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Goals, Interests and Attributions

Module by: Lisa White-McNulty. E-mail the author

Motives as Goals

One way motives vary is by the kind of goals that students set for themselves, and by how the goals support students’ academic achievement. As you might suspect, some goals encourage academic achievement more than others, but even motives that do not concern academics explicitly tend to affect learning indirectly.

Goals that contribute to achievement

What kinds of achievement goals do students hold? Imagine three individuals, Maria, Sara, and Lindsay, who are taking algebra together. Maria’s main concern is to learn the material as well as possible because she finds it interesting and because she believes it will be useful to her in later courses, perhaps at university. Hers is a mastery goal because she wants primarily to learn or master the material. Sara, however, is concerned less about algebra than about getting top marks on the exams and in the course. Hers is a performance goal because she is focused primarily on looking successful; learning algebra is merely a vehicle for performing well in the eyes of peers and teachers. Lindsay, for her part, is primarily concerned about avoiding a poor or failing mark. Hers is a performance-avoidance goal because she is not really as concerned about learning algebra, as Maria is, or about competitive success, as Sara is; she is simply intending to avoid failure.

Example 1

Click Here for a short narrated Powerpoint . This narrated PowerPoint explains the differences between Mastery and Performance Goals, and their influence on student learning and motivation. Click Here to download the narration as a pdf file . By Kim Hardwick, Whitney Powell, and Erika Robinson (2011).

Source: Orey (2010).

As you might imagine, mastery and performance goals often are not experienced in pure form, but in combinations. If you play the clarinet in the school band, you might want to improve your technique simply because you enjoy playing as well as possible—essentially a mastery orientation. But you might also want to look talented in the eyes of classmates—a performance orientation. Another part of what you may wish, at least privately, is to avoid looking like a complete failure at playing the clarinet. One of these motives may predominate over the others, but they all may be present.

Mastery goals tend to be associated with enjoyment of learning the material at hand, and in this sense represent an outcome that teachers often seek for students. By definition therefore they are a form of intrinsic motivation. As such mastery goals have been found to be better than performance goals at sustaining students’ interest in a subject. In one review of research about learning goals, for example, students with primarily mastery orientations toward a course they were taking not only tended to express greater interest in the course, but also continued to express interest well beyond the official end of the course, and to enroll in further courses in the same subject (Harackiewicz, et al., 2002; Wolters, 2004).

Performance goals , on the other hand, imply extrinsic motivation, and tend to show the mixed effects of this orientation. A positive effect is that students with a performance orientation do tend to get higher grades than those who express primarily a mastery orientation. The advantage in grades occurs both in the short term (with individual assignments) and in the long term (with overall grade point average when graduating). But there is evidence that performance oriented students do not actually learn material as deeply or permanently as students who are more mastery oriented (Midgley, Kaplan, & Middleton, 2001). A possible reason is that measures of performance—such as test scores—often reward relatively shallow memorization of information and therefore guide performance-oriented students away from processing the information thoughtfully or deeply. Another possible reason is that a performance orientation, by focusing on gaining recognition as the best among peers, encourages competition among peers. Giving and receiving help from classmates is thus not in the self-interest of a performance-oriented student, and the resulting isolation limits the student’s learning.

Social goals

Most students need and value relationships, both with classmates and with teachers, and often (though not always) they get a good deal of positive support from the relationships. But the effects of social relationships are complex, and at times can work both for and against academic achievement. If a relationship with the teacher is important and reasonably positive, then the student is likely to try pleasing the teacher by working hard on assignments (Dowson & McInerney, 2003). Note, though, that this effect is closer to performance than mastery; the student is primarily concerned about looking good to someone else. If, on the other hand, a student is especially concerned about relationships with peers, the effects on achievement depend on the student’s motives for the relationship, as well as on peers’ attitudes. Desiring to be close to peers personally may lead a student to ask for help from, and give help to peers—a behavior that may support higher achievement, at least up to a point. But desiring to impress peers with skills and knowledge may lead to the opposite: as we already mentioned, the competitive edge of such a performance orientation may keep the student from collaborating, and in this indirect way reduce a student’s opportunities to learn. The abilities and achievement motivation of peers themselves can also make a difference, but once again the effects vary depending on the context. Low achievement and motivation by peers affects an individual’s academic motivation more in elementary school than in high school, more in learning mathematics than learning to read, and more if there is a wide range of abilities in a classroom than if there is a more narrow range (Burke & Sass, 2006).

