Motivation and emotion/Book/2020/Achievement goal theory

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Achievement goal theory:
What is achievement goal theory and how can it be applied?


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Achievement goal theory is applicable to all settings involving goal directed behaviour which includes a large amount of day to day life and development from a young age. This chapter covers what Achievement Goal Theory is and entails but also how it can be applied in real life settings.

Studies suggest that certain goal orientations can be nurtured by not only the individual’s pre-dispositions but also the environment they are in, thus allowing teachers and coaches some control of the motivational approaches of their students. This chapter breaks down the two main goal orientations (performance and mastery), discusses the precursors of these goal orientations, as well as, practical applications of this theory in real world settings such as dance (see Figure 1).

Focus questions:

  • What is achievement goal theory?
  • What are the differences between performance and mastery goal orientations?
  • What are the features that interact with achievement goal theory?
  • How is achievement goal theory applied in the real world?

What is Achievement Goal Theory?

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Figure 2. Photograph of Carol Dweck (Bay Area Arts, 2015)

Achievement Goal Theory can be described as the types of goal orientations that motivate and direct achievement-based behaviours. Highly critical to the study of motivation, this theory involves the initiation, direction, magnitude and perseverance of those goal directed behaviours (Maehr & Zusho, 2009). Nicholls (1984) proposed that goal orientations are developed thought various socialisation processes.

The theory was born in the mid to late 1970s as result of a combination of collaborative and independent efforts of psychologists, including Carol Ames, Carol Dweck (see Figure 2), Marty Maehr, and John Nicholls (Elliot & Dweck, 2005).

Achievement Goal Theory is one of a collective group of competence-based motivation theories developed by psychologists to explain achievement goals. Achievement goals can be categorised as a network of feelings and beliefs around competence and extrinsic feedback. The achievement goals are allied with one of two schemas, referred to as orientations. The orientations then, in theory, dictate how an individual engages with achievement situations (Elliot & Dweck, 2005; see Figure 3 for a visual representation).

Figure 3. A visual representation of the broad occurrences of Achievement Goal Theory.

Goal Orientations

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Carol Dweck’s theory of Achievement Goal Theory can be separated into two schemas of goal motivation, Mastery and Performance oriented goals. The thoery can be used to explain why children show such diverse responses to failure. “A person’s achievement goal was said to represent his or her purpose for engaging in behaviour in an achievement situation.” (Elliot and Dweck, 2005). The goal orientation adopted is then believed to determine the approach to the achievement situation, including cognition, affect, and behaviour. It is important to note, goal orientations are not a fixed orientation across all situations instead, they are amendable (Elliot & Dweck, 2005), a person can be high in both performance and mastery orientations, low in both orientations, and of course, high in one and low in the other (Morris & Summers, 2004). Furthermore, goal orientations may vary depending on the achievement situation. Failure presents an interesting addition to the theory, as the goal orientation held by the individual alongside other variables such as perceived competence can affect the individuals understanding of, and response to, failure.

Performance Goal Orientation

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Performance oriented goals, also commonly referred to as ego-oriented goals, are based around the achievement itself, those who obtain this goal orientation focus on outperforming others. Picture someone you know who is preoccupied by winning, letting the metaphoric first place trophy drive them to achieve their goal. Elliot and Dweck (2019) highlight that performance goals lead to a helpless style response to failure, this being due to its perceived meaning. When an individual’s motivation is to outperform others, they are then comparing their ability and performance externally. Failing to uphold these standards could be considered a complete failure as their performance was well below others and a fixed ending. Thus, failure is perceived as their lack of normative ability and failing their goal in its entirety. Despite this, when performance goal orientation is paired with confidence in one’s ability, the response to failure can be a positive one, as it is not perceived as a direct threat to their level of ability, but perhaps deepening the competitive incentive to outperform others. Performance goal orientation has been correlated with diminished well-being and even depression[factual?]. See Figure 4 for a visual representation of likely traits assumed by an individual with a performance goal orientation.

Figure 4. Visual representation of likely traits of performance goal orientation.

