Achievement motivation and course performance in online computing education

The demand for expertise in computing is increasing, and consequently, there is scope for new, effective ways of instructing elementary computing. Massive open online courses (MOOC) come with great potential, but a more comprehensive understanding of the student population is needed to facilitate the improvement of these largely automated courses to better serve the students and prevent dropouts.

The perspective taken in my study was students’ achievement motivation. Achievement goal orientations reflect tendencies to favor certain goals in achievement-related situations, and they are proven to be associated with academic achievement and other important educational outcomes. This thesis focused on course performance as an outcome, and three achievement goals: learning (mastery goals), performing well relative to other students (normative performance goals) and appearing competent (appearance performance goals).

The achievement goal orientations of 2059 students participating an introductory programming MOOC were assessed and the students were grouped according to their achievement motivation. The motivational profiles were then compared with respect to indicators of course performance in order to clarify how goal pursuit is linked to achievement.


What motivates programming students and how do they perform?

Five achievement goal orientation profiles were identified: Approach-Oriented, Performance-Oriented, Combined Mastery and Performance Goals, Low Goals, and Mastery-Oriented. While the overall mastery goal orientation was high in the sample, appearance goal orientation was rather low. This indicates that, regardless of the characteristics of each profile, mastering the content was an important goal for all students and appearing competent was somewhat less important.

Around a fifth of the students embraced all three achievement goals, which means that they were motivated in several ways: they attempted to master the content but also aimed at performing better and appearing more knowledgeable than other students. This cluster was labeled Combined Mastery and Performance Goals. Students who, by contrast, had relatively low motivation with respect to all achievement goals, formed the Low Goals cluster.

Other clusters consisted of students who shared a similar motivational pattern with an emphasis on one or two of the goal orientations. The largest of all clusters was Approach-Oriented (31%). Approach-Oriented students aimed at approaching mastery and normative success but did not attach weight to appearing competent. Performance-Oriented students, in turn, wanted to outperform other students and make sure that others were aware of their competence. The smallest cluster, Mastery-Oriented (14%), consisted of students who strove to learn and master the course content but were not motivated by any normative comparisons or show offs.

With respect to course performance, students holding Combined Mastery and Performance Goals stayed active on the course for longer and completed more programming assignments than students with Low Goals. Otherwise, there were no differences between the five profiles.


Towards mastery-promoting educational interventions

Consistent with previous findings, the results highlighted the positive link between multiple goal pursuit and performance. Taking another perspective from prior studies, striving for both mastery and performance goals on a high level has also been associated with less adaptive outcomes, such as stress and burnout. However, in the light of current understanding, supporting mastery goal pursuit is adaptive for students across the profiles and does not have harmful effects. In the context of online computing education, mastery goals could be promoted with various interventions, such as providing students with visualizations of personal progress, applying gamification and virtual rewards, giving interesting additional assignments, and offering inspiring sneak peeks at the following sections of the course. In the future, additional research is needed to investigate the effects of such interventions on students with different motivational profiles.


Kukka-Maaria Polso

Pro gradu: Achievement Goal Orientation Profiles and Performance in a Programming MOOC


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