In spite of these complexities, social relationships are valued so highly by most students that teachers should generally facilitate them, though also keep an eye on their nature and their consequent effects on achievement. Many assignments can be accomplished productively in groups, for example, as long as the groups are formed thoughtfully, group tasks are chosen wisely, and all members’ contributions are recognized as fully as possible. Relationships can also be supported with activities that involve students or adults from another class or from outside the school, as often happens with school or community service projects. These can provide considerable social satisfaction and can sometimes be connected to current curriculum needs (Butin, 2005). But the majority of students’ social contacts are likely always to come from students’ own initiatives with each other in simply taking time to talk and interact. The teacher’s job is to encourage these informal contacts, especially when they happen at times that support rather than interfere with learning.

Encouraging mastery goals

Even though a degree of performance orientation may be inevitable in school because of the mere presence of classmates, it does not have to take over students’ academic motivation completely. Teachers can encourage mastery goals in various ways, and should in fact do so because a mastery orientation leads to more sustained, thoughtful learning, at least in classrooms, where classmates may sometimes debate and disagree with each other (Darnon, Butera, & Harackiewicz, 2006).

How can teachers do so? One way is to allow students to choose specific tasks or assignments for themselves, where possible, because their choices are more likely than usual to reflect prior personal interests , and hence be motivated more intrinsically than usual. The limitation of this strategy, of course, is that students may not see some of the connections between their prior interests and the curriculum topics at hand. In that case it also helps for the teacher to look for and point out the relevance of current topics or skills to students’ personal interests and goals.

Suppose, for example, that a student enjoys the latest styles of music. This interest may actually have connections with a wide range of school curriculum, such as:

  • biology (because of the physiology of the ear and of hearing)
  • physics or general science (because of the nature of musical acoustics)
  • history (because of changes in musical styles over time)
  • English (because of relationships of musical lyrics and themes with literary themes)
  • world languages (because of comparisons of music and songs among cultures)

Still another way to encourage mastery orientation is to focus on students’ individual effort and improvement as much as possible, rather than on comparing students’ successes to each other. You can encourage this orientation by giving students detailed feedback about how they can improve performance, or by arranging for students to collaborate on specific tasks and projects rather than to compete about them, and in general by showing your own enthusiasm for the subject at hand.

Motives as interests

In addition to holding different kinds of goals—with consequent differences in academic motivation—students show obvious differences in levels of interest in the topics and tasks of the classroom. Suppose that two high school classmates, Frank and Jason, both are taking chemistry, and specifically learning how to balance chemical equations. Frank finds the material boring and has to force himself to study it; as a result he spends only the time needed to learn the basic material and to complete the assignments at a basic level. Jason, on the other hand, enjoys the challenges of balancing chemical equations. He thinks of the task as an intriguing puzzle; he not only solves each of them, but also compares the problems to each other as he goes through them.

Frank’s learning is based on effort compared to Jason’s, whose learning is based more fully on interest. As the example implies, when students learn from interest they tend to devote more attention to the topic than if they learn from effort (Hidi & Renninger, 2006). The finding is not surprising since interest is another aspect of intrinsic motivation —energy or drive that comes from within. A distinction between effort and interest is often artificial, however, because the two motives often get blended or combined in students’ personal experiences. Most of us can remember times when we worked at a skill that we enjoyed and found interesting, but that also required effort to learn. The challenge for teachers is therefore to draw on and encourage students’ interest as much as possible, and thus keep the required effort within reasonable bounds—neither too hard nor too easy.

