A page within CATL Teaching Improvement Guide

Brief Description

Goals organize and focus students’ effort, and affect their motivation for learning. Researchers distinguish three main types of achievement goals that have different effects on student motivation.

  • Learning or Mastery Goal. Students’ primary goal is to learn the subject, develop knowledge and skills, and to become competent. Students with learning goals tend to exert greater effort, persist on difficult tasks, use feedback about their performance to improve their learning, and seek out experiences that will build their competence.

  • Performance Goal. Students with performance goals are concerned less about learning and more about how they compare to others in achievement settings and protecting their self-image. Students’ effort focuses on doing what they need in order to gain recognition, get rewards and appear intelligent. Performance oriented students derive satisfaction more from being seen as competent and less from actually developing competence.  Performance goals can be further divided into two subcategories:

    • Performance-approach oriented students focus on achieving high standards, out-performing others, and receiving recognition for their accomplishments. On the surface and in the short term, this goal orientation may be beneficial, but the emphasis on appearances and high performance (over and above effort and improvement) can create vulnerabilities when challenges or difficulties are encountered. Students who are primarily focused on "being the best" at all costs are more likely to give-up or quit in the face of difficulties and/or after failure, more likely to cheat or use other short-cuts to accomplish their goals, and less likely to use deep learning strategies.

    • Performance-avoidant oriented students are more focused on avoiding failure or looking dumb or incapable.Whereas performance-approach oriented students want to be the best, performance-avoidant oriented students just don't want to be the worst. They set the bar low and have low expectations for their own achievements. Students with these goals are also more likely to give-up or quit in the face of difficulties and/or after failure, more likely to cheat or use other short-cuts to accomplish their goals, and less likely to use deep learning strategies. They are also more likely to engage in self-handicapping strategies to protect their self-image, such as procrastinating on assignments and making excuses. Unfortunately, their overall lack of effort and low self-efficacy typically contribute to more failure and may lead them to develop helpless responses to challenge
  • Work-Avoidant Goal. A third type of goal focuses on avoiding learning. Work-avoidant students do work quickly, do just enough to get by, and derive little or no satisfaction from learning. These students probably trouble us most; they seem disinterested and unwilling to learn.


  1. Motivate the subject. Explain how your course material and academic tasks are meaningful beyond the classroom context.

  2. Focus on how to learn the material rather than on how to get a good grade. 

  3. Emphasize how to get better. Give feedback that focuses on improvement, progress and mastery. Teach effective learning strategies.

  4. Emphasize that learning and mastery are long-term endeavors that naturally involve mistakes, setbacks, and sometimes sheer tedium.

  5. Challenge students with difficult tasks and reward effort. Achievements requiring hard work and effort should be more celebrated than achievements requiring low effort. 

  6. Avoid comparing students in class, publicly posting grades, and creating competitive atmospheres in general, which tend to foster performance goals. 

  7. Allow students to resubmit work and correct their mistakes. 

  8. Use more portfolio-type assessments that enable students to demonstrate progress over the course of a semester/year.

Tips to Implement Goal Orientation Strategies Effectively

Students may have a strong predisposition toward one or another goal orientation, but the classroom context can influence them significantly. For example,

  • A student who is mastery oriented may appear work avoidant if she is overwhelmed by the quantity and complexity of work in a course. There may be no time to learn the subject deeply. Given excessive demands she may resort to doing what needs to be done and nothing more.

  • Teachers may inadvertently undermine mastery goals by not sufficiently justifying the importance of the subject matter or not trying to cultivate interest in the topic.

  • Grading practices can influence students' goal orientations. Assigning points to every piece of course work conveys an ambiguous message about the value of the work. Are the learning activities important in and of themselves or only insofar as they count toward a course grade?  


  • Motivating College Student Learning Two short videos that summarize factors that influence student motivation and describe strategies to enhance student effort and persistence.


Meece, J. L., Anderman, E. M., & Anderman, L. H. (2006). Classroom goal structures,student motivation, and academic achievement. Annual Review of Psychology, 57, 487-503.
Svinicki, M. (2005). Student goal orientation, motivation and learning. Idea Paper41, 1-5.
Cerbin, W. & Marshik, T. (2015). Goals. In Teaching Improvement Guide. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from https://www.uwlax.edu/catl/teaching-guides/teaching-improvement-guide/how-can-i-improve/goals/.