Achievement goals refer to the aim, purpose, or focus of a person’s achievement behavior. These goals are dynamic cognitive entities representing future-based possibilities that respond to changes in the person as well as the situation. They do not refer strictly to the level of aspired performance (as in the goal-setting literature) but, rather, to how people evaluate their competence or incompetence and orient their behavior accordingly. Achievement goal theory has emphasized the role of achievement goals in regulating a wide variety of affective, behavioral, and cognitive outcomes during people’s competence pursuits. More recently, research on achievement goal theory has developed the hierarchical model of achievement motivation, which integrates a variety of achievement motivation theories. This entry defines key constructs in achievement goal theory, reviews major models of achievement goals, reviews the consequences of different achievement goals, and explains how achievement goals have been integrated with other theoretical approaches in the hierarchical model of achievement motivation.
Key Constructs in Achievement Goal Theory
Achievement goal theory posits three major explanatory constructs: states of goal involvement, goal orientations, and goal climates. A person’s state of achievement goal involvement reflects the aim, purpose, or focus of the achievement behavior in a specific context at a particular moment in time. States of goal involvement can change over time, so it is very important to understand their contextual and temporal frame of reference. The narrower and more specific the frame of reference, the closer the construct will be to the theoretical conception of a goal as a dynamic cognitive entity. The predictive power of states of involvement varies based on the correspondence between the frame of reference for the goal and the outcome. For example, goals for today’s practice session will be more effective at predicting outcomes in today’s practice than in predicting outcomes over the course of the 6 months ahead. Unfortunately, research on states of achievement goal involvement is limited, in part because of the challenges associated with assessing goals in relevant performance contexts repeatedly over time.
An individual’s achievement goal orientation reflects one’s typical state of achievement goal involvement over time within a particular context. Goal orientations can be thought of as the central tendency of a distribution representing a person’s states of involvement for an activity sampled repeatedly over time. Goal orientations are thought to be more stable than states of goal involvement because they are contextually— but not temporally—specific. Goal orientations emerged as a preferred level of analysis in achievement goal research because they can be assessed via self-reports on a single occasion and do not require repeated assessment to capture a process.
Despite the relative ease of assessing goal orientations, a noteworthy limitation of this construct is that it cannot distinguish goal-based variability from variability associated with other stable individual differences (e.g., motives). For example, a person who has a strong fear of failure will tend to adopt some achievement goals more than others, and the difference between fear of failure-based variability and variation due to the actual aim, purpose, or focus of that person’s achievement behavior is blurred. Likewise, goal orientation ratings may be tainted by situational factors at the time the measure is completed. Notwithstanding these limitations, the achievement goal orientation construct has provided a very accessible entry point for testing the propositions of achievement goal theory, and the vast majority of the research on achievement goals has focused on goal orientations.
Finally, achievement goal climates represent the situational cues that lead people to adopt different states of involvement. Joyce Epstein proposed a set of TARGET structures within achievement contexts, which influence the goals that people adopt. This model is derived from research on academic achievement motivation but also provides a rich conceptual framework for dissecting the motivational climate in physical activity settings.
The TARGET acronym stands for the task, authority, recognition, grouping, evaluation, and timing structures in a particular situation. Task structures refer to the type of task that people are working on. Tasks that are perceived as challenging will evoke different goals than tasks that are perceived as repetitive and boring. Authority refers to how decisions were made about the task. Activities that are perceived as more autonomously selected by participants evoke different goals than those that are selected by leaders such as coaches or teachers. Recognition refers to the procedures used to recognize performers’ accomplishments. Praise and criticism that are provided privately evoke different goals than similar feedback that is provided publicly. Grouping refers to whether participants are assigned to groups of similar or diverse ability levels. Groups formed with the intention of having a diverse range of abilities evoke different goals than groups formed with the intention of creating status differences between groups. Evaluation describes how participants’ competence is evaluated and recognized. Evaluations that emphasize improvement evoke different goals than evaluations that emphasize normative comparisons. Timing refers to whether the time demands promote a focus on learning or immediate performance. It is worth noting that the perceived motivational climate (i.e., TARGET structures) may differ from an objective assessment of the motivational climate. As in other social cognitive approaches, it is the perceived climate that is held to influence states of goal involvement.
Structure of Achievement Goals
The structure of and terminology for describing achievement goals have evolved considerably over the past 3 decades. Goals were originally proposed to account for differences between mastery and helpless responses to failure. People who exhibited a mastery response to failure (i.e., attributions to low effort, increased persistence, greater enjoyment, and enhanced problem solving) were thought to exhibit this response because they focused on learning and improving. In contrast, people who exhibited a helpless response to failure (i.e., attributions to low ability, decreased persistence, less enjoyment, and reduced problem solving) were thought to exhibit this response because they focused on protecting themselves from undesirable social comparisons. These goals became the focus of the dichotomous model of achievement goals.
