The Performance Theory

The Performance Goal Orientation: Where surface level thinking is sufficient to progress onwards to graduate school but Mastery Goal Orientation is often times not.

Every year, it seems as though university and graduate admissions are becoming more and more selective. Now students are left working harder than ever for the same outcome. Say you normally took the same route to work every day. Construction recently started, blocking your normal path to work. For a short while you might have to take the long way but soon you become frustrated by the extra commute time when the rest of your co-workers are getting to sleep in because they do not have to bypass construction. The easiest answer? To find a shortcut.

This is the same mindset many students are currently going through. As the admissions process is becoming more selective with more applicants, students are ditching the act of learning the material and on their way to learning the test. Performance goal orientation centers around the idea that a student’s academic success in a class is attributed to “showing off their grade” and simply to get the 4.0 GPA. Mastery goal orientation is when a student’s academic success is ushered by the want to learn and to gain knowledge. It is comparable to a student that is simply aiming to get a 92.5 in a class to earn an A+ versus the student that is aiming to get the 100 to show their mastery in a subject matter.

As a college student myself, I have seen this first hand. In my organic chemistry class, one of my friends was going into the final with a B which she potentially could have brought up to an A depending on her grade on the final exam. She felt she understood it well but still dropped the class to prevent getting a B on her transcript. More and more students are valuing the grades received rather than the process of learning.

An easy representation of what learning looks like between those in a performance goal orientation and those in a mastery goal orientation is depicted below.


Common tactics employed by those in performance goal theory include cheating and plagiarizing. This is probably why apps like Socratic are created because it allows for minimal time spent on homework but still receiving the same grade.

However, I do not believe this is a new concept. I believe it starts in high school when students are preparing to take the SATs and ACTs. Parents often pay for prep courses for these types of standardized exams, a large determining factor of which universities they will be accepted to. These courses do not teach new material and it is not an extension of school. These courses are created to teach a student how to “master” the test. More and more students are simply learning how to take these examinations rather than learning the material, enhancing the performance goal orientation. By falling into this habit when they are 16 or 17 years old, they are much more likely to fall into the same pattern when they are taking exams like the GRE, MCAT, LSAT, GMAT, and etc. However, there are greater stakes when these examinations are determinant of what career path they will go into. You cannot learn how to “master” life. You must take what you know and apply it to different situations.

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