In 1984, John Nicholls, published a seminal work that would go on to be frequently cited by researchers in sport, educational, and organizational psychology (His work moved forward after his death through the efforts of his student, Joan Duda).  The premise is neatly packaged, and the accessibility in understanding his theory of achievement motivation has made the study of goal orientations a burgeoning enterprise in the classroom, boardroom, and on the athletic field/arena floor.   Goal orientations are part of an individual personal philosophy regarding the approach or avoidance of certain tasks based on the value of either self-improvement or the attainment of outcomes.  Here is a description of the two types, task and ego.Task/Mastery Orientation

  • focus on self-improvement
  • success is based on that type of improvement
  • learning is more important than the outcomes of the learning
  • Curious about tasks, desire to ‘get tasks done right’
  • Will often take on moderately difficult tasks

Ego/Outcome Orientation

  • focus on proving ability to others, rather than to the self
  • success is based on outcome attainment (high grades/rankings vs others)
  • outcomes matter more than learning the material (find the easy way to get the outcome)
  • Not curious about tasks, desire to ‘get the grade’ regardless of how well the task is done
  • Will often take on easy tasks to prove mastery

So which orientation is best for academic performance enhancement?  If you perceive your ability in classes to be high, use a combination of both.  That is, focus on mastery each task while using motivators such as grades to provide extra motivation.  However, if you receive your ability in classes to be low, focus on a task orientation to slowly build your confidence (because outcomes can often be out of your control).  Research has shown that people are more likely to believe themselves to be more competent in their endeavors, have higher self-esteem, enjoy their endeavors more, and persist longer in those endeavors when they have a task orientation (Atkins, Johnson, Force, & Petrie, 2015).  Thus, focus on the task orientation, and once you feel good about your performance in your classes, go for high outcomes!

Here’s a short article with more information about goal orientations:

Until the next entry, here’s to reaching your PEAK!