Mastery Goal Orientation

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A common phrase in the classroom is compete against yourself; Mastery Goal Orientation follows this principle. Mastery goal orientation, also referred to as task goal orientation, is a motivational orientation held in achievement-based situations revolving around the task with an intrinsic focus. The goal can be described as improving competence, as the individual works towards development of skills or knowledge in the subject. That internal focus on oneself is often portrayed as wanting to better the required skillset in comparison to one's prior ability. Mastery goal orientation could be described simply as learning for the love of it. Mastery goal orientation lends itself to allowing for never ending improvement in said skills and knowledge, with positive response to failure. An individual with a mastery goal orientation is also more likely to experience positive well-being and health (Janke & Dickhauser, 2019).  See Figure 5 as for a visual representation of likely traits assumed by individuals with mastery goal orientation.

Figure 5. Visual representation of likely traits of mastery goal orientation.

Try answering these quiz questions to test your knowledge:

Case Study 1.

Jane is a young ballet dancer in primary school, [grammar?] she loves going to her dance classes a few afternoons a week and on her days off she likes to put music on and dance around the house. Her mother often catches her doing plies and tendu's[grammar?] at the kitchen counter most mornings as she makes her breakfast.

Jane barely notices the other dancers when she is in class and gets lost in her own world as she challenges her own technical skills with a goal of getting a little bit better each class. She often finds a sense of flow when she is dancing and notices that time moves quickly. Jane hasn't thought much about what kind of ballet dancer she will be as an adult as she is too busy being in the moment as she betters her technical skill set.

What goal orientation does Jane present with?

ego and task
mastery and task
ego and performance

Case Study 2.

Sara is a young ballet dancer in primary school, [grammar?] she often has to miss school for extra dance rehearsals and must wear thongs to school as to air out her bleeding and blistered feet. She is not allowed to partake in physical education classes as she might build the incorrect physique and ruin her chances of becoming a professional ballet dancer when she is older. Sara travels the country twice a year for ballet auditions and is often turned away due to being considered too overweight to join interstate elite programs, [grammar?] she weighs up to 10 kilos bellow the healthy weight range for her height and age.

Sara doesn't mind skipping meals and trains seven days a week in order to be better than all of the other girls in her ballet class. She is innately aware that her ballet friends are also her competitors, so she makes mental notes of their progress. She has regular panic attacks about being a failure when other dancers beat her in competitions or are awarded the teachers praise inside the studio.

What goal orientation does Sara present with?

ego and task
mastery and task
ego and performance

The two goal orientations outlined in achievement goal theory are:

failure and mastery
confidence and performance
mastery and performance

Mastery Goal Orientation could be described as "learning for the love of it":


When an individual with Performance Goal Orientation is faced with failure they tend to respond with helplessness.


Approach Vs Avoidance

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The concept of avoidance and approach, in relation to Achievement Goal Theory, was not explicitly part of the theory in early conceptions. Although partially present in Dweck’s variations of goal motivation theories, Dweck’s mention of approach and avoidance was in describing those with performance goal orientations, [grammar?] this being seen in either avoiding negative judgements of ability or seeking positive judgements of ability. Nicholls, however, provides no mention of avoidance, seeing both goal orientations as approach motivations (Elliot & Dweck, 2005).

Despite differing levels of consensus amongst researchers, many agree performance goal orientation should be further divided into approach and avoidance. Performance approach goal orientation being present in those who strive to demonstrate competence by outperforming others, and performance avoidance goal orientation being present in those who strive to prevent demonstrating a lack of competence in regard to others (Janke & Dickhauser, 2019)[grammar?]. Of course, as one individual can present both goal orientations, an individual can also present with both performance approach goal orientation and performance avoidance goal orientation simultaneously.

Associated Features

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[Provide more detail]


