Achievement orientation

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Achievement orientation refers to how an individual interprets and reacts to tasks, resulting in different patterns of cognition, affect and behavior.[1] Developed within a social-cognitive framework, achievement goal theory proposes that students’ motivation and achievement-related behaviors can be understood by considering the reasons or purposes they adopt while engaged in academic work.[2] The focus is on how students think about themselves, their tasks, and their performance.[3] In general, an individual can be said to be “mastery” or “performance” oriented, based on whether one's goal is to develop one's ability or to demonstrate one's ability, respectively.[4] Achievement orientations have been shown to be associated with individuals’ academic achievement, adjustment, and well-being.[5][6][7]

Brief history[edit]

Research on achievement motivation can be traced back to the 1940s following the seminal work of David McClelland and colleagues who established the link between achievement and motivations (see need for achievement). Students’ achievement orientations were shown to be predictive of academic performance, specifically, students with high achievement orientation tended to value competence, expect success and seek challenges, while students with low achievement motivation tended to expect failure and avoid challenges.[8]

In an effort to better understand the mechanisms underlying achievement, personality and social psychology researchers expanded McClelland's work by examining how cognitive representations shape social experiences. Personality researchers have explored aspects of achievement motivation as an aspect of identity,[9] whereas social psychologists have focused on the thought patterns that arise across various contexts.[10]

Two-factor model[edit]

Significant research and a consistent pattern of results have demonstrated that an individual's achievement orientation in a particular domain can be characterized by one of two distinct achievement profiles: mastery orientation or performance orientation.

Mastery orientation[edit]

A mastery orientation is characterized by the belief that success is the result of effort and use of the appropriate strategies. Mastery oriented individuals strive to develop their understanding and competence at a task by exerting a high level of effort. Across numerous studies, mastery orientation has been shown to promote adaptive patterns of learning, which ultimately lead to high academic achievement and adjustment.[11] For example, students with a mastery orientation are more intrinsically motivated to learn, use deeper cognitive strategies, and persist through challenge and failure.[12][13][14]

Performance orientation[edit]

A performance orientation is characterized by the belief that success is the result of superior ability and of surpassing one's peers.[15] Performance oriented individuals desire to outperform others and demonstrate (validate) their ability.[15] Performance orientation is predictive of negative affect, avoidance of challenge and poor achievement outcomes.[12][13][14]

Four-factor model[edit]

More recent conceptualizations of achievement orientation have added an additional element. The traditional mastery and performance orientations are broken down to include approach and avoidance components,[16][17] resulting in four distinct achievement profiles: mastery-approach, mastery-avoidance, performance-approach, and performance-avoidance.

A mastery-approach orientation describes individuals who are focused on learning as much as possible, overcoming challenges through hard work, or increasing their competence at a task.[18]

A mastery-avoidance orientation describes individuals who want to avoid doing worse than they have done before or failing to learn as much as possible.[18]

A performance-approach orientation describes individuals who want to demonstrate and prove to others their high ability.[18]

A performance-avoidance orientation describes individuals who strive to avoid looking incompetent, or less able than their peers by cultivating an appearance of effortless achievement.[18][19][20]

Implicit theories of intelligence[edit]

Epistemological beliefs of intelligence refer to an individual's belief about the nature of intellectual ability, specifically, is intelligence a fixed characteristic, or is it a malleable quality? Individuals conceptions of intelligence have been shown to influence cognitive and motivational factors associated with achievement orientation and ultimately academic performance.[21]


If an individual has an entity (also referred to as “fixed”) view of intelligence, they believe that intelligence is an unchanging characteristic and are more likely to think effort plays little to no role in outcome. In other words, you are either smart, or you are not. This is particularly maladaptive in academia. Students believe that effort is unnecessary because if you are smart, everything should come easy, and if you are not smart, hard work cannot compensate for this deficiency. Students with an entity view of intelligence are more likely to develop a fear of failure,[21][22] resulting in the avoidance of “intellectual tasks,” [13] and giving up in the face of difficulty. The rationale is that if you are smart, effort is unnecessary, and if you are not, there is nothing you can do to change this.


In opposition to entity theory, individuals with an incremental (also referred to as “flexible,” and “malleable”) view of intelligence believe that intelligence is adjustable. The belief is that intelligence is the result of hard work and the use of the appropriate strategies. This is particularly adaptive because rather than giving up in the face of failure or challenge, those who endorse an incremental view of intelligence interpret these setbacks as inevitable for learning to take place. Because they are not worried that exertion of effort is a reflection of lack of intelligence, they are not afraid to work hard, resulting in an outperformance of their entity theory peers. Even after several years, the effect is consistent, such that students with an incremental view of intelligence academically outperform students who had an entity view of intelligence.[23]


Mindset refers to an individual's belief about oneself and one's most basic qualities, such as talent, intelligence, and personality. Although the majority of research on mindsets has focused primarily on how they affect educational achievement,[24][25] mindsets have also been shown to be influential in athletics, health and well-being, business and relationships.


Fixed mindsets are characterized by the belief that one's basic qualities are fixed – as if genetically predetermined. Individuals with fixed mindsets believe that practice has no relationship to performance success, which has been shown to be maladaptive across domains.[24][25]


Growth mindsets are characterized by the belief that talents and abilities are things that are developed through effort, practice and instruction. Individuals with growth mindsets feel that they control their success, rather than external forces, so they are better able to problem solve and persist through setbacks. Research has shown that growth mindsets foster a more positive attitude toward practice and learning, a desire for feedback, a greater ability to deal with setbacks, and significantly better performance over time.[24][25]

Why foster a growth mindset in students?

