Academic Goal Setting: Implications
Research has consistently suggested that the two types of academic goal orientations produce significantly different adaptive or nonadaptive learning-related behaviors (Maehr, 1999).  According to Covington (2000), “one’s achievement goals are thought to influence the quality, timing, and appropriateness of cognitive strategies that, in turn, control the quality of one’s accomplishments” (p. 174).  In general, the research suggests (Anderman et al., 2002; Covington, 2000; Eccles & Wigfield, 2002; Kaplan & Maehr, 1999; Linnenbrink & Pintrich, 2002b; Maehr, 1999; Newman, 2000; Pintrich, 2000b, 2000c; Skaalvik & Skaalvik, 2002; Snow et al., 1996):
  • A performance goal orientation is associated with nonadaptive learning behaviors which include hiding self-perceived incompetence, self-handicapping, greater worry and anxiety, increased behavior problems, a concern for establishing superiority relative to others, a focus on obtaining grades for grades' sake or other external reasons, less adaptive subsequent motivation, negative self-evaluations and affect, poorer and disorganized strategy use, and poorer academic performance.  A performance goal orientation has been associated with students demonstrating a pattern of “helplessness” and the avoidance of challenging situations in order to maintain positive self-perceptions of ability (when compared to others).  “Success…is evaluated in social comparison terms. In terms of developing self-esteem, this is a decidedly hazardous situation. By definition, success is a limited commodity. Only a few, at best, can win a competitive game” (Maehr, 1999, p. 331).
  • A learning goal orientation is associated with more adaptive learning behaviors: positive affect (e.g., pride and satisfaction), higher levels of efficacy, interest, task effort and engagement, the use of more creative and deep self-regulatory learning strategies, and better academic performance.  When learning results in stress and frustration, learning goal oriented students tend to view the situation as a challenge, are often energized by the challenge, maintain a positive and optimistic outlook, persevere, and demonstrate the ability to be strategically flexible in their problem solving strategies. 
  • The adoption of a particular learning goal orientation is predictive of, and related to, the attainment of important and valued educational outcomes for children and adolescents.  According to Covington’s (2000) review, “the accumulated evidence overwhelmingly favors the goal-theory hypothesis that different reasons for achieving, nominally approach and avoidance, influence the quality of achievement striving via self-regulation mechanisms” (p. 178).  A learning goal orientation is a key student attribute that should be assessed and fostered in learning environments.  A learning goal orientation is associated with environments that define success as progress and improvement, value effort and learning, and accept mistakes as an inherent component of learning.  Learning goal oriented environments stress personal goals, internal comparisons, and a focus on past performance as a frame of reference.  In contrast, educational practices that encourage normative ability social comparisons (comparisons that highlight and accentuate competency differences) are believed to foster performance goal orientations and associated maladaptive learner behaviors. Classroom and school incentive systems, which specify how students are evaluated and how rewards (e.g., grades, praise) are distributed, can have a significant impact on a student’s adoption of a specific academic goal orientation.
  • The reader is referred to Covington (2002) for a summary of the research on the two major categories of classroom incentive structures (ability vs. equity game structures).
  • Recently, some goal achievement research has differentiated between two subtypes of performance goal orientation.  Performance-  approach goals are hypothesized to be present when a student’s purpose for learning is focused on demonstrating their competence and abilities.  Performance-approach orientations have been associated with both adaptive and maladaptive learning outcomes.  It is hypothesized that for some students, a focus on doing better than others and publicly demonstrating their competence (performance- approach) can contribute to higher levels of motivation, task engagement, and academic success, particularly when the student also displays intrinsic interest in the task.  However, there is disagreement in the field regarding the positive and negative consequences of a performance-avoidance goal orientation (Eccles & Wigfield, 2002).  A performance- avoidance goal orientation is present when a student’s purpose or goal for achievement is to avoid the demonstration of incompetence (i.e., avoid looking stupid). Performance- avoidance goals have been linked with maladaptive educational and behavioral outcomes.
  • Developmental research has revealed significant differences and changes in a student’s goal orientation over time, largely in response to students adapting to new environments.  In general, the developmental goal orientation research literature suggests that changes occur more as a function of changing learning environment, and not enduring personality traits (Anderman et al., 2000).