Situational interest versus personal interest

Students’ interests vary in how deeply or permanently they are located within students. Situational interests are ones that are triggered temporarily by features of the immediate situation. Unusual sights, sounds, or words can stimulate situational interest. A teacher might show an interesting image on the overhead projector, or play a brief bit of music, or make a surprising comment in passing. At a more abstract level, unusual or surprising topics of discussion can also arouse interest when they are first introduced. Personal interests are relatively permanent preferences of the student, and are usually expressed in a variety of situations. In the classroom, a student may (or may not) have a personal interest in particular topics, activities, or subject matter. Outside class, though, he or she usually has additional personal interests in particular non-academic activities (e.g. sports, music) or even in particular people (a celebrity, a friend who lives nearby). The non-academic personal interests may sometimes conflict with academic interest; it may be more interesting to go to the shopping mall with a friend than to study even your most favorite subject.

Benefits of personal interest

In general, personal interest in an academic topic or activity tends to correlate with achievement related to the topic or activity. As you might suppose, a student who is truly interested is more likely to focus on the topic or activity more fully, to work at it for longer periods, to use more thoughtful strategies in learning—and to enjoy doing so (Hidi, 2001; Hidi & Renninger, 2006). Small wonder that the student achieves more! Note, though, a persistent ambiguity about this benefit: it is often not clear whether personal interest leads to higher achievement, or higher achievement leads to stronger interest. Either possibility seems plausible. Research to sort them out, however, has suggested that at least some of the influence goes in the direction from interest to achievement; when elementary students were given books from which to learn about a new topic, for example, they tended to learn more from books which they chose themselves than from books that were simply assigned (Reynolds & Symons, 2001). So interest seemed to lead to learning. But this conclusion does not rule out its converse, that achievement may stimulate interest as well. As Joe learns more about history, he steadily finds history more interesting; as McKenzie learns more about biology, she gradually wants to learn more of it.

Stimulating situational interests

If a student has little prior personal interest in a topic or activity, the teacher is faced with stimulating initial, situational interest, in hopes that the initial interest will gradually become more permanent and personal. There are a number of strategies for meeting this challenge:

  • It helps to include surprises in your comments and in classroom activities from time to time: tell students facts that are true but counter-intuitive, for example, or demonstrate a science experiment that turns out differently than students expect (Guthrie, Wigfield, & Humenick, 2006).
  • It also helps to relate new material to students’ prior experiences even if their experiences are not related to academics or to school directly. The concepts of gravitation and acceleration, for example, operate every time a ball is hit or thrown in a softball game. If this connection is pointed out to a student who enjoys playing a lot of softball, the concepts can make concepts more interesting.
  • It helps to encourage students to respond to new material actively. By having students talk about the material together, for example, students can begin making their own connections to prior personal interests, and the social interaction itself helps to link the material to their personal, social interests as well.

A caution: seductive details

Even though it is important to stimulate interest in new material somehow, it is also possible to mislead or distract students accidentally by adding inappropriate, but stimulating features to new material (Garner, et al., 1992; Harp & Mayer, 1998). Distractions happen a number of ways, such as any of these among others:

  • deliberately telling jokes in class
  • using colorful illustrations or pictures
  • adding interesting bits of information to a written or verbal explanation

When well chosen, all of these moves can indeed arouse students’ interest in a new topic. But if they do not really relate to the topic at hand, they may simply create misunderstandings or prevent students from focusing on key material. As with most other learning processes, however, there are individual differences among students in distractability, students who are struggling, and are more prone to distraction and misunderstanding than students who are already learning more successfully (Sanchez & Wiley, 2006). On balance the best advice is probably therefore to use strategies to arouse situational interest , but to assess students’ responses to them continually and as honestly as possible. The key issue is whether students seem to learn because of stimulating strategies that you provide, or in spite of them.

