Goal Theory Research Paper Starter

Goal Theory

(Research Starters)

Goal theory is used to interpret the motivation behind the choices people make. Edwin Locke created the theory in the 1960s, and it has been expanded since its creation to include various aspects of a person's psyche, like whether a person is acting based on internal or external factors. Whether or not a person is trying to master a task or perform well at it to look good in front of others is also a primary focus for goal theorists. Goal theory posits that people approach or avoid goals according to similar principles. Goal theory is commonly used in current psychological and educational settings.

Keywords Achievement goals; Avoidance goals; Ego involved; Extrinsic motivation; Goal theory; Intrinsic motivation; Mastery orientation; Performance orientation; Task involved

Educational Theory: Goal Theory


Edwin Locke created goal theory (goal setting theory) in the 1960s to gain an understanding of how goals influence an individual's performance. Goal theory is based on Aristotle's four forms of causation, in which the "final cause" is defined as the purpose of something. Aristotle believed that purpose can cause action. Locke took this idea further by studying the impact goals have on activity. The purpose of setting a goal is based on achieving that goal through action. In the world of education, action can take on many forms. It can be studying for an exam, practicing the long jump for a track meet, or reading several pages in preparation for a class discussion. In any event, the final cause, purpose, or goal is to become proficient at something, and students have different reasons for achieving proficiency.


Mastery orientation, being motivated by the desire to master subject matter, is based on a student's intrinsic enthusiasm for gaining knowledge regardless of the grade he receives or how he is viewed by the teacher; he is motivated by the simple act of learning.

Performance orientation, on the other hand, motivates students to achieve an objective based entirely upon extrinsic forces. What grade the student will receive or how he will be perceived by the teacher are factors which stimulate him to perform. As he is motivated by external forces (i.e., grades; how he is perceived by others), he is more likely to be anxious (it is difficult to control external forces) and to learn information superficially rather than in depth. This student is also likely to cheat in order to achieve the goal of earning a high grade. The student motivated by internal structures, however, is confident and focused on the process of acquiring knowledge, even when it takes time. Intrinsically motivated students don't cheat because to do so would rob them of their goal to master the subject.

Regarding the relationship between intrinsic and external motivations, Cooper (2013) proposes a “hierarchy of wants, in which extrinsic motivations and goals are seen as attempts—albeit often unsuccessful ones—to reach the highest order, most intrinsic goals.” His model also suggests that human beings are most likely to achieve a state of well-being when their goals are “synergetically related: determined both by the internal configuration of goals and external resources” (Cooper, 2013).

An additional development in understanding extrinsic and intrinsic motivations was contributed by Duriez, Giletta, Kuppins, and Vansteenkiste (2013), who studied the role of peers in determining the source of motivation. Social network analyses on data the authors gathered from senior high-school students “confirm that peer similarity in goal pursuit exists, and that, although this similarity partly originates from adolescents selecting friends on the basis of perceived goal pursuit similarity, it also results from peers actively influencing each other.” The authors concluded that friends tend to become more alike in terms of goal pursuit over time (Duriez, Giletta, Kuppins, & Vansteenkiste, 2013).

Interest Involvement

In addition to the motivation behind various goals, a student can have different interest levels as well. Task-involved students, like the mastery oriented student, are interested in the job itself - actually studying and learning. They don't perceive failure as a terrible thing because they know that a lack of success on one test does not determine who they are. Perhaps the task-involved student plays sports and did not manage her time well when facing a math exam in addition to an overnight away trip. It is her own fault, and she owns up to the consequences, deciding to do better next time.

On the flip-side, an ego-involved student achieves goals according to what's in it for him, as he is extrinsically motivated. If he is successful (in academics, sports, work) it is because he has done what is necessary to be viewed as a success by those around him. To this student, test failure is the result of two things: It is the teacher's fault for using trick questions on the test, or it is his classmate's fault for telling him to study the wrong material. In any event, the student bears no responsibility for his lack of success and therefore becomes discouraged when his is not rewarded by positive feedback from those around him.

Achieving goals is complex when considering goal theory. When intrinsically motivated, students achieve academically because they know they are responsible for their success. They value approach goals because approach goals yield a desirable outcome (Elliot, 1999), like making the team or earning an allowance. Avoidance goals, however, are utilized by students in an attempt to avoid an outcome (Elliot, 1999), like failing an exam or not making the team. Students who are motivated to avoid looking unsuccessful will frame their activities toward that end, studying, practicing, et cetera, in order not to fail.

The Self

When considering all of the possibilities created from goal theory, it is essential to look at what psychologists view as the focal point of the theory: The concept of self. A person's "self" or "self-concept" is embedded within his personality; it the view he has of himself, and it combines the feelings, impressions, and attitudes he has about himself. It is his conscience (morality, ethics) as well as his consciousness and unconsciousness (the ideas which represent his values, which are both beneath and upon the surface). The self sees its worth in various situations - emotional, social, and physical - and positive experiences can increase the way a person perceives himself, what is known as his self-worth. Motivation is the underlying momentum that carries people from one experience to another; it can reinforce or diminish peoples' perception of self-worth based on the success and/or failure to achieve various goals.

