Patricia A. Tenowich, Ph.D. (December 2009)
(Mentor: Susan Sonnenschein)
Academic performance is critical to students' success in college and therefore, it is an important issue in college administration. Extensive research has examined college achievement and provided important insights into college learning. For example, studies have demonstrated how students’ goals relate there to their use of learning strategies, interest, knowledge, and academic achievement. Other studies have enhanced our understanding of the learning process by examining the development of expertise in a topic. However, research has not explored the relations among college students’ goals, levels of expertise, and academic achievement.
This study extended prior research by investigating the relations among achievement goals, social goals, levels of expertise, and academic achievement of 141 college students enrolled in psychology courses. Whereas achievement goals reflect students’ academic reasons for trying to achieve in an academic setting, social goals reflect their nonacademic reasons for engaging in academic tasks. Three types of achievement goals were examined: mastery goals (focus on the development of competence in a topic), performance-approach goals (attainment of competence compared to others), and performance-avoidance goals (avoidance of incompetence compared to others). Three types of social goals also were examined: social approval goals (achieving to gain approval of others), social concern goals (achieving to assist others in achieving), and social responsibility goals ( achieving to maintain interpersonal relations). The development of expertise is a progressive process characterized by the interplay of a person’s knowledge, interest, and strategy use. A learner moves from the level of acclimation to competence, and then to expertise.
The first purpose of the study was to explore the relations between goals and achievement of students at different levels of expertise. Responses to knowledge, interest, and strategy use measures that were specific to psychology were used to classify students into levels of expertise. Two levels of expertise were identified: Acclimated and Competent. Findings showed that college students at different levels of expertise differ in the types of goals they adopt. The Acclimated group endorsed performance-avoidance goals and the Competent group endorsed mastery, performance-approach, and social concern goals, indicating students at different levels of expertise have different reasons for achieving. Results also demonstrated that more students in the Competent group (65%) reported simultaneously adopting mastery and performance-approach goals than students in the Acclimated group (37%).
The second purpose of this study was to classify participants by their goal profiles and determine whether the goal profiles differed on various academic outcomes, including psychology GPA. Two goal profiles were determined using reported levels of achievement and social goals: Single Goal and Combined Goal. Students in the Combined Goal group reported higher interest in psychology and higher strategy use than students in the Single Goal group. Psychology GPA was significantly, positively related to interest and strategy use for students in the Single Goal group.
These findings are important to college administrators because they expand our understanding of college learning and achievement, which may help with retention. From this study, however, it is not known whether students’ goals change over time as they develop expertise. For example, the difference in goal adoption for students at different levels of expertise could be related to level of educational experience or to changes in goal adoption as one develops competence within a discipline of study. Future studies should use a longitudinal design to examine the goal of college students as they progress through the stages of expertise.