Motives related to attributions

Attributions are perceptions about the causes of success and failure. Suppose that you get a low mark on a test and are wondering what caused the low mark. You can construct various explanations for—make various attributions about—this failure. Maybe you did not study very hard; maybe the test itself was difficult; maybe you were unlucky; maybe you just are not smart enough. Each explanation attributes the failure to a different factor. The explanations that you settle upon may reflect the truth accurately—or then again, they may not. What is important about attributions is that they reflect personal beliefs about the sources or causes of success and failure. As such, they tend to affect motivation in various ways, depending on the nature of the attribution (Weiner, 2005).

Locus, stability, and controllability

Attributions vary in three underlying ways: locus, stability, and controllability. Locus of an attribution is the location (figuratively speaking) of the source of success or failure. If you attribute a top score on a test to your ability or to having studied hard, then the locus is internal; that is, being smart and studying are factors within you. If you attribute the score to the test’s having easy questions, then the locus is external; in other words, your success is due to something outside of you. The stability of an attribution is its relative permanence. If you attribute the score to your ability, then the source of success is relatively stable— by definition, ability is a relatively lasting quality. If you attribute a top score to the effort you put in to studying, then the source of success is unstable— effort can vary and has to be renewed on each occasion or else it disappears. The controllability of an attribution is the extent to which the individual can influence it. If you attribute a top score to your effort at studying, then the source of success is relatively controllable— you can influence effort simply by deciding how much to study. But if you attribute the score to simple luck, then the source of the success is uncontrollable— there is nothing that can influence random chance.

Note: Attributions in green are uncontrollable; attributions in purple are controllable. (Weiner, 1992)
Attributions for Success and Failure
Attributions for Success and Failure       (graphics1.png)

As you might suspect, the way that these attributions combine affects students’ academic motivations in major ways. It usually helps both motivation and achievement if a student attributes academic successes and failures to factors that are internal and controllable, such as effort or a choice to use particular learning strategies (Dweck, 2000). Attributing successes to factors that are internal but stable or controllable (like ability), on the other hand, is both a blessing and a curse: sometimes it can create optimism about prospects for future success (“I always do well”), but it can also lead to indifference about correcting mistakes (Dweck, 2006), or even create pessimism if a student happens not to perform at the accustomed level (“Maybe I’m not as smart as I thought”). Worst of all for academic motivation are attributions, whether stable or not, related to external factors. Believing that performance depends simply on luck (“The teacher was in a bad mood when marking”) or on excessive difficulty of material removes incentive for a student to invest in learning. All in all, then, it seems important for teachers to encourage internal, controllable attributions about success.

Influencing students’ attributions

How can they do so? One way or another, the effective strategies involve framing teachers’ own explanations of success and failure around internal, controllable factors. Instead of telling a student: “Good work! You’re smart!”, try saying: “Good work! Your effort really made a difference, didn’t it?” If a student fails, instead of saying,“Too bad! This material is just too hard for you,” try saying, “Let’s find a strategy for practicing this more, and then you can try again.” In both cases the first option emphasizes uncontrollable factors (effort, difficulty level), and the second option emphasizes internal, controllable factors (effort, use of specific strategies).

Such attributions will only be convincing, however, if teachers provide appropriate conditions for students to learn—conditions in which students’ efforts really do pay off. There are three conditions that have to be in place in particular. First, academic tasks and materials actually have to be at about the right level of difficulty. If you give problems in advanced calculus to a first-grade student, the student will not only fail them but also be justified in attributing the failure to an external factor, task difficulty. If assignments are assessed in ways that produce highly variable, unreliable marks, then students will rightly attribute their performance to an external, unstable source: luck. Both circumstances will interfere with motivation.

Second, teachers also need to be ready to give help to individuals who need it—even if they believe that an assignment is easy enough or clear enough that students should not need individual help. Readiness to help is always essential because it is often hard to know in advance exactly how hard a task will prove to be for particular students. Without assistance, a task that proves difficult initially may remain difficult indefinitely, and the student will be tempted to make unproductive, though correct, attributions about his or her failure (“I will never understand this”, “I’m not smart enough”, or “It doesn’t matter how hard I study”).