Maehr (2001) explains that the self

… is not just about competence: it is about worth, and it is fraught with potential for modifying motivational patterns … self is at the center of achievement, as well as most social behavior (e.g., Baumeister, 1998). And, the self that is at the center of action is not just the competent, efficacious, attributing self-although it is certainly that-but the valued self. Awareness of one's ability as well as one's identity can undermine or encourage (Maehr, 2001, p. 182).

Teunissen and Bok (2013), who examined motivation and the concept of self within medical education, wrote that self-theories, or “people’s theories on what competence is and means for the self,” play a major role in establishing the goals people set for themselves, the emotions they experience, and the meanings they attach to situations. These self-views, the authors argue, are often “not explicitly articulated and are therefore called ‘implicit’” self theories (Teunissen & Bok, 2013).

It seldom occurs that people are motivated without considering what will happen to them (their "self") when completing a task. Firefighters put out fires and pull people from buildings because it is their job. They may be mastery oriented and intrinsically motivated (as proficient as possible and helpful to others because they feel good about it), but their motivation is not marred by a misunderstanding of the risk they take. Jim, a firefighter in the city of Plattsburgh, New York, for over fifteen years says that, "any firefighter who tells you he doesn't think about dying every time he goes out on a call is a liar" (personal communication, January 16, 2008). In the fire-fighting profession, it is greatly encouraging when a life is saved. What happens when that isn't the case? According to Jim, "sure, you feel [badly], but you have to get back out there and do the best you can on the next call. That's all you can do" (Personal communication, January 16, 2008).


Mastery Goals vs. Performance Goals

According to goal theorists, the study of motivation is not a new concept. One of the suggestions Brophy (2005) has is that mastery and performance goals can be broken down to further analyze the actions of students regarding how they approach and/or avoid certain situations. "Goal theory researchers generally agree that mastery goals are more productive than performance goals and approach goals are more productive than avoidance goals" (Brophy, 2005, p. 67). As such, Brophy investigated these concepts within the following multiple-goals perspective, established by goal theorists.

Mastery-approach (students achieve proficiency for the sake of acquiring a skill or learning a concept),

• Mastery-avoidance (students achieve proficiency but do so focusing on avoiding making mistakes or failing),

• Performance-approach (students demonstrate their proficiency based on being better than others and publicly displaying their proficiency), and

• Performance-avoidance (students focus on demonstrating their proficiency, not necessarily to be better than others but to avoid looking incompetent).

Teachers must consider if encouraging performance-approach goals within the classroom is best practice. As they require an emphasis on social competition, teachers need to consider what, if any, value to place on their utilization. The multiple perspectives focus grants some latitude to the use of performance-approach goals - competing in a spelling bee, for example, but the question remains whether or not performance-avoidance goals are ever constructive.

Brophy (2005) notes that the multiple perspectives view has problems in that when several goals are approached at the same time, students can experience negative eaffects. For example,

Coordinating their goal striving involves taking advantage of opportunities to pursue more than one goal simultaneously and trying to avoid getting caught in situations where the things they feel they must do to satisfy one goal will interfere with their attempts to satisfy another (Urdan, 1999, as cited in Brophy, 2005, p. 168) …. Goal coordination in classrooms is especially difficult for struggling students, because maintaining commitment to mastery goals requires them to work harder than their peers (Hong, 2001, as cited in Brophy, 2005, p. 169).

These definitions and descriptions are those of the theorists, rather than the viewpoints of students themselves. It is not fair to criticize teachers for what they might do or suggest to them what they shouldn't do when the interpretation of students is what is under scrutiny. To this end, Brophy (2005) asked students how they interpreted activities in the classroom. He found that

. . .when allowed to describe their goals in their own words, students (or at least elementary and middle school students) seldom mention performance goals spontaneously. They may aspire to passing a test or getting a certain grade, but they rarely mention displaying ability or looking good in comparison with their classmates … [He was able to conclude that] under natural classroom conditions, performance goals are a low-incidence phenomenon (p. 170).

Art Education

To the student who is not afraid to be compared to his peers, art class can be stimulating, even if he's asked to create a sneaker from a ball of clay. There are students, however, who think that if their sneaker looks more like an automobile, they have failed at being creative. Pavlou (2000) set out to investigate how students view their competence in and motivation toward art projects in school. He individually interviewed sixteen students 11-12 years in age to determine the students' engagement with art tasks. According to the researcher, he chose students at this age because it is "when pupils' uncertainty about their abilities in art making is getting stronger" (p. 195). Furthermore, this is also the age when "[p]upils show greater awareness of realism, exhibit interest in details, and are more self[-]conscious about their work and more aware of their shortcomings in art" (Lowenfeld & Brittain, 1987, as cited in Pavlou, 2000, p. 196).

Pavlou's (2000) interview included questions about students' most and least favorite activities in school, their feelings toward art (and art activities), their sense of competence in art, their perceptions of how useful art is, and their perceptions regarding support from their teacher, how some art is made and what their engagement is with art outside of school (p. 196). Pavlou notes that with relation to the students' "initial engagement" and their level of engagement with art activities, both concepts

. . . appeared to function within the context of pupils' perceptions about their competence. In particular, pupils' perceptions...

(The entire section is 6018 words.)