraging performance-approach goals as they may not be effective across educational settings. If students are encouraged to evaluate their performance against norms, then inevitably some will be left out. For every student who achieves above the norm, one falls below it. Under such circumstances, those who already have a sense of academic efficacy will be motivated to engage in academic tasks—those who have experienced failure may avoid them. Midgley, Kaplan, and Middleton (2001) noted that performance goals may be most advantageous if one is male, older, and in a competitive class where mastery goals are also encouraged, adding that school settings already tend to be predominantly performance oriented. Since the time of their writing, No Child Left Behind has been signed into law—it is not likely classrooms have become any more mastery oriented during the intervening years. So, are performance goals bad? While it appears that performance-approach may be adaptive for students in some situations, certainly further study is needed. One thing that appears to be clear is that the greater learning context needs to be considered in answering this question—including teachers' and students' long- and short-term goals for learning, the school and larger societal settings, and the individual characteristics of the student.


Barron, K. E., & Harackiewicz, J. M. (2003). Revisiting the benefits of performance-approach goals in the college classroom. Exploring the role of goals in advanced college courses. International journal of Education Research, 39, 357–374.

Elliot, A. J., Shell, M. M., Bouas Henry, K., & Maier, M. A. (2005). Achievement goals, performance contingencies, and performance attainment: An experimental test. Journal of Educational Psychology, 97(4), 630–640.

Harackiewicz, J. M., Barron, K. E., Pintrich, P. R., Elliot, A. J., & Thrash, T. M. (2002). Revision of achievement goal theory: Necessary and illuminating. Journal of Educational Psychology, 94(3), 638–645.

Midgley, C., Kaplan, A., & Middleton, M. (2001). Performance-approach goals: Good for what, for whom, under what circumstances, and at what cost? Journal of Educational Psychology, 93(1), 77–86.

Contextual Influences Research suggests that in addition to student characteristics, social contexts are also influential in determining students' goal orientations. More specifically, the instructional practices that are used in classrooms and schools have an impact on the types of goal orientations that students adopt (Maehr & Ander-man, 1993; Maehr & Midgley, 1996; Roeser et al., 1996; Turner et al., 2002). In a given classroom, if a teacher talks about and truly focuses on mastery, improvement, and self-comparisons, then students are quite likely to adopt mastery goals and to perceive a mastery goal structure in that classroom; in contrast, if a teacher constantly talks about grades, test scores, and who is doing the best (or the worst) in class, then students are likely to adopt performance goals and to perceive a performance goal structure in that classroom.

In addition, practices that are used by the school as a whole can influence the adoption of mastery or performance goals. For example, many schools place much emphasis on the importance of the honor roll. In many schools, students' names are placed on the honor roll when they receive certain grades (e.g., an A average). Additionally, in many schools, the honor roll hangs on a highly visible bulletin board or is projected on a television monitor, where it is viewed daily by students, teachers, and visitors. When schools emphasize ability differences in this and similar ways, students are likely to adopt performance goals and to perceive that the school is performance-oriented.

Parents can also influence students' goal orientations. Parental emphasis on the importance of grades and high test scores may lead offspring to become performance-oriented students. In contrast, parental emphasis on learning and mastery encourages offspring to become mastery-goal students.


Mastery and performance goals are related to various educational outcomes in important ways. When students adopt either mastery or performance goals, predictable outcomes often result.

Research frequently indicates that mastery goals are related to adaptive outcomes (see Anderman & Wolters, 2006, for a review). When students report being mastery oriented, they persist longer at academic tasks, they are more engaged with their work, they use more effective cognitive processing strategies, they report lower levels of self-handicapping behaviors, and they choose to continue to engage with tasks in the future when those tasks become optional (e.g., choosing to enroll in an additional course after the completion of a current course). Interestingly, few studies indicate that the adoption of mastery goals is related directly to increased academic performance (i.e., higher grades or test scores). As of the early 2000s, many researchers had studied mastery-approach goals but had not examined mastery avoid goals.

The connections between performance goals and various educational outcomes are more complex. Prior to the mid 1990s, researchers often measured performance approach and avoid goals within the same scales, thus confounding these measures; later measures clearly distinguished between approach and avoid performance goals.

