January 26, 2021

Mastery- vs Performance-Oriented Goals and Their influence on Motivation and Success

by Michelle Ha, PharmD, PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, Baptist Memorial Hospital-North Mississippi

Many of us are familiar with setting goals: short-term, long-term, professional, and personal. But do ever think about your goal orientation? The concept of goal orientation was developed by psychologists in the 1980s and explains the mindset that an individual has when developing and achieving goals. There are two primary ways one can approach goals: mastery or performance.

Learners who have a mastery-orientation focus on learning to perform better in the real world – for example, learning in order to become more skillful at taking care of patients. Learners who have a performance orientation focus on demonstrating competence relative to others – for example, performing well on exams, getting high marks on performance evaluations, and (in general) looking smart in front of others. In other words, those who set mastery-oriented goals tend to compete with themselves, and satisfaction is based on internal factors. Those who have performance-oriented goals are primarily motivated by external feedback and validation.1,2

Summary of Mastery vs Performance-Oriented Goals.3



More likely to be intrinsically motivated

More likely to be extrinsically motivated

Seek feedback that accurately describes their abilities and helps them improve

Seek feedback that flatters them

Choose tasks that maximize opportunities for learning and seek out challenges

Choose tasks that maximize opportunities for demonstrating competence and avoid tasks that make them look incompetent

Views errors as a normal part of learning and uses errors to improve

Views errors as a sign of failure and incompetence

Satisfied with performance as long as they make progress

Satisfied only if they succeed

Views teacher as a resource

Views teacher as a judge, rewarder, or punisher

Goal orientation is important because it influences one's motivation and selection of learning strategies. Goal setting starts at a young age - regardless if you were aware of it or not. Thus, many people are unaware of the impact that their goal orientation has on their performance in school and life.

Imagine you have two students in your class: Marcus and Marilyn.

Marcus wants to perform well in school. He studies hard and would like to earn an “A” in pharmacology. He pushes himself hard to make his parents proud. However, he sometimes worries about whether he'll get an "A", failing to live up to his parents' expectations, and looking incompetent in front of the teacher/preceptor. He knows what learning methods work best for him and does not want to try other studying strategies. When he performs poorly on an exam, he submits challenges to the instructor in order to “get” points, even if he really didn’t understand the concepts that well. Although Marcus nearly always meets his goals, he beats himself up when he falls a bit short.

On the other hand, Marilyn enjoys the process of learning. She goes beyond the expectations set by the instructor in her pharmacology course and seeks out outside opportunities to learn more about the topic. While getting an “A” in the course would be great, she’s not too worried about the grade, so long as she’s learning new things she feels are important to her future career. She is most happy when she meets her personal goals and continues to strive to do better each day. When she struggles to learn about a concept, she seeks help and tries new strategies, and uses new resources.  When she performs poorly on an exam, she seeks help from the instructor and signs up for tutoring help. Although Marilyn nearly always meets her goals, she knows that stretching herself and falling short is part of the process.

A person can have both mastery and performance-orientations.  Indeed, most people don’t fall exclusively in one camp or the other and their orientation can be different in different circumstances and courses. However, researchers have found that mastery-oriented goals are more effective in terms of student motivation. Satisfaction is not related to external factors. Performance goals are often helpful in the short-term; however, they may stifle a student growing to their full potential.

Back to our example, Marcus' goal was to make an A in pharmacology. Once he believes he’s achieved this goal in the class, he may be less motivated and prefer to “coast” through the rest of the course. "I've made As on the last three exams and as long as I get at least 67 points on the final, I’ll still get an A." In his mind, his success is determined by his grades. If Marcus ends up with a B in the course, he’ll probably avoid taking the pharmacology elective for fear he won’t do well and his GPA will be negatively impacted.  In contrast, for Marilyn, if she gets an A on the first 3 exams in pharmacology, she will continue to study hard and may even continue to seek out opportunities to learn more after the course has ended. If she falls short of a good grade in her pharmacology course, Marilyn might sign up for the pharmacology elective in order “to get better” at something she feels is critical to her success. The factors that move her forward are internal and within her control. Thus, it is easier for Marilyn to stay resilient and adapt during times of struggle. Marilyn experiences less anxiety and stress when she falls short.

