Main Reference:

Harackiewicz, J. M., Barron, K. E., Pintrich, P. R., Elliot, A. J., & Thrash, T. M. (2002). Revision of Achievement Goal Theory: Necessary and Illuminating, Journal of Educational Psychology, 94 (3), 638-645.


Performance goals focus on the comparison of your own performance to that of someone else (Pintrich, 2003). Performance goals can be separated into two distinct concepts: performance approach goals and performance avoidance goals.


This is where students aim to outperform others, through achieving higher grades and demonstrating their high ability (Pintrich, 2003). This has also been defined as directing behaviour towards positive stimuli, i.e. objects, events, possibilities (Elliot et al, 1999). Examples of performance-approach goals are: to impress others; to get high grades; to demonstrate high ability (Ames & Archer, 1988).


Avoidance goals focus on a negative object as the central motive for behaviour (Elliot & Harackiewicz, 1996). When demonstrating performance-avoidance, students worry about how they perform in comparison to others. They do not want to perform badly, or appear stupid or dumb (Pintrich, 2003). Therefore, they are motivated to avoid negative outcomes. Examples of avoidance goals are: to avoid looking dumb; to avoid low grades and to avoid failing.


Previously, performance goals have been liked to less favorable outcomes (Ames, 1992; Dweck & Leggett, 1988) however, others argue that not all performance goals are maladaptive (Pintrich , 2003, Harackiewicz et al, 2002).


Performance approach goals have been linked to positive outcomes (Pintrich, 2003) such as higher exam grades (Darnon et al, 2009; Elliot et al, 1999) and increased achievement and performance (Harackiewicz et al, 2002). It is believed that performance approach goals are the focus when, for example, a student is preparing for a test or competitively marked exam (Harackiewicz et al, 2002). Elliot et al (1999) propose that approach goals lead to persistence and effort, which produce good grades.

However, this is not completely supported within the literature. Midgely and colleagues (1997; 2001) concluded that performance approach goals were predictors of negative outcomes such as test anxiety (Middleton & Midgely, 1997) and the avoidance of help seeking (Ryan, Hicks & Midgely, 1997). Midgely et al (2001) argue that the gender, age and environment can influence the benefits that result from performance approach goals. Males benefit more from performance approach goals than females and older students benefit more than younger students. Dweck & Elliot (1983) claim that children are not negatively affected by performance approach goals. Midgley et al (2001) also suggest that competition, which is driven by performance approach goals, is good as long as students are high in another goal called mastery. Mastery is the drive to master, become skilled or completely understand something. They claim that performance approach goals have positive outcomes as long as mastery goals are dominant. Once performance approach goals overtake mastery goals, the outcome is less adaptive.


Performance avoidance goals have been linked to maladaptive outcomes (Ames, 1992). Dweck and Leggett (1988) suggest that the focus on ability undermines a students intrinsic motivation, thus, students miss the opportunity to develop and grow (Elliot, 2006). Performance avoidance has also been linked to reduced task involvement (Elliot and Harackiewicz, 1996); stress (Elliot & Sheldon, 1997; 1998); worry and distraction (Cury, Ellliot, Da Fonseca & Moller, 2006; Elliot & Harackiewicz, 1996).The disorganisation and test anxiety that occur as a result of performance avoidance lead to lower exam grades (Elliot et al, 1999). Performance avoidance does not seem to have any positive outcomes (Pintrich, 2003).

However, performance avoidance individuals have performed just as well when compared to individuals who have performance approach goals (Elliot and Harackiewicz, 1996). This implies that maybe the negative outcomes apply to coursework, rather than puzzles-which were used within Elliot and Harackiewicz, 1996, study. Although it is demonstrating that students perform just as well when performance avoiding, it doesn’t challenge the students on their knowledge. In an academic environment, students are tested on their ability to prove their knowledge and understanding, rather than on their ability to search for a word in a puzzle. Previous studies have focused on academic tasks such as oral presentations and exam grades, where performance avoidance goals produced negative effects. The puzzle activity could have influenced the conclusions made on this study, as puzzles could be perceived as fun.



Recommended Reading:

  1. Darnon, C., Butera, F., Mugny, G., Quiamzade, A., & Hulleman, C. S., (2009). “Too complex for me!” Why do performance-approach and performance-avoidance goals predict exam performance? European Journal of Psychology of Education, XXIV (4), 423-434.
  2. Elliot, A. J., (2006). The Hierarchical Model of Approach-Avoidance Motivation, Motiv Emot, 30, 111-116.
  3. Midgely, C., Kaplan, A., & Middleton, M., (2001). Performance-approach goals: Good for what, form whom, under what circumstances, and at what cost? Journal of Educational Psychology, 93, 77-86.

Further reading:

Ames, C., (1992) Clasrooms: Goals, structures, and student motivation, Journal of Educational Psychology, 84, 261-271.

Ames , A., & Archer, J., (1988). Achievement Goals in the Classroom: Students' Learning Strategies and Motivation Processes, Journal of Educational Psychology 80(3), 260-267.

Cury, F., Ellliot, A. J., Da Fonseca, D., & Moller, A., (2006). The social cognitive model of achievement motivation and the 2 x 2 achievement goal framework, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 666-679.

Dweck, C. S., & Elliot, E., S. (1983). Achievement motivation. In E. M. Hetherington (Ed.), Socialization, personality and social development (pp. 643-69), New York: Wiley.

Dweck, C. S., & Leggett, E. L, (1988). A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality, Psychology Review, 95, 256-273.

Elliot, A. J. & Harackiewicz, J. M. (1996). Approach and avoidance achievement goals and intrinsic motivation: A mediational analysis, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 461-475.

Elliot, A. J., McGregor, H. A., & Gable, S. L., (1999). Achievement goals, study strategies, and exam performance: A mediational analysis, Journal of Educational Psychology, 76, 628-644.

Elliot, A. J., & Sheldon, K. M., (1997). Avoidance achievement motivation: A personal goals analysis. Journal of Personality and Social

Psychology , 73, 171–185.

Elliot, A. J., & Sheldon, K. M. (1998).Avoidance personal goals and the

personality-illness relationship. Journal of Personality and Social

Psychology , 75, 1282–1299.

Middleton, M., & Midgely, C. (1997). Avoiding the demonstration of lack of ability: An underexplored aspect of goal theory, Journal of Educational Psychology, 89, 710-718.

Pintrich, P. R., (2003). A Motivational Science Perspective on the Role of Student Motivation in Learning and Teaching Contexts, Journal of Educational Psychology, 95(4), 667-686.

Ryan, A. M., Hicks, L., & Midgely, C. (1997). Social goals, academic goals, and avoiding seeking help in the classroom, Journal of Early Adolescence, 17, 152-171.