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So far, we have looked at Performance and Mastery Goals and briefly touched on how those may be predicted, [grammar?] let’s explore this further. Predicting the goal orientation of an individual is relies on three factors: situational, developmental and individual differences (Morris & Summers, 2004). Due to the nature of the theory, there is heavy importance placed on an individual’s concept of success. The exact level of success in relation to the situation is not of importance, however, whether one see's[grammar?] success as beating others or as improving their own skillsets will affect which goal orientation they may present when approaching achievement situations. One's environment interacts with the goal orientation they may present (Morris & Summers, 2004). Humans are largely social creatures; we have an innate ability to mimic others and to be influenced by our environment. It is due to this that our goal orientation can be nurtured by our environment by both what is modelled and what is encouraged around us. Studies have found empirical evidence to support this correlation, where adolescents who had parents who endorsed intrinsic life motivators were more likely to present with mastery goal orientations, whereas, those whose parents did not endorse intrinsic life motivators were more likely to present with a performance goal orientation[factual?]. According to Nicholls, the developmental maturation of an individual plays a large role in the goal orientation they present with (Morris & Summers, 2004). Children by nature approach achievement situations with a mastery approach, however, Nicholls' highlights that, as they mature, they obtain the understanding required to present with a performance approach. The required understanding includes concepts of effort and ability, task difficulty and competence (Morris & Summers, 2004). However, Elliot and Church (1997) highlight only two preceding factors of achievement goal theory in their framework (Janke & Dickhauser 2019). These two factors are simply the need to achieve and the need to avoid failure which are both heavily personality focused, [grammar?] this framework neglects the influence of cultural and social factors.


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Ability plays a multifaceted role in Achievement Goal theory, from the perception of ones competence to failure responses.

Perceived Competence

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Quick Definitions: Competence "the ability to do something successfully or efficiently." (Oxford Languages and Google - English | Oxford Languages)

The perceived competence an individual has of themselves moderates both positive and negative outcomes as per its interaction with goal orientations. In the case of individuals who have performance goal orientations and high perception of competence, the outcome is likely to be positive. However, if the individual had a performance goal orientation as well as low perception of competence, we would start to see the helpless response when faced with failure (see Performance Goal Orientation). In the case of mastery goal-oriented individuals with either high and low perceptions of competence still result in positive impact. (Elliot & Dweck, 2005). This is a view shared both by Dweck and Nicholls.

Figure 6. Interaction between implicit view of ability and goal orientation.

Implicit View of Ability and Effort

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Ability interacts further with goal orientation, and it does this from the individual’s perspective of ability in terms of malleability. As seen in Figure 6, an individual’s implicit views of ability will alter the likely goal orientation of the individual (Elliot & Dweck, 2005). The implicit belief of ability also nurtures how an individual feels about effort. An individual who believes ability is fixed who is required to apply a large amount of effort in an achievement situation will likely assume that it is a reflection of a lack of ability. Whereas, when this same effort is required from an individual who believes ability is malleable and thus develops over time, it is likely they will have a positive interpretation of what this means about their level of ability. In the case of the mastery oriented individual the large effort implies exactly that they have applied themselves to the situation and have developed the required skillsets beyond their prior ability and thus have achieved their goal.

Perhaps a simpler way of putting it is for the performance orientated individual, the goal is to outperform others, thus having the highest level of ability "naturally". Pair this goal with not being able to succeed with ease, it could easily be perceived, like the failure response, as a direct threat to their level of competence. Whereas, the individual with a mastery goal orientation has a goal of bettering their ability and skillset, paired with achievement situation with a level of difficulty and requiring large amounts of effort. This requirement of effort suggests they have greatly achieved their goal, significantly bettering their skill set.

Failure Response

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Figure 7. Flow Chart of Achievement Goal Theory

The concept of ability interacts with the failure response of the individual (see Figure 7), such as when an individual has an implicit view of fixed ability and a low perception of their own competence (self-efficacy), they are likely to have a performance goal orientation, as well as a helpless response to failure. This is due to failure implying their lack of ability, believing that ability is fixed as well as believing they have a lack of ability emphasises their failure in relation to others, being less than average and unable to change that outcome (Elliot & Dweck, 2005). Although, if we only change this individual’s perceived competence of themselves, the outcome would likely be different[grammar?]. With a positive response to failure driving them to try harder[grammar?].

As for those with a mastery goal orientation, despite level of perceived competence, the response to failure is likely to be positive as the implications against their ability is not fixed and finite. Due to a belief of a malleable ability, failure is then understood as temporary and changeable with further development of skillset. Furthermore, as mastery goals present themselves as ongoing endeavours, failure is not perceived as a fixed end point but rather as progress feedback.