Third, teachers need to remember that ability—usually considered a relatively stable factor—often actually changes incrementally over the long term. Recognizing this fact is one of the best ways to bring about actual increases in students’ abilities (Blackwell, Trzniewski, & Dweck, 2007; Schunk, Pintrich, & Meese, 2008). A middle-years student might play the trumpet in the school band at a high level of ability, but this ability actually reflects a lot of previous effort and a gradual increase in ability. A second grade student who reads fluently, in this sense may have high current ability to read; but at some point in the distant past that same student could not read as well, and even further back he may not have been able to read at all. The increases in ability have happened at least in part because of effort. While these ideas may seem obvious, they can easily be forgotten in the classroom because effort and ability evolve according to very different time frames. Effort and its results appear relatively immediately; a student expends effort this week, this day, or even at this very moment, and the effort (if not the results) are visible right away. But ability may take longer to show itself; a student often develops it only over many weeks, months, or years.

Further Resources Achievement Goals: Overview

References

Blackwell, L., Trzniewski, K., & Dweck, C. (2007). Implicit theories predict achievement across an adolescent transition: a longitudinal study. Child Development, 78, 246-263.

Burke, M. & Sass, T. (2006). Classroom peer effects and student achievement. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association, Boston, USA.

Butin, D. (2005). Service learning in higher education. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Darnon, C., Butera, F., & Harackiewicz, J. (2006). Achievement goals in social interactions: Learning with mastery versus performance goals. Motivation and Emotion, 31, 61-70.

Dweck, C. (2000). Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development. Philadelphia: Psychology Press.

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

Dowson, M. & McInerney, D. (2003). What do students say about their motivational goals? Toward a more complex and dynamic perspective on student motivation. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 28, 91-113.

Garner, R., Brown, R., Sanders, S. & Menke, D. (1992). “Seductive details” and learning from text. In A. Renninger, S. Hidi, & A. Krapp (Eds.), The role of interest in learning and development, pp. 239-254. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Guthrie, J., Wigfield, A., & Humenick, N. (2006). Influences of stimulating tasks on reading motivation and comprehension. Journal of Educational Research, 99, 232-245.

Harp, S. & Mayer, R. (1998). How seductive details do their damage. Journal of Educational Psychology, 90, 414-434.

Harackiewicz, J., Barron, K., Tauer, J., & Elliot, A. (2002). Short-term and long-term consequences of achievement goals. Journal of Educational Psychology, 92, 316-320.

Hidi, S. & Renninger, A. (2006). A four-phase model of interest development. Educational Psychology, 41, 111-127.

Midgley, C., Kaplan, A., & Middleton, M. (2001). Performance-approach goals: Good for what, for whom, and under what conditions, and at what cost? Journal of Educational Psychology, 93, 77-86.

Orey, M. (Ed.). (2010). Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved from http://dl.dropbox.com/u/31779972/Emerging%20Perspectives%20on%20Learning%2C%20Te aching%2C%20and%20Technology.pdf

Reynolds, P. & Symons, S. (2001). Motivational variables and children’s text search. Journal of Educational Psychology, 93, 14-22.

Sanchez, C. & Wiley, J. (2006). An examination of the seductive details effect in terms of working memory capacity. Memory and Cognition, 34, 344-355.

Schunk, D., Pintrich, P., Meese, J. (2008). Motivation in education: Theory, research and applications. New York: Pearson Professional.

Urdan, T. (2004). Predictors of self-handicapping and achievement: Examining achievement goals, classroom goal structures, and culture. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96, 251-254.

Weiner, B. (2005). Motivation from an attribution perspective and the social psychology of perceived competence. In A. Elliot & C. Dweck (Eds.), Handbook of Competence and Motivation, pp. 73-84. New York: Guilford Press.

Weiner, B. (1992). Human motivation. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Wolters, C. (2004). Advancing achievement goal theory: Using goal structures and goal orientations to predict students’ motivation, cognition, and achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96, 236-250.

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