To examine the influence of goal orientation on motivation, one study evaluated how students responded to negative feedback. The investigators used a simulation game. Prior to participating in the simulation, each student’s orientation was measured using a multi-item scale adapted from Ames and Archer (1998). Students then completed a Marketing Management Experience, where they manage a simulated company and competed against other groups. Learning implies a change in behavior which was measured by comparing the survey results over time. While both mastery and performance-oriented students performed well during this simulation, those in the mastery-oriented goal group tended to take negative feedback better. In the performance-oriented goal group, some of the students develop a learned behavior known as "learned helplessness". This is a term that describes the reaction to failure that reduces the desire to place oneself in that circumstance again. 

In another study, researchers surveyed medical, pharmacy, and veterinary students. The students completed a series of surveys at the beginning of 5 consecutive semesters that measured their mastery orientation, performance orientation, and self-efficacy. While most students were stable in terms of their goal orientation, there were some differences between students based on their gender, grades, and self-efficacy. Self-efficacy was the biggest predictor of those who adopted mastery-oriented goals. Self-efficacy is the strength of a student's belief in their ability to complete a task.5

Self-efficacy in itself is another important concept!  In brief, it is a good predictor of motivation and learning, especially in health professional students and practitioners. Someone with a high level of self-efficacy can visualize a positive outcome and is more likely to perform well in their daily duties such as delivering patient care. The ability to adapt and remain resilient in times of unexpected setbacks is also more easily managed among those with a high level of self-efficacy.6

Marilyn, our student who is focused on learning and improvement, is the ideal student. However, it is not an innate trait. Mastery-orientation to learning can be taught and cultivated! As educators, we must encourage students to approach their learning with mastery-oriented goals in mind. Because self-efficacy and mastery-oriented goals go hand in hand, it is important to give students a choice when assigning learning activities.  Asking students to think about how their learning activities link to their careers will increase the likelihood of students developing mastery-oriented goals.1,7 Allowing students to make choices and linking those choices to career aspirations will help students feel autonomous and motivated to learn.7 Below is a list of other things that you may wish to try in the classroom to foster a mastery-oriented mindset.7 

  1. Be a role model for students. Show them that you have made mistakes but have learned from them instead of hiding them or avoiding them.
  2. Give positive, constructive feedback that focuses on personal improvement. Focus less on grades and more on mastering the skill or concept.
  3. Don’t compare the student’s performance to peers. Emphasize growth.  Compare the student's performance to previous performance.
  4. Foster a community of trust within the classroom so that students are more likely to seek help from peers and you.

While students with performance-oriented goals are no less likely to get good grades, they may be less likely to develop life-long learning habits. Mastery-oriented goal-setters strive for improvement daily and want to become better even if that means venturing through unknown challenges. Students who approach their goals as an opportunity to master something will be the ones who love what they do and are motivated to learn more. Instilling a mastery-oriented mindset in your students will groom them for a future of success.


  1. Donald B. Stanford psychologist: Achievement goals can be shaped by environment [Internet]. Stanford University. 2012 [cited 2021 Jan 11].
  2. Bråten I, Strømsø HI. Epistemological beliefs and implicit theories of intelligence as predictors of achievement goals. Contemporary Educational Psychology. 2004 Oct;29(4):371–88.
  1. Mastery Vs Performance Goals. [Internet] Western Oregon University. [cited 11 January 2021].
  1. Gentry JW, Dickinson JR, Burns AC, Mcginnis L, Park JY. The role of learning versus performance orientations when reacting to negative outcomes in simulation games. Association for Business Simulation and Experiential Learning. 2006;33.
  1. Kool A, Mainhard T, Brekelmans M, van Beukelen P, Jaarsma D. Goal orientations of health profession students throughout the undergraduate program: a multilevel study. BMC Med Educ. 2016 Dec;16(1):100.
  1. Zamani-Alavijeh F, Araban M, Harandy TF, Bastami F, Almasian M. Sources of health care providers’ Self-efficacy to deliver Health Education: a qualitative study. BMC Med Educ. Jan 2019;19(1):16.
  2. Svinicki M. Fostering a Mastery Goal Orientation in the Classroom [Internet]. Austin; 2010 [cited 2021 Jan 23]. p. 25-28.