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Achievement goal orientation: A predictor of student engagement in higher education


Achievement goal orientation has been studied within education for many years, but the practical implications are frequently focused on K-12 students and classrooms and less often applied to established concepts within higher education. Prior research has connected the construct to student achievement, along with stress and anxiety that accompany the learning of challenging new material. This study uses achievement goal orientation as a context for exploring student engagement in postsecondary education, joining constructs from educational psychology and higher education. Data were drawn from over 8500 first-year and senior college students across 15 higher education institutions participating in the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). Using a series of ordinary least squares regression analyses, results indicate that students who employ a mastery-approach orientation are more likely to partake in a variety of engagement indicators, such as reflective and integrative learning, higher-order learning, quantitative reasoning, and student–faculty interaction. Performance-avoidance orientation generally showed a negative relationship with engagement indicators, while results for the performance-approach orientation were more mixed.

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Data availability

The NSSE data set is proprietary and not currently available for free public use. Syntax for all analyses included in this paper are available from the authors upon request.


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This research did not receive any specific grant from funding agencies in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.

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Correspondence to Angie L. Miller.

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All authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the Institutional and/or National Research Committee and with the 1964 Helsinki Declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. The data collection and analysis adhere to all human subject guidelines, as specified by the Institutional Review Board at the authors’ institution, as well as with the Institutional Review Boards of all institutions participating in the study.

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Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

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Appendix 1

See Table 9.

Table 9 Example Engagement Indicator Scale Items

Appendix 2

See Table 10.

Table 10 Description of independent variables

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Miller, A.L., Fassett, K.T. & Palmer, D.L. Achievement goal orientation: A predictor of student engagement in higher education. Motiv Emot 45, 327–344 (2021).

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  • Higher education
  • Achievement goal orientation
  • Student engagement