Achievement Goals and Why They Matter

Posted by Clayton McClintock on 5/20/15 11:30 AM

sb10064761w-001_XSCompetition won't keep you going, in the long run.

Making high marks, improving on test scores, and generally succeeding in school are goals that our one-on-one tutoring students share. Much less remarked upon, let alone agreed upon, are the underlying reasons for academic achievement in the first place.

Four Types of Achievement Goals

Though not always consciously, students are motivated by a variety of achievement goals. Some students want to demonstrate their academic ability, and are motivated primarily by ability goals. Those with normative goals want to outperform others, and those with outcome goals primarily go for the grades. In contrast to these three performance-related goals, other students operate primarily out of learning goals, and focus on acquiring new knowledge and skills.

Research has shown that, as it turns out, these goals matter. In a study on a first-year course at Columbia University, Heidi Grant and Carol Dweck set out to determine if and how these achievement goals are related to academic achievement. With an average grade of C+, the course was challenging and had high stakes for aspiring premed and science majors. These students’ achievement goals were assessed, and their midterm and final examination grades were collected.

Which Is Most Effective?

Grant and Dweck found that achievement goals do play an important and interesting role in student achievement. Perhaps surprisingly, neither normative nor outcome goals on their own significantly predicted academic performance. Ability goals, however, were found to have two opposite effects on students’ grades. Students with high ability goals who earned relatively high marks before the final exam did better on the final than those with low ability goals, perhaps because their previous good performance gave them a confidence boost. However, students with high ability goals who performed relatively poorly prior to the final scored lower than those with low ability goals. Thus, performing for the sake of “proving” ability carries a risk, if one encounters challenges and disappointments.

Most importantly, the study found that learning goals-- the desire to learn and eventually master a new set of knowledge-- did predict higher grades. They also predicted grade improvement, better processing of the material, and higher intrinsic motivation. Learning goals had a particularly high impact when the material was challenging and complex, and the task was personally important.

So, the next time you strive to get that high test mark or “A” in that class, good for you for aiming high! But remember to stop and ask yourself not only what you are working to achieve, but why. As you encounter inevitable academic challenges, the answer to this question can make a big difference.

Grant, H., & Dweck, C. S. (2003). Clarifying achievement goals and their impact. Journal of personality and social psychology, 85(3), 541.

For more relevant reading, check out these other blog posts, written by our psychology tutors in New York City, Boston, and online: What Are Heuristics?, and Which Graduate Psychology Program Do I Choose?.

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Tags: study skills, psychology