From the lens of Self-Determination Theory

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Life aspirations are sorted into sets of goals under Self-Determination Theory, with a division of intrinsic and extrinsic life aspirations (Janke & Dickhauser, 2019; see Table 1). Studies have correlated intrinsic life aspirations with positive well-being and health, as well as correlating extrinsic life aspirations with impaired well-being and even depression (Janke & Dickhauser, 2019). The relation to Achievement Goal Theory begins with how these life aspirations nurture certain accomplishment aims, further shaping an individual’s view of achievement. In this context, intrinsic life aspirations nurture a more personal and intrinsic focus toward growth in achievement situations, thus increasing the likelihood of obtaining a mastery approach. Contrasting this, extrinsic life aspirations nurture an external focus on competing with others for recognition and reward, increasing the likelihood of obtaining a performance approach in achievement situations (Janke & Dickhauser, 2019). Although[grammar?], it is important to note that the empirical evidence to support this hypothesis is still being debated by researchers today.

Table 1. Examples of intrinsic and extrinsic life aspirations
Intrinsic life aspirations Extrinsic life aspirations
Autonomy Fame
Competence Wealth
Relatedness Recognition

Real World Applications of Achievement Goal Theory

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The negative health correlations with performance goal orientations may suggest this orientation is unhealthy compared to a mastery goal orientation, that due to its positive health correlations would be considered a superior approach to achievement situations. However, a competitive environment is nurtured and required in numerous sporting environments requiring a performance goal orientation in order to succeed. Numerous studies have investigated the superiority of goal orientations

Education System

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It has been suggested that a multiple goal perspective may be the most positive presentation of achievement goal orientations. Unfortunately, as highlighted by Harackiewicz, Barron, Pintrich, Elliot, & Thrash, (2020), studying combined goal orientations presents with many difficulties. Researchers believe that although students who have multiple goal orientations are not necessarily naturally more intelligent than students with other orientations, they demonstrate the most adaptive outcomes over time. In a study conducted by Dull, Schleifer and McMillan (2014), it was found that over the length of a semester students who presented with multiple goal orientations did not begin with the highest-grade point average, however, they ended the semester with the best academic results. They also approached the class with high-expectations and perceived competence. These students therefore demonstrated the highest amount of academic improvement, as well as a positive mental affect. It is studies like this one that suggest a classroom environment that nurtures both mastery goal orientations and performance approach goal orientations would be beneficial.

Currently, in classroom settings across the world being graded is a common practise. But what do grades imply to students? Grades indicate competence feedback but also provide information about a student’s ranking in relation to their peers (Crouzevialle & Butera, 2017). This ranking is further pushed in education grading systems that scale students against each other using tools such as z-scores. Grades therefore endorse a performance goal orientation, specifically in higher grades toward late teen years as students approach university. Superiority over other students is rewarded using this system,[grammar?] it is seen as a requirement for future entry into universities, high-profile employment and prestige (Crouzevialle & Butera, 2017).

“the selective function of academic institutions implicitly promotes the endorsement of performance-approach goals and leads students to pay significant attention to their grades and ranking.” (Crouzevialle & Buttera, 2017)


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Dance (see Figure 8) is a highly competitive sport, not only from the perspective of ability but also, due to its visual nature,[grammar?] it is also competitive in regard to physique. This environment places emphasis on performance goal orientation (de Bruin, Bakker and Oudejans, 2008), like the education system, these sports are graded. Grading is delivered in exams, competitions and even in who is chosen for particular solo roles or front-line positions in performances. A hierarchy is established based on level of ability in comparison to others, this hierarchy is continued across ballet in a company setting from the corps de ballet to the principal artist. Consequently, it is clear that a performance goal orientation is endorsed in the field of dance, and the effects of which are proving harmful. The endorsed climate of performance goal orientation found in dance and gymnastics have been correlated with more dieting, weight-related peer pressure, low self-esteem and greater perfectionism (de Bruin, Bakker & Oudejans, 2008). Researchers advise coaches and teachers to strive to create a mastery climate instead of the performance climate that is currently encouraged in order to protect students from disordered eating (de Bruin, Bakker & Oudejans, 2008).


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Figure 9. A visual representation of Achievement Goal Theory.

