Achievement Goal Theory: Definition and Examples

achievement goal theory four goal orientations, explained below

Achievment Goal Theory is a theory that argues a person’s degree of motivation to achieve a goal is influenced by their goal orientation.

Goal orientation refers to the rationale underpinning our goals. We can either approach a goal in two broad ways:

  • Mastery goals: Setting a goal with the intention of mastering a skill or task (known as mastery goals), or
  • Performance goals: Setting a goal with the intention of achieving an extrinsic outcome such as a trophy (known as performance goals).

Generally, scholars argue that mastery goal setting leads to greater intrinsic motivation, resilience, and determination to complete the goal. Performance goals, on the other hand, tend to lead to waning motivation over time due to their reliance on extrinsic rewards.

The theory’s value is in helping us to reflect upon how we are formulating and conceptualizing goals, with the understanding that the ways goals are framed will affect how motivated we are to strive for them.

Achievement Goal Theory Overview

Two key concepts in achievement goal theory are goal orientation and goal structure.

1. Goal Orientation

Early theorists of Achievement Goal Theory posited that goals tend to be based on achievement or mastery, as outlined above.

However, based on the research of A. J. Elliot (Elliot & McGregor, 2001), the 2×2 model of goal setting was developed. This model splits mastery and performance goals into two parts based on approach (seeking reward or growth) and avoidance (avoiding punishment or failure):

  • Mastery-approach: Wanting to complete a task for the purpose of self-improvement and learning as much as possible.
  • Mastery-avoidance: Wanting to avoid a task because they feel they won’t learn as much as they need to in order to complete the task.
  • Performance-approach: The desire to complete a task in order to outperform a peer group, achieve the appearance of superiority, and receive an extrinsic reward.
  • Performance-avoidance: The desire to avoid the task to evade embarrassment, shame, self-doubt, or public failure (Wolters, 2004).

Dweck (1999), famous for her work on mindsets, argues that mastery-avoidance and performance-avoidance correspond with a fixed mindset. This is a mindset where people avoid a task because they don’t believe they have the capacity for improvement or success.

By contrast, mastery-approach and performance-approach correlate with a growth mindset, where a person’s focus is primarily on what they’re capable of, if they put in the effort.

2. Goal Structure

Goal structure (also known as goal climate) refers to the institutional environment in which goals are assigned.

An institution (such as a workplace or school) sets in place a culture that can influence a person’s goal orientation.

  • Mastery goal structure: If the institution sends signals that it values mastery (e.g. doing a task for the sake of being good at the task), it is considered to have a mastery goal structure. This sort of a goal climate will encourage people to set mastery goals.
  • Performance goal structure: If the institution sends signals that it most highly values rewards and outcomes (e.g. a school focused on standardized test scores or workplace renumeration based on commissions), it is considered to have a performance goal structure. This sort of a goal climate will encourage people to set performance goals.

Furthermore, an institution that punishes failure may encourage an avoidance mindset. By contrast, an institution that embraces failure as a natural part of growth may encourage an approach mindset (with recognition that failure isn’t a big deal and doesn’t represent loss of face).

The Four Goal Orientations Explained

1. Mastery-Approach

A mastery-approach goal orientation has self-improvement and learning as its core focus. The motivation to complete tasks is intrinsic (the pleasure of the task) rather than extrinsic (reward or recognition).

This mindset encourages people to concentrate on their own progress rather than comparing themselves to others or seeking praise (Elliot & Murayama, 2008). As a result, their focus is on enjoying the learning process rather than achieving extrinsic outcomes.

The mastery-approach tends to stem from a genuine interest in the subject matter, curiosity, or the satisfaction derived from learning and unlocking new skills (Elliot & McGregor, 2001).

A core benefit of the mastery approach is that learners are intrinsically motivated, and intrinsic motivation tends to be more sustainable and can lead to long-term commitment to personal growth and development, which are considered the intrinsic rewards (Wolters, 2004). Another key advantage is that it encourages a growth mindset, which refers to the belief that you can improve through your own hard work and effort.

This mindset can lead to increased resilience, adaptability, and a positive attitude toward learning, ultimately fostering greater personal and professional success.