In general, results indicate that performance avoid goals are not related to adaptive outcomes; more specifically, studies indicate that performance-avoid goals are related to poor academic performance, low levels of academic engagement, and avoidant behaviors such as self-handicapping (Urdan, Ryan, Anderman, & Gheen, 2002).

Studies examining the connections of performance-approach goals to various educational outcomes yield somewhat mixed results. Some research indicates that the adoption of performance approach goals is related to persistence at academic tasks, whereas other studies do not indicate a relation between performance approach goals and persistence. Similarly, some studies indicate that performance-approach goals are related to the use of adaptive cognitive and metacognitive strategies, whereas other studies do not yield these findings. In addition, some research indicates that the adoption of performance-approach goals is related to maladaptive outcomes, such as the avoidance of help-seeking (Ryan, Hicks, & Midgley, 1997). Despite these mixed results, several studies do indicate that there is a positive connection between course grades and performance-approach goals in college students and sometimes in younger students (see Anderman & Wolters, 2006, for a review).

Studies examining the relations of classroom goal structures to educational outcomes yield similar results. Perceptions of a mastery goal structure are generally related to adaptive outcomes, whereas perceptions of performance goal structures are often related to maladaptive outcomes. Studies examining the relations of perceived performance goal structures to academic achievement yield mixed results, with some studies indicating that performance goal structures are related negatively to achievement (E. M. Ander-man & Midgley, 1997), and other studies indicating that mastery goal structures are either unrelated to achievement or related positively to achievement (Midgley & Urdan, 2001).


Debate in the educational psychology literature regarding performance approach goals has focused on revisions to goal orientation theory (involving approach and avoid goals) in the late 1990s. Some researchers argue that performance approach goals are adaptive and can be beneficial for students, particularly when they are paired with mastery goals (Harackiewicz, Barron, Pintrich, Elliot, & Thrash, 2002). In contrast, other researchers argue that there are few benefits to performance approach goals (Midgley, Kaplan, & Middleton, 2001). These debates have important implications for the design of educational environments and for school reform. As noted by Roeser (2004), part of this debate emanates from the fact that some goal theory researchers (e.g., Midgley et al.) primarily have been concerned with issues of reforming school learning environments, whereas others (e.g., Harackiewicz et al.) have been concerned with developing theoretical models to enhance and explain individual student motivation. Interestingly, despite the debate about performance goals, the vast majority of goal theory researchers converge on the benefits of mastery goals for educational outcomes.


Nearly two decades of research from about 1985 into the early 2000s on achievement goal orientations offered educators a number of practical implications for classrooms. As educators think more critically about the types of goals that teachers and schools foster in their students, they may be better able to shape the motivational patterns adopted by children and adolescents in school settings.

One of the basic tenets of goal orientation theory is that students' goals, as well as classroom and school goal structures, can be changed. Goals can change across different social contexts. In addition, teachers and administrators can deliberately alter instructional practices to affect the social contexts of schools and classrooms.

Maehr, Midgley, and their colleagues engaged in extensive work in the early 1990s, using goal orientation theory to guide school reform. Specifically, in a series of studies of both elementary and middle grades schools, they demonstrated that the instructional practices used in schools could be changed, using goal orientation theory as a guiding framework, to make practices focus more on mastery and improvement and less on performance and ability differences. A team of researchers (including both university faculty and graduate students, several of whom had experience as classroom teachers) met with a team of school-connected adults (i.e., teachers, administrators, and parents) to critically examine the practices of the schools using goal orientation theory. These collaborative teams worked to identify practices that encouraged either mastery or performance goals. Then, over a three-year period, the teams worked to eliminate some of the instructional practices that focused on performance goals and to enhance and increase the strategies that fostered the adoption of mastery goals. Results indicated that these changes could be successfully implemented in school settings and that student motivation was enhanced as a result of these changes (Maehr & Midgley, 1996).

