College Goals Do Self-Determined and Carefully Con

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Social Psychology of Education 4: 189–211, 2000.
© 2001 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.
189
College goals: Do self-determined and carefully
considered goals predict intrinsic motivation,
academic performance, and adjustment during
the first semester?
REGINA CONTI
Department of Psychology, Colgate University, Hamilton, NY 13346, U.S.A.
e-mail: [email protected]
Abstract. The present study investigated whether choosing autonomous goals for pursuing a college
education and reflecting on those goals promotes intrinsic motivation toward coursework, higher
grades and improved adjustment to college over time. Incoming first-year college students responded
to the College Goals Questionnaire before starting classes, and to the Student Adaptation to College
Questionnaire and the Work Preference Inventory during their first semester. Results indicated that