One potential drawback of the mastery-approach orientation is that it tends to require effort, time, and commitment (Elliot & McGregor, 2001). The focus is on deep and authentic understanding and expertise rather than simply passing a test. This makes it very challenging to apply, particularly in schools where we are incentivized by grades and speed.

Example of Mastery-Approach: An example of a mastery-approach orientation would be a retiree who wants to learn a new language out of desire to be competent in multiple languages. In this hypothetical, the language learner would find the task personally fulfilling. They would get joy from learning new words and language structures, not from praise or from passing language tests.

2. Mastery-Avoidance

A mastery-avoidance goal orientation revolves around preventing failure in acquiring new skills rather than seeking self-improvement.

The motivation to engage in tasks (or to avoid engaging in tasks) arises from a fear of inadequacy or a desire to prevent negative self-evaluation (Wolters, 2004). We may avoid a task because we’re afraid of revealing to ourselves our own fear of inadequacy.

This mindset can lead individuals to become overly cautious or reluctant to take on new learning opportunities, potentially hindering their growth and development.

Despite its drawbacks, mastery-avoidance can have some positive aspects. For instance, it may motivate individuals to be more thorough, accurate, and cautious in their work, ultimately reducing the likelihood of making careless errors (Elliot & McGregor, 2001).

The fear of not learning enough can serve as a driving force, pushing them to be more diligent and attentive (Grant & Dweck, 2003).

However, the primary disadvantage of the mastery-avoidance orientation is that it can lead to procrastination, avoidance, or risk-averse behavior.

Note: Many scholars (see, for example, Lufteneggera et al., 2017) have argued that mastery-avoidance is undertheorized and therefore choose not to avoid it in their research. When we use the other three goal orientations but not mastery-avoidance, we call it the trichotomous achievement goal model.

Example of Mastery-Avoidance: An example of mastery-avoidance would be a student who hesitates to sign up for an advanced course out of fear that they will not be good enough to do it. The student has decided that the task is beyond their stretch ability level or is afraid that it will be. The desire to avoid disappointment has outweighed the desire to develop new skills and knowledge.

3. Performance-Approach

The performance-approach orientation’s focus is on achieving a set extrinsic goal such as a grade on an exam or a top ranking among peers.

The focus is often achieving a visible, public reward, often in the form of social status. People who are highly driven by performance-approach may, for example, only participate in a test or competition if the reward at the end is of sufficient social value.

Within this goal orientation, motivation is extrinsic, meaning the thing driving people to complete a task is not personal satisfaction but an externalized reward such as a trophy or money (Elliot & Murayama, 2008).

Furthermore, unlike the mastery goal orientations, the focus is not on the process of learning, but on the outcome of learning (Wolters, 2004). This often leads people to fail to focus on the hard work required to do the task and can often end with people taking shortcuts.

While the performance-approach orientation can motivate people to get started on a task, in many people, it is believed to rapidly wane. If the effort required begins to outweigh the reward at the end, people may quit.

Interestingly, however, Pintrich (2000) found that combining performance-approach (rewards, social satisfaction, recognition) and mastery-approach (personal fulfillment and enjoyment) can lead to better outcomes than mastery-approach alone.

Example of Performance-Approach: In education policy, the performance-approach orientation is currently dominant. Schools are ranked based on highly-flawed standardized test scores, leading teachers to focus on lessons that lead to higher test results rather than lessons that may instil love of learning, inquiry, or pursuing a student’s personal interests in a topic.

4. Performance-Avoidance

A person with a performance-avoidance goal orientation will be motivated by the desire to evade embarrassment or public failure.

Individuals with this orientation tend to avoid competitions, public performances, or other scenarios where they are at risk of public failure or publicly looking incompetent.

The motivation for completing tasks or avoiding tasks is driven primarily by the fear of the criticism or judgment of others, especially those in their peer group.

Sadly, performance-avoidance is often the reason people don’t pursue goals that are of intrinsic value to them (Wolters, 2004). For example, you might choose not to start a business that you would love to start because you worry people will judge you if you fail.