Several researchers have suggested that educators can use TARGET a means of examining and realigning instructional practices according to goal orientation theory. Developed by Joyce Epstein (1989), the TARGET acronym refers to six aspects of the learning environment that are strongly related to academic motivation: tasks, authority, recognition, grouping, evaluation, and time. Several researchers have demonstrated that instructional practices can be restructured using TARGET as a guiding framework (Ames, 1990; Maehr & Anderman, 1993). Tasks can be examined and altered so that they encourage students to focus on mastering the task, regardless of the performance of other students on the task. Authority refers to how much control students have over tasks: Students will be more likely to adopt mastery goals when they have at least some choice/control over some aspects of their work. Recognition refers to how and why students are acknowledged in the classroom (i.e., for their personal accomplishments or for their performances compared to others).

Grouping refers to how students are organized socially for instruction; if students are grouped by ability, this may support the endorsement of performance goals in some students, whereas if students are grouped according to their interests, they may be more likely to adopt mastery goals. Evaluation simply refers to how students are assessed; evaluations can be based on mastering a task or on how quickly or accurately one student completes a task compared to others. Finally, time refers to how time is used in classrooms; some educators use time and structure their classes so that students can master tasks and spend the necessary time on complex tasks, whereas others structure time more rigidly and may limit the amounts of time that students can spend on tasks. If students feel rushed when working on a complex task, they may become more performance oriented and start comparing their performance to that of other students.

See also:Social Goals


Ames, C. (1990, April). The relationship of achievement goals to student motivation in classroom settings. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association, Boston, MA.

Anderman, E. M., & Johnston, J. (1998). Television news in the classroom: What are adolescents learning? Journal of Adolescent Research, 13(1), 73–100.

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Anderman, L. H., & Anderman, E. M. (1999). Social predictors of changes in students' achievement goal orientations. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 21–37.

Conroy, D. E., Elliot, A. J., & Hofer, S. M. (2003). A 2 x 2 achievement goals questionnaire for sport: evidence for factorial invariance, temporal stability, and external validity. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 25(4), 456–476.

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Freeman, K. E., Gutman, L. M., & Midgley, C. (2002). Can achievement goal theory enhance our understanding of the motivation and performance of African American young adolescents? In C. Midgley (Ed.), Goals, goal structures, and patterns of adaptive learning (pp. 175–204). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

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Maehr, M. L., & Anderman, E. M. (1993). Reinventing schools for early adolescents: Emphasizing task goals. Elementary School Journal, 93(5), 593–610.

Maehr, M. L., & Midgley, C. (1996). Transforming school cultures. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Midgley, C., Kaplan, A., & Middleton, M. J. (2001). Performance-approach goals: Good for what, for whom, under what circumstances, and at what cost? Journal of Educational Psychology, 93(1), 77–86.

Midgley, C., Kaplan, A., Middleton, M. J., Maehr, M. L., Urdan, T., Anderman, L. H., et al. (1998). The development and validation of scales assessing students' achievement goal orientations. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 23(113–131).

Midgley, C., & Urdan, T. (2001). Academic self-handicapping and achievement goals: A further examination. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 26(1), 61–75.

Nicholls, J. G. (1989). The competitive ethos and democratic education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Patrick, H., Anderman, L. H., Ryan, A. M., Edelin, K. C., & Midgley, C. (2001). Teachers' communication of goal orientations in four fifth-grade classrooms. Elementary School Journal, 102(1), 35–58.

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Pintrich, P. R., & de Groot, E. V. (1990). Motivational and self-regulated learning components of classroom academic performance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 82(1), 33–40.

Roeser, R. W., Midgley, C., & Urdan, T. (1996). Perceptions of the school psychological environment and early adolescents' psychological and behavioral functioning in school: The mediating role of goals and belonging. Journal of Educational Psychology, 88, 408–422.

Ryan, A. M., Hicks, L. H., & Midgley, C. (1997). Social goals, academic goals, and avoiding seeking help in the classroom. Journal of Early Adolescence, 17(2), 152–171.

Turner, J. C., Midgley, C., Meyer, D. K., Gheen, M. H., Anderman, E. M., Kang, Y., et al. (2002). The classroom environment and students' reports of avoidance strategies in mathematics: A multimethod study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 94(1), 88–106.

Urdan, T., Ryan, A. M., Anderman, E. M., & Gheen, M. (2002). Goals, goal structures, and avoidance behaviors. In C. Midgley (Ed.), Goals, goal structures, and patterns of adaptive learning (pp. 55–83). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

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