July 16, 2016

What is the relation between mastery goals and intrinsic motivation?

Bieg et al. (2016) did a study to clarify the relation between mastery goals and intrinsic motivation. Let's first look at what these two concepts mean.

Meaning and importance of mastery goals and intrinsic motivation

Mastery goals are focused on developing competence. This is in contrast with performance goals which are focused on demonstrating one's competence in comparison with others. Why are mastery goals important? Because research has shown that they have many positive effects (in comparison with performance goals), such as choosing challenging goals, persistence, more interest, deeper learning, etc. Intrinsic motivation is the desire to do things which are inherently interesting, fun, exciting or otherwise satisfying. Intrinsic motivation is not only fun. It is also important because it is associated with positive emotions, interest, and deep learning.

Several studies have shown that mastery goals predict intrinsic motivation. Put differently, students with mastery goals generally develop intrinsic motivation for the topic. There are also studies which has demonstrated the opposite: that students with intrinsic motivation eventually choose mastery goals. This seems to imply that the relation between mastery goals and intrinsic motivation is reciprocal: one leads to the other. This hypothesis has now been tested by Bieg et al. in a longitudinal study.

The study

Over a period of 10 weeks they did four measurements of intrinsic motivation and mastery goals using questionnaires in a sample of 1156 students. A first finding was that both intrinsic motivation and mastery goals are relatively stable. This means that students who initially scored high on intrinsic motivation and mastery goals, eventually still tended to score high and students who initially scored low, eventually still tended to score low. The stability of mastery goals was higher than the stability of intrinsic motivation which suggests that intrinsic motivation is more context dependent.

A second finding was that, while mastery goals did predict intrinsic motivation, intrinsic motivation did not predict mastery goals. Thus, the relation between mastery goals and intrinsic motivation does not seem to be reciprocal. Choosing mastery goals appears to strengthen intrinsic motivation but intrinsic motivation does not appear to lead to choosing mastery goals.


Advocating mastery goals sounds like a wise thing to do, not only because mastery goals are beneficial in themselves but also because they seem to strengthen intrinsic motivation which create extra positive effects.

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