Dichotomous Achievement Goals
The dichotomous model of achievement goals emphasizes two primary definitions of competence. Task goals emphasize learning and improving, whereas ego goals emphasize outperforming others. Task and ego goals have also been referred to as mastery–learning and performance–competitive goals, respectively.
Based on research in sport and physical education contexts, task goal orientations are associated with greater enjoyment, interest, pleasant emotional experiences, prosocial behavior, commitment, perceived improvement, intrinsic motivation, moral functioning, life satisfaction, and satisfaction with coaching and competitive results. Ego goals are associated with consequences such as anxiety, worry, competitiveness, public self-consciousness, motivation for social status and recognition, extrinsic motivation, hypercompetitive attitudes, and antisocial behavior. Relations between dichotomous goal orientations and perceived competence are more equivocal in the literature and require further attention. Both task and ego goal orientations positively predict perceptions of task and ego goal climates, respectively.
Goal climates have also been linked with a number of affective, behavioral, and cognitive outcomes. This literature has emphasized the distinction between mastery (i.e., task) and performance (i.e., ego) motivational climates without attending much to the approach–avoidance distinction that became the focus in subsequent extensions of the goals model. It has also focused on physical education settings. Compared with control groups and groups exposed to performance goal climates, interventions that created mastery goal climates in physical education classes have been associated with more positive attitudes toward the activity, greater enjoyment, increased health and fitness, improved skill, lower anxiety, and greater use of effective learning strategies compared with performance goal climates.
Trichotomous Achievement Goals
The trichotomous model of achievement goals was noted as a possibility in early writing on the dichotomous model of goals but only received empirical attention in the 1990s when it was used to explain an inconsistent finding in the literature. Specifically, relations between performance (or ego) goals and intrinsic motivation varied considerably, from negative to nil, across studies. Scholars posited that these goals had no influence on intrinsic motivation when they were approach oriented but reduced intrinsic motivation when they were avoidance oriented. This hypothesis was supported by a meta-analysis of existing studies and a series of experiments. Subsequent research has identified a number of other variables with different relations to performance goals depending on whether those goals are approach or avoidance oriented. Thus, the trichotomous model of achievement goals includes mastery goals, performance–approach goals, and performance–avoidance goals. These goals reflect aims of learning and improving, outperforming others, and not being outperformed by others, respectively.
In the physical domain, the added value of distinguishing performance–approach from performance–avoidance goals in physical activity was established in experimental research. These studies manipulated the instructions given to participants to induce particular goals. Participants who received mastery or performance–approach goals exhibited greater intrinsic motivation than participants who received performance–avoidance goals, and these relations were not due to differences in perceived competence. The latter finding was particularly important because early critics of expanding the dichotomous model of achievement goals speculated that the approach–avoidance distinction was simply a reflection of differences in perceived competence—a hypothesis that was clearly refuted by these studies. These findings were instrumental for introducing the approach– avoidance dimension to achievement goal theory in physical activity.
2×2 Model of Achievement Goals
Shortly after the introduction of the trichotomous model of achievement goals, the model was expanded to a fully symmetric 2×2 model of achievement goals. This model outlined four possible achievement goals based on (a) the definition of competence and (b) the valence of the competence-based incentive. The two levels for definitions of competence were consistent with the dichotomous and trichotomous models. Mastery goals defined competence in reference to the self or absolute standards, and performance goals defined competence in reference to normative standards. The two competence-based possibilities that orient people’s behavior in achievement situations are success (which people typically approach) and failure (which people typically avoid).
A 2×2 taxonomy emerges from the combination of the definition of competence with the valence of the incentive. The performance–approach and performance–avoidance goals in this model mirror those goals in the trichotomous model. Mastery goals from the trichotomous model are specified as mastery–approach goals in the 2×2 model. These goals involve striving to improve or execute a skill as it should be executed (i.e., selfand absolutely referenced competence, respectively, with a focus on being successful). The new addition to the 2×2 model involves mastery–avoidance goals, which describe strivings not to have one’s skills deteriorate or not to make mistakes (i.e., selfand absolutely referenced competence, respectively, with a focus on not failing). One of the major objectives for researchers interested in the 2×2 model over the past decade has involved evaluating whether the added complexity of this model is warranted in relation to increases in predictive power. Following is a summary of bivariate relations between each goal and a variety of affect, behavioral, and cognitive consequences in physical activity; this summary does not account for any overlap between goals due to a shared definition of competence or valence.
Mastery–approach goals have been linked with affective consequences such as heightened enjoyment and positive affect, and reduced boredom. Behaviorally, these goals are associated with increased fitness, perceived exercise intensity, physical activity participation and, in some studies, even performance (typically in timed races or similar tasks). They have also been linked with reduced self-handicapping. From a cognitive standpoint, mastery–approach goals have been linked with (a) greater meta-cognitive regulation, relative autonomy, intrinsic motivation, perceived usefulness and importance of the activity, effort, tolerance, help-seeking, situational interest, satisfaction, intentions to continue in sport, preferences for the activity, and utility value, and (b) reduced amotivation.
