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  • Writer's pictureHeta Tuominen

Striving for success but at what cost? Links between subject-specific motivation and well-being

If a student is striving to outperform their peers in mathematics, does that implicate that the same student will hold a similar performance goal in English as well? Or, if a student emphasises learning and developing competence in languages, does they hold a mastery goal also in math? That is, to what extent are students’ achievement goal orientations (i.e., a tendency to prefer and choose certain kinds of goals in achievement contexts) specific or general across subject domains?

Most studies investigating students’ achievement goal orientation profiles have been domain-general or focused on a single domain (usually mathematics), thus excluding the possibility of identifying distinct subject-specific motivational profiles. It is, however, reasonable to assume that students might demonstrate variation in their preferences with respect to different domains; not all school subjects are alike.

In this study, we looked into this by examining Finnish upper secondary school students’ subject-specific achievement goal orientation profiles simultaneously in two key academic domains: mathematics and English.

Striving for a goal also requires investing time and effort, thus implying that there always is some subjective cost in play. Accordingly, we also examined differences in perceived subject-specific cost (i.e., how exhausting it is to study the subject, how much negative emotions are associated with it, and how much it requires giving up other valued alternatives) among students with different motivational profiles and how this is linked with students’ more general study-related well-being (e.g., how engaged or exhausted a student is in schoolwork).

Motivational profiles more cross-domain general than specific

We identified five divergent motivational profiles: indifferent (29%), success-oriented (26%), mastery-oriented (25%), English-oriented, math-avoidant (14%), and avoidance-oriented (6%). In general, profiles indicated more domain-generality than domain-specificity. Interestingly, however, the English-oriented, math-avoidant students demonstrated a clear distinction between motivation in the two subjects; these students aimed for learning and getting good grades in English but expressed elevated avoidance orientation in math.

Subject-specific motivation linked with perceived cost and well-being

Mastery-oriented students showed the most adaptive academic well-being; that is, low levels of costs and burnout, but high engagement. In turn, avoidance-oriented students were the least engaged, although they did not perceive studying as particularly costly, since they mainly aim to minimise effort in school.

Success-oriented students were characterised by high multiple goals in both subjects, elevated costs, and high scores on both positive (engagement) and negative (burnout) well-being indicators. In other words, even though focusing on mastery and performance simultaneously results in positive outcomes as regards engagement, it might still come at a cost; the success-oriented students feel that studying drains a lot of energy and requires giving up other valued alternatives, and they are also somewhat emotionally exhausted.

Also the English-oriented, math-avoidant students perceived high costs – but only for mathematics; with respect to studying English, these students displayed an adaptive motivational pattern with low costs.

It is important to note that there are many students who seemingly thrive in school but whose success coincides with strain and high cost.

Examining both goals and costs in upper secondary studies

Despite the abundance of work on goal profiles, studies examining students’ achievement goal orientation profiles in multiple subjects are lacking. Our results show that even though the majority of students demonstrate rather domain-general achievement goal orientations, a smaller proportion of students still display distinct differences between subjects. Further, the findings suggest that addressing students’ achievement motivation in different subjects may be useful for recognising factors endangering or fostering student learning and well-being.

It is important to note that there are many students who seemingly thrive in school but whose success coincides with strain and high cost. Teachers and parents should be aware that when a student aims to excel and demonstrate superiority over others, this sort of performance mode might result in not only academic success but also vulnerability for experiencing pressure, psychological cost, and emotional exhaustion.

Perceived cost can also co-occur with avoidance tendencies, but not for all. The English-oriented, math-avoidant students perceived studying math as emotionally costly, whereas those students exhibiting high avoidance tendencies in both subjects (avoidance-oriented) did not display especially high costs, due to their aim of effort reduction in all schoolwork.

The examination of both goals and costs proved to be fruitful in revealing divergent patterns of subject-specific motivations and pressures. This sort of examination seems particularly topical now as the recent reform in student admissions to higher education in Finland has increased certificate-based admissions and, thus, highlighted the importance of academic achievement – especially in mathematics (good performance in math gives a head start in the student selections for higher education in several fields). This might further increase students’ study-related strain during the upper secondary years and make studying math especially stressful.

Our article is open access and you can read it from here:

Tuominen, H., Juntunen, H., & Niemivirta, M. (2020). Striving for success but at what cost? Subject-specific achievement goal orientation profiles, perceived cost, and academic well-being. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 557445.

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