Achievement Goal Theory is a competence-based motivational approach initially developed in the 1970s involving two schemas of goal approach referred to as orientations. It is from these goal orientations that we approach achievement situations. These orientations include mastery goal orientation, which is intrinsically focused on bettering one’s skillset beyond their prior ability usually from a belief of ability being malleable. Mastery goal orientation is correlated with positive mental health and wellbeing, with a positive understanding of failure. The other orientation is performance goal orientation, usually held by individuals with a perspective of ability being fixed. Performance goal orientation can be described as wanting to outperform others with an extrinsic and competitive focus. When paired with low perceived competence the failure response will likely be helpless as it implies a fixed lack of ability. Performance goal orientation has been split into approach and avoidance motivations such as performance approach goal orientation, where the goal is to display greater ability than others, and, performance avoidance goal orientation which can be described as striving to avoid displaying a lack of ability in comparison to others.

Factors such as environment, development and individual differences influence the likely goal orientation of an individual,[grammar?] these include the orientation climate they are in, the modelling of those around them, and age as the understanding required to adopt a performance goal orientation is not present in children. Ability plays a large role in the theory, specifically the perceived competence one has of themselves, which then correlates with the failure response they may have. Different views of effort in relation to ability is held in the case of each goal orientation, such as believing when less effort is required it implies greater ability, specifically for those with the belief that ability is fixed and therefore unchanging. Contrasting this, understanding a large necessity of effort to imply great achievement due to the development of skillset. See figure 9 for a visual representation of the discussed features of Achievement Goal Orientation.

Research is still being conducted to indicate which orientation is the more superior, however, it has been suggested that multiple orientations may be the strongest approach at least to academic environments. However, when applied to the dance industry, performance goal orientations are correlated with negative health repercussions of both a physical and mental manner implicating the necessity of a mastery approach.

"Murayama, Elliot, and Friedman (2012) described achievement goal orientations as comprehensible achievement-related mind-sets that determine the pathway that individuals consider the most suitable to accomplish a feeling of competence." (Janke & Dickhauser, 2019)

See also

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Bay Area Arts. (2015). Photograph of Psychologist, Carol Dweck.

Crouzevialle, M., & Butera, F. (2017). Performance Goals and Task Performance. European Psychologist, 73-82.

de Bruin, A., Bakker, F. and Oudejans, R. (2008). Achievement goal theory and disordered eating: Relationships of disordered eating with goal orientations and motivational climate in female gymnast and dancer. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 10, pp.72-79.

Dull, R., Schleifer, L. and McMillan, J. (2015). Achievement Goal Theory: The Relationship of Accounting Students' Goal Orientations with Self-efficacy, Anxiety, and Achievement. Accounting Education, 24(2), pp.152-174.

Elliot, A., & Dweck, C. (2005). Handbook of Competence and Motivation (1st ed., pp. 52-72). New York: The Guilford Press.

Harackiewicz, J., Barron, K., Pintrich, P., Elliot, A. and Thrash, T. (2020). Revision of Achievement Goal Theory: Necessary and Illuminating. Journal of Educational Psychology, 94(3), pp.638-645.

Janke, S. and Dickhauser, O. (2019). A neglected tenet of achievement goal theory: Associations between life aspirations and achievement goal orientations. Personality and individual differences,142, pp.90-99.

Lochbaum, M., Kazak Cetinkalp, Z., Graham, K., Wright, T. and Zazo, R. (2016). TASK AND EGO GOAL ORIENTATIONS IN COMPETITIVE SPORT: A QUANTITATIVE REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE FROM 1989 TO 2016. Kinesiology, 48(1), pp.3-29.

Maehr, M. and Zusho, A. (2009). Achievement Goal Theory: The Past, Present, and Future. Handbook of Motivation in School, 76-104.

Morris, T. and Summers, J. (2004). Sport Psychology: Theory, Applications And Issues. 2nd ed. Queensland: John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd, pp.152-174.

Oxford Languages and Google - English | Oxford Languages. dictionary-en/

Palmer, K., Chinn, K. and Robinson, L. (2020). Using Achievement Goal Theory in Motor Skill Instruction: A Systematic Review. Sports Medicine, 47(12), pp.2569-2583.

Standage, M., Duda, J. and Ntoumanis, N. (2003). A Model of Contextual Motivation in Physical Education: Using Constructs From Self-Determination and Achievement Goal Theories to Predict Physical Activity Intentions. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95(1), pp.97-110.

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