Achievement Goal Orientation and Student Engagement: Expected and Unexpected Patterns

Achievement Goal Orientation and Student Engagement: Expected and Unexpected Patterns

Angie Miller

Earlier this year, the journal Motivation and Emotion published an article focusing on achievement goal orientation as a predictor of student engagement. This paper was authored by NSSE research scientist Angie Miller, along with former doctoral students Kyle Fassett and Dajane Palmer, and used experimental item data from the 2015 NSSE administration.


Achievement goal orientation has been studied within education for many years, but the practical implications are frequently focused on K-12 students and classrooms and less often applied to established concepts within higher education. Achievement goal orientation is a common construct within educational psychology (Elliot & Murayama, 2008), but not as well known within the higher education literature. Prior research has connected the construct to student achievement, along with stress and anxiety that accompany the learning of challenging new material.


This study uses achievement goal orientation as a context for exploring student engagement in postsecondary education. Specifically, these four types of achievement goal orientations were the focus:

  • mastery-approach, where the goal is attaining task-based or intrapersonal competence (i.e. learning as much about the topic as possible);
  • performance-approach, where the goal is attaining normative competence (i.e. getting a better grade than everyone else);
  • mastery-avoidance, where the goal is avoiding task-based or intrapersonal incompetence (i.e. not wanting to miss out on important information about a topic); and
  • performance-avoidance, where the goal is avoiding normative incompetence (i.e. not looking “stupid” in front of others)


Data were drawn from over 8500 first-year and senior college students across 15 higher education institutions participating in the 2015 National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), using an experimental item set that included a well-known measure of achievement goal orientation (the AGQ-R). A series of ordinary least squares regression analyses featured the 10 NSSE Engagement Indicators as outcome variables, as well as controlling for several student and institutional characteristics known to influence engagement. In general, the results suggested that achievement goal orientation is a good predictor of student engagement, although the type of orientation makes a difference in the pattern of the results.



The strong connection between mastery-approach and student engagement is consistent with previous research demonstrating students who set specific learning goals to master content are more likely to yield positive outcomes. This also supports the notion that rather than focusing on grades, students who focus on learning the content of the courses will have more positive educational experiences overall. In contrast, performance-avoidance orientation had either the opposite result or no significant relationship at all. In an attempt to “not look dumb,” students may be avoiding course material (e.g., reviewing and summarizing notes), certain courses which are deemed “too hard” (e.g., math-heavy classes), or even talking to faculty (so as not to say the “wrong” thing and expose their lack of knowledge). Regarding performance-avoidance, a recommendation for education professionals might be to convey a compassionate and empathetic attitude when it comes to interacting with students, especially those who might feel intimidated or out of place (such as first-generation students or students of color).


In the context of what is already known about the benefits of student engagement for the higher education experience, there are further implications when adding in the overall findings on achievement goal orientation. Instructors might promote mastery goals through encouraging positive self-talk, including tasks for students that are moderately challenging and inquiry-based, and allowing students to choose topics for open-ended assignments that are of personal interest. It may also be beneficial to consider policies that downplay grades in favor of ways that students can demonstrate interest and mastery of content. Reminding students that grades are not the sole reason for their academic experiences may be another important element of encouraging student engagement.


Miller, A. L., Fassett, K. T. & Palmer, D. L. (2021). Achievement goal orientation: A predictor of student engagement in higher education. Motivation and Emotion, 45, 327–344.