Student Orientation Toward Achievement

The distinction between the orientations of approaching success and avoiding failure is important in understanding students’ motivation. Students’ tendencies to approach success and avoid failures allow us to understand the motivation of four different types of students. Imagine a student’s attempts to approach success falls along a spectrum, with some students highly motivated to achieve success and other students not very motivated. Similarly, avoiding failure is also a spectrum, with students either being highly motivated to avoid failure or not.

Figure 6.11.1. Student motivation orientation. Source: Bohlin, 2011.

Success-oriented students are highly motivated to achieve success and are less concerned with avoiding failure. These students are intrinsically motivated and desire to achieve mastery of goals. Success-orientated students define success as being the best they can be, regardless of the achievements of others. This group of students differs from the other three groups in that the other defines success as doing better than others.

Like success-oriented students, overstrivers are driven to achieve success, but unlike success-oriented students, they fear failure. These students are motivated to prove themselves by outperforming others. To maximize their likelihood of success over their peers they may employ several strategies (Covington, 1984; Stipek, 2002):

  1. Select easy tasks to guarantee success with little learning.
  2. Maintaining low expectations and aspirations allows students to set the bar low and perceive success when they perform better than anticipated. This strategy gives the impression that with minimal effort the student has high ability.
  3. Rehearsed responses involve anticipating which tasks the student will need to perform and practicing the correct response to give the impression that the student has higher ability.
  4. Excessive attention to detail and effort. Overstrivers doubt their abilities and attribute their success to effort, such as being overprepared or showing excessive attention to detail. This often involves requiring frequent feedback and check-ins with the teacher.
  5. Cheating might be employed as a measure to ensure success and avoid failure. This may be a choice they make over asking for assistance, which they might consider the admission of inability.

Failure-avoiding students are highly motivated to avoid failure but, unlike overstrivers, they do not have high expectations for success. Failure-avoiding students are not only trying to avoid failure but the negative outcomes associated with that failure, such as anxiety or criticism. Instead of learning to be proud of their successes, they learn to internalize the relief of avoiding failure (Covington & Müeller, 2001). To avoid appearing incompetent, they use self-handicapping strategies that often interfere with learning (Covington, 1984; Covington & Beery, 1976):

  1. Minimize, avoid, or withdraw from participation.
  2. Make excuses for their lack of performance or effort.
  3. Procrastinate in completing tasks.
  4. Setting unattainable goals or selecting very difficult tasks that make success unlikely.
  5. Not trying to perform or giving others the impression that they didn’t really try.

Low-achieving students tend to use more self-handicapping strategies than students who are doing well academically (Leondari & Gonida, 2007). For failure-avoiding students, self-handicapping strategies allow them to attribute failure to causes other than their lack of ability. Students may feel inept if they realize that they must put a great deal of effort into something that others do easily. Also, when students do put forth effort but still fail, this highlights their low ability. However, when a student fails due to a lack of effort, they can avoid acknowledging a lack of ability.

While choosing to not put forth effort might save students from acknowledging their inabilities, it creates a secondary problem. Because teachers tend to value effort, students who do not put forth effort are risking negative consequences (Urdan et al., 1998; Weiner, 1994). When students do not complete tasks or do not put forth an effort, teachers may criticize or even punish this behavior. Students may feel stuck between choosing negative consequences for not trying or risk trying and failing.

Unlike the other three types of students, failure-accepting students are not motivated toward success nor away from failure. These students have experienced significant failure and as a result, they accept failure. Failure-accepting students do not take credit for any successes that they do experience and believe that success is determined by external, uncontrollable factors; however, they do blame themselves for their failures. Each failure is a confirmation of their lack of ability (Covington, 1984).

Failure-accepting students also experience learned helplessness and are not motivated to learn because they do not believe that they have control over success or failure. Due to their external locus of control, these students are the most difficult to motivate. Positive reinforcement for successes does not work and convincing them that they could succeed in the future is difficult (Ames, 1990; Covington & Omelich, 1985).

In an effort to maintain positive self-worth, failure-avoiding and failure-accepting students may discount the importance of school altogether (Harter, Whitesell, & Junkin, 1998).  Some students may shift their efforts to developing abilities in other areas, such as sports, creative endeavors, or trade skills. Others may turn to delinquent behavior (Stipek, 2002). It
It is important for teachers to identify students with failure-avoiding or failure-accepting orientations so they may help them develop more positive mastery behaviors.


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Educational Psychology Copyright © 2020 by Nicole Arduini-Van Hoose is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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