Mastery–avoidance goals have been linked with mixed affective consequences such as increased enjoyment and increased negative affect. Behaviorally, these goals are associated with increased fitness, shuttle run performance, and self-reported intensity of activity. From a cognitive standpoint, mastery–avoidance goals have been linked with stronger preference for the activity, tolerance, effort, physical activity participation, and intentions to participate in sport.
Performance–approach goals have been linked with affective consequences, such as increased enjoyment and positive affect, and decreased boredom. Behaviorally, these goals are associated with physical activity and performance (typically in timed races or similar tasks). From a cognitive standpoint, performance–approach goals have been linked with greater meta-cognitive regulation, effort, introjected and external regulation, intentions to participate in sport, value (intrinsic and utility), and satisfaction.
Performance–avoidance goals have been linked with affective consequences such as increased enjoyment and negative affect as well as decreased boredom. Behaviorally, these goals are associated with fitness, self-handicapping, and physical activity participation. From a cognitive standpoint, performance–avoidance goals are associated with interest; identified, introjected, or external regulation; and intentions to continue in sport as well as decreased satisfaction with sport.
Even a cursory review of this list reveals that some outcomes (e.g., enjoyment) are associated with all four goals in the same way. This finding reflects, at least in part, the overlap between goals. It also suggests that a general achievement goal profile elevation may be contaminating some of these results, that is, people may be high or low in all goals because of some other factor such as the importance of the domain to them. Shifting the focus of future research from achievement goal orientations to states of involvement will help to resolve this issue. Notwithstanding this limitation, clear nomological networks for each goal are emerging. Taken as a whole, these findings indicate that mastery–approach goals have unequivocally desirable consequences, and the other goals have mixed profiles, with performance–approach goals appearing preferable to mastery–avoidance goals, which seem preferable to performance–avoidance goals.
Although the 2×2 model of achievement goals is fairly comprehensive, there may be reasons to make further distinctions between goals. For example, scholars have debated the merits of differentiating between mastery goals based on a selfreferenced definition of competence and mastery goals based on a task-referenced definition of competence. Any such expansions of the 2×2 model of achievement goals must ensure that the new goals are grounded in competence-based incentives and must demonstrate that the explanatory or predictive power of the new goals is sufficient to offset the added complexity of the model.
Hierarchical Model of Achievement Motivation
The hierarchical model of achievement goals was proposed at the beginning of the 21st century to integrate the classic, motive-based approaches and contemporary, goal-based approaches to studying achievement motivation. This model posits goals as the proximal regulators of affect, behavior, and cognition during competence pursuits. It also proposes that many established achievement motivation constructs in other approaches predispose people to adopt certain goals. These goal antecedents include achievement motives, self-related constructs (e.g., perceived competence, self-theories of ability), neurophysiological predispositions, and the motivational climate in a given situation.
For example, mastery–approach goals are more likely to be adopted by people with high need for achievement, perfectionistic strivings, perceived competence, incremental theories of ability, and approach motivational temperaments and in situations that create a mastery motivational climate. In contrast, performance–avoidance goals are more likely to be adopted by people with high fear of failure, perfectionistic concerns, entity theories of ability, avoidance motivational temperaments, and low perceived competence and in situations that create a performance motivational climate.
One benefit of this hierarchical, antecedent– consequence model of achievement goals is that it has increased conceptual precision in research on achievement goal theory. Researchers now tend to differentiate between factors that lead to goal adoption and those that are produced by goal adoption. Although the vast majority of this literature is nonexperimental and does not provide a strong basis for causal claims, coherent and logical conceptual articulations of relations within the antecedent–consequence framework are contributing to theoretical clarity. Another trend worth noting in recent literature is a slight increase in the number of longitudinal research studies that investigate how goals fluctuate within people over time. This approach is valuable because it shifts the focus from goal orientations to states of involvement and removes threats from confounding third variables that may be antecedents of goals (e.g., fear of failure). Finally, as evidenced by the preceding review, the majority of the research on achievement goal theory as it relates to physical activity has been conducted in the context of sport and physical education. Exercise and rehabilitation contexts have received considerably less attention but also involve competence pursuits and therefore may be useful contexts for understanding the role of achievement goals in regulating affect, behavior, and cognition.
In sum, achievement goal theory has developed considerably since it was first proposed over 3 decades ago. Extensions of the theory have met with resistance in some quarters, but the associated debates have clarified differences in assumptions and contributed to a more precise articulation of the theory. The hierarchical model of achievement motivation represents the current
state of the science. It is a significant development because it (a) links multiple levels of analysis in motivation from the neurophysiological to the social; (b) integrates diverse theories of achievement motivation; (c) differentiates the causes of goals from their effects, at least conceptually; and (d) specifically addresses the factors that energize and orient achievement strivings.
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