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Goal Orientation Theory: How Goals Affect Student Motivation & Behavior

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  • 0:05 Goals and Needs
  • 2:41 Mastery vs. Performance Goals
  • 6:27 Multiple-Goals Dilemma
  • 7:10 Influences on Goal Orientation
  • 8:19 Educational Outcomes of Goals
  • 9:06 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Melissa Hurst
What academic goals do you set for yourself? Are you driven by interest in the academic discipline or by extrinsic factors, such as receiving a higher salary because you have a degree? You may be driven by both. This lesson will explore goals and how they affect student motivation and behavior.

Goals and Needs

Most of human behavior is directed by goals and needs. Goals range from personal to professional, from being happy to doing well in school, from short-term to long-term and the list could go on and on. Needs can be objective and physical or subjective and psychological. This lesson will distinguish between the constructs of goals and needs. We will also discuss differing types of goals as they relate to academics and learning.

You may understand the definition of need to be anything necessary for an organism to survive. For example, a plant needs sunlight to survive, or a human needs food and water to survive. In psychology, however, the concept of need assumes a slightly different definition. To psychologists, a need is a psychological feature that drives a human or animal toward a goal or behavior. Examples of this definition include a need for achievement, a need for affiliation with others and a need for attention.

Let's move on to goals. Goal orientation theory is a social-cognitive theory of achievement motivation. Goal theory became a particularly important theoretical framework in the study of academic motivation in the late 1980s. Whereas other motivational theories examine students' beliefs about their successes and failures, goal orientation theory examines the reasons why students engage in their academic work.

A core goal is a long-term goal that drives much of what an individual does. These long-term goals help direct behavior toward achievement and success. Let's meet Jack. Jack is a freshman in college. Jack wants to go to medical school after completing his undergraduate degree. Jack's core goal is to get accepted into the most prestigious medical school in the country.

Short-term goals, referred to as proximal goals, are more concrete and can be accomplished within a short time period. One can think of proximal goals as a stepping stone toward a longer-range goal. Jack has many proximal goals in order to help him achieve his core goal of getting accepted into a prestigious medical school. He has a GPA goal of 4.0 for his first semester in college, a goal of taking the MCATs within two years and a goal of volunteering 50 hours a semester at the local hospital. All of these goals can be achieved in a short duration of time and will ultimately help Jack achieve his core goal.

Mastery vs. Performance Goals

The work of early goal theorists contrasted two types of goal orientations: mastery, which is a desire to acquire additional knowledge or master new skills, and performance, which is a desire to demonstrate high ability and make a good impression. Recent works of goal theorists have incorporated a second dimension of goal orientations: approach and avoidance.

Mastery-oriented goals are defined in terms of a focus on learning, mastering the task according to self-set standards or self-improvement. It also encompasses developing new skills, improving or developing competence, trying to accomplish something challenging and trying to gain an understanding or insight.

Performance-oriented goals represent a focus on demonstrating competence or ability and how ability will be judged relative to others. For example, trying to surpass normative performance standards, attempting to best others, using casual comparative standards or striving to be the best in a group or even avoiding judgments of low ability or appearing dumb are examples of performance-oriented goals.

Approach-oriented goals are goals in which individuals are positively motivated to look good and receive favorable judgment from others.

Avoidance-oriented goals are goals in which individuals can be negatively motivated to try to avoid failure and to avoid looking incompetent.

Let's explore these concepts and incorporate the second dimension of approach and avoidance. We are joining Jack in his freshman anatomy and physiology class.

For a mastery approach example, Jack's goal in the class is to learn all of the features of the human body because he is interested in anatomy and physiology and wants to be able to build his base knowledge of these principles.

For a mastery avoidance example, Ashley's goal in class is to avoid misunderstanding the features of a human body and principles of human physiology as presented to her by her teacher.

For an example of performance approach, Hillary's goal in class is to identify all of the bones, muscles and tissues in the human body more quickly and better than her classmates.

And for performance avoidance, Max's goal in class is to avoid appearing incompetent at identifying anatomy or applying principles of physiology.

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.

Which Is Best? Mastery or Performance Goals

Researchers agree that mastery goals are more productive than performance goals, and approach goals are more productive than avoidance goals. Controversy has arisen, however, about whether performance-approach goals should be considered productive and recommended by teachers as a complement to mastery-approach goals.

This four-dimensional perspective of goal orientation led to the multiple goals perspective in which learners match their goals to their situations and coordinate their goals to pursue multiple goals efficiently and minimize the occurrence of goals that contrast with one another. Researchers assume that students will pursue mastery goals when they value the content and are taught in ways that promote processing strategies, and they will pursue performance goals when there is an emphasis on competition necessary to earn good grades.

Multiple Goals Dilemma

There are concerns with pursuing multiple goals at one time. First, the value of goal coordination is emphasized where students may want to pursue both mastery and performance goals along with social goals, such as pleasing parents and teachers and maintaining social relationships. This can get very complicated and students may worry about the consequences of failure.

A second concern is that struggling students will find goal coordination difficult because maintaining mastery goals requires the students to work harder - but the hard work might not pay off if the teacher grades on a curve.

A third concern is that addressing multiple goals simultaneously is difficult in reality.

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