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New Semester, New Goal? Goal Change in College Students over Four Years

January 9, 2014

By Katherine S. Corker (Kenyon College), M. Brent Donnellan, and Ryan P. Bowles (Michigan State University)

For many college students, the new year signals the start of the new semester, and with those new classes comes the possibility of new goals. College students are vowing to strive for mastery of course material, to best their classmates in terms of performance, or both. Others are just trying not to perform poorly or to avoid failing to learn important course concepts. But for all the opportunities for goal change, do these academic goals (known to researchers as achievement goals) actually change that much? The results of a recent study recently published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggest that the magnitude of change depends on the goal in question.

Study author Katherine Corker (of Kenyon College), together with Michigan State University colleagues Brent Donnellan and Ryan Bowles, wanted to understand more completely how achievement goals develop over time in college students. Previous studies had largely neglected college students, preferring instead to study goal change in childhood. The few published studies of college students typically lasted just one semester (Senko, Hulleman, & Harackiewicz, 2011).

By contrast, Corker and colleagues surveyed a representative sample of 527 incoming Michigan State University students over the course of four years when students were in their in their first, second, fourth, and eighth semesters of college. The students completed a 12-item questionnaire each semester that asked them about their goals for their courses, generally, in terms of whether they were trying to learn course material, outperform peers, avoid failing to master course content, or avoid poor performance (Elliot & McGregor, 2001).

The researchers examined whether students, on average, tended to increase, stay the same, or decrease their level of endorsement of these four goals. The results showed that three of the four goals tended to decrease over the course of college, and most of the change occurred in the first two years of the study. That is – students tended to enter college rating their goals to learn course material, avoid failing to master course material, and avoid poor performance relatively high, but these goals declined as they progressed through school. The one exception to this trend was the goal to outperform peers. This goal stayed at a relatively high and constant level over the course of college.

The researchers also examined goal stability or how consistently students were ranked in terms of their goals. When stability is high, students tend to maintain more or less the same ranked standings on a given goal, and when stability is low, rankings are inconsistent. Low stability implies that students are frequently changing up their goals, perhaps in idiosyncratic ways. However, and perhaps contrary to intuition, all four of the goals investigated were remarkably stable over time, implying that students are fairly consistent in terms of the goals they adopt.

Considering these results, educators might be interested to know that students’ motivation for learning course material dips later in college compared to initial levels. With this finding in hand, curricula might be restructured in such a way as to make upper level classes especially interesting and applicable for junior and senior students. Further, parents can rest assured that students’ initial worries about performing poorly in classes and failing to master course material will likely subside from the first to the second year of school. Finally these results suggest that goal choices are fairly stable individual differences – suggesting that goal change, as with behavioral change, may be more difficult to execute than imagined.

Author Information

katie_corkerKatherine S. Corker is assistant professor of psychology at Kenyon College, where she runs the Personality, Achievement Goals, and Education Research (PAGER) lab. Her current research considers how changes in student characteristics are reciprocally linked over time. Her blog is


brent_donnellanM. Brent Donnellan is associate professor of psychology, Michigan State University. Dr. Donnellan is Senior Associate Editor for the Journal of Research in Personality and maintains a blog, The Trait-State Continuum ( His research examines lifespan personality development with a focus on measurement and methods.


ryan_bowlesRyan P. Bowles is assistant professor of Human Development and Family Studies, Michigan State University. Dr. Bowles is the co-director of the Early Language and Literacy Investigations laboratory at MSU. His research investigates the development of literacy in children using modern statistical techniques (see for more information).



Corker, K. S., Donnellan, M. B., & Bowles, R. P. (2013). The development of achievement goals throughout college: Modeling stability and change. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 1401-1417.

Elliot, A. J., & McGregor, H. A. (2001). A 2 x 2 achievement goal framework. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 501-519.

Senko, C., Hulleman, C. S., & Harackiewicz, J. M. (2011). Achievement goal theory at the crossroads: Old controver­sies, current challenges, and new directions. Educational Psychologist, 46, 26-47.

Image Credit: Photo by Lori Ann of MamaWit ( Creative commons license 2.0.

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