Dweck (2010) explains, when students view intelligence as something that develops over time they view challenging work as an opportunity to learn and grow. These students value effort and realize that “even geniuses have to work hard to develop their abilities and make their contributions” (p. 16). Students with this type of attitude are able to respond to obstacles, try new strategies and continue to learn and grow in many situations, which leads to higher achievement.[25]

How to foster to a growth mindset in students

In order to foster a growth mindset, teachers need to encourage students to welcome challenges and view it as an opportunity to learn and grow .[24] The following are a list of ways a teacher can create a culture of risk taking:

  • Provide encouragement: praise students for their perseverance, strategies and the choices they made, rather than being told they are ‘smart’ as it tells students that what they did has led them to success and can be used again to be successful in the future[24][25]
  • Emphasize that the deepest and best learning takes time: "…portray challenges as fun and exciting and easy tasks as boring and less useful for the brain" [24] (p. 17). Students who work hard and value effort in the learning process will be able to develop their abilities on a deeper level.[24]
  • Illustrate growth: provide students with opportunities to write about, and share with one another, something that they used to struggle with and are now good at doing.[24] This allows students to notice their own successes, which motivates their learning.[25]

Long term success of growth mindset

Designing and presenting learning tasks that foster a growth mindset in students, leads to long-term success.[24] Growth mindsets promote a love of learning and highlight progress and effort. Teachers that illustrate meaningful work help students gain the tools they need to find confidence in their learning and be successful in future challenges.[25]

Influencing factors[edit]

Achievement orientations have been shown to be influenced by a combination of cognitive-motivational and contextual factors.


One factor that has been shown to be influential in the development of achievement orientations is the type of praise given to individuals.[26] Type of praise not only affects behaviors, beliefs, emotions and outcomes immediately after it is imparted, but has also been shown to have long term consequences. Specifically, it affects how individuals deal with future difficulties and their willingness to apply effort to challenges that may come their way.[27][28][29] Verbal praise is often administered as a way to reinforce the performance or behavior of individuals and although there may be positive intentions, some types of praise can have debilitating implications for the recipient. The specific distinction lies in what the praise is directed towards.

Process praise is focused on the actions taken by the individual, especially their effort and problem solving strategies, such as “Great job! You’re working really hard.” Process praise reinforces the association between success and effort (or behavior) rather than a fixed ability, which cultivates the more adaptive mastery orientation and incremental view of intelligence.[21]

Person praise is focused on the individual themselves, similar to an affirmation of self-worth, such as, “Wow, you’re so smart.” Because it applauds the individual by applying a label or an unchangeable characteristic, person praise promotes a performance orientation and a fixed view of intelligence. Students are being rewarded, through praise, for their performance based on their ability. Children who are given person praise tend to have worse task performance, more low-ability attributions, report less task enjoyment and exhibit less task persistence, than children who are given process praise.[21] Additionally, person praise is more likely to promote helpless responses to subsequent failures than process praise.[22]

Although praise for intelligence is usually well-intentioned, and can be motivating when students are doing well, it backfires when students eventually face work that is difficult for them. When this happens, the failure is a threat to the person's sense of his or her own intelligence—a situation to avoid. Thus, praise for intelligence is a short-term strategy that makes successful students feel good at the moment, but one that is detrimental to students in the longer run.


Age is a significant factor in predicting an individual's achievement orientation, with younger individuals more likely to adopt a mastery orientation.[30][31] Beginning at the transition to middle school, students tend to exhibit a performance orientation, along with an overall decline in academic motivation across adolescence.[32] This follows the developmental propensity to view intelligence as a fixed characteristic in adulthood.[33]


Supporting the gender disparities in STEM fields, previous research has suggested that females develop a motivational orientation that is maladaptive to high academic achievement, particularly in math and science.[34] However, overall, the research examining gender differences in achievement orientation has been conflicting. Research by Carol Dweck has shown gender differences with females being more extrinsic or performance oriented. On the other hand, other studies have found that females are more likely to be mastery oriented, while males are more likely to hold performance orientations.[35]

Despite the lack of uniformity among research findings, there is a general consensus that gender influences the development of different rationales and motivations for behavior, as a result of unique socialization expectations and experiences.[35] These differences then affect the way students approach learning situations, leading to gender-related differences in achievement orientations.[36] Although several studies have hypothesized this effect, there is a lack of conclusive evidence, which warrants further exploration into gender differences among individuals’ achievement orientations.

Parents and peers[edit]

Social influences, particularly parents and peers, affect the achievement orientation of students. During early and middle childhood, the achievement beliefs, attitudes and expectations of a child's parents carries significant weight in determining his or her achievement orientation.[37][38] As children transition to middle school, fitting in with one's peers becomes high priority. Peers influence achievement orientation because children adopt academic goals and beliefs consistent with the dominant social norms. Adolescents with friends having high academic aspirations tend to have fewer problems academically.[38]


Achievement orientations play a critical role in explaining academic performance. An individual's achievement orientation has a significant impact on his or her cultivation of new skills, and thus has important implications for educators. Classroom environments that foster comparison between students lead those students to develop performance-oriented attitudes toward education. Specifically, learning in a competitive environment leads students to become more performance oriented and more likely to sacrifice learning opportunities to be positively evaluated. Conversely, a non-competitive, collaborative environment allows students to value learning rather than immediate performance success.[39]

See also[edit]


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