In performance-avoidance, the focus is on minimizing risk. It’s often based on the deeper concept of fixed mindsets, where people don’t think they have what it takes to succeed, improve, or grow.

This mindset can lead individuals to become excessively cautious, hesitant to take risks, or reluctant to engage in challenging tasks.

One potential benefit of the performance-avoidance orientation is that it may prompt people to be very diligent, mindful, and careful.

However, the primary drawback of the performance-avoidance orientation is that it can cause people to avoid any and all situations where they can achieve personal development. By focusing on avoiding negative evaluation, we may miss out on invaluable learning experiences. Indeed, failure itself is an important learning experience.

Example of Performance-Avoidance: An employee opts not to share their innovative idea during a team meeting, out of fear that it might be criticized or rejected. Instead of focusing on the potential benefits or growth that could come from presenting the idea, the employee’s primary concern is avoiding any negative consequences or judgments from their peers or superiors.

Conclusion

Achievement goal theory helps to explain how people set goals and what motivates them to strive for the goals. With the categories of goal setting put in place, we can compare and contrast how each goal orientation will affect resilience, sense of competence, long-term motivation, and a host of related factors.

References

Anseel, F., Van Yperen, N. W., Janssen, O., & Duyck, W. (2011). Feedback type as a moderator of the relationship between achievement goals and feedback reactions. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology84(4), 703–722. https://doi.org/10.1348/096317910×516372

Butler, R. (2014). Chapter One – Motivation in Educational Contexts: Does Gender Matter? In Advances in Child Development and Behavior (Vol. 47, pp. 1–41). Elsevier. https://doi.org/10.1016/bs.acdb.2014.05.001

Chazan, D., Pelletier, G., & Daniels, L. M. (2021). Achievement Goal Theory Review: An Application to    School Psychology. Canadian Journal of School Psychology, 37(1), 40–56. https://doi.org/10.1177/08295735211058319

Darnon, C., Butera, F., & Harackiewicz, J. M. (2008). Toward a clarification of the effects of achievement goals. HAL (Le Centre Pour La Communication Scientifique Directe).

Dweck, C. S. (1999). Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development. New York: Taylor and Francis.

Elliot, A. J., & McGregor, H. (2001). A 2×2 achievement goal framework. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 501–519.

Elliot, A. J., & Murayama, K. (2008). On the measurement of achievement goals: critique, illustration, and application. Journal of educational psychology100(3), 613.

Grant, H. & Dweck, C. (2003). Clarifying Achievement Goals and Their Impact. Journal of personality and social psychology. 85. 541-53. 10.1037/0022-3514.85.3.541

Harwood, C., Spray, C. M., & Keegan, R. (2006). Achievement Goal Theories in Sport: Approaching Changes and Avoiding Plateaus. In Advances in Sport and Exercise Pychology. Human Kinetics.

Lufteneggera, M., et al. (2017). Measuring a Classroom Mastery Goal Structure using the TARGET dimensions: Development and validation of a classroom goal structure scale. Zeitschrift für Psychologie, 225(1), 64-75. doi:10.1027/2151- 2604/a000277

C. Measuring a mastery goal structure using the TARGET framework: Development and validation of a classroom goal structure questionnaire.

Nicholls, J. G. (1984). Achievement motivation: Conceptions of ability, subjective experience, task choice, and performance. Psychological Review, 91, 328-346.

Senko, C., Hulleman, C. S., & Harackiewicz, J. M. (2011). Achievement Goal Theory at the Crossroads: Old Controversies, Current Challenges, and New Directions. Educational Psychologist46(1), 26–47. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/00461520.2011.538646

Wolters, C. A. (2004). Advancing achievement goal theory: Using goal structures and goal orientations to predict students’ motivation, cognition, and achievement. Journal of educational psychology96(2), 236. Doi: https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/0022-0663.96.2.236

Gregory

Gregory Paul C. (MA)

Gregory Paul C. is a licensed social studies educator, and has been teaching the social sciences in some capacity for 13 years. He currently works at university in an international liberal arts department teaching cross-cultural studies in the Chuugoku Region of Japan. Additionally, he manages semester study abroad programs for Japanese students, and prepares them for the challenges they may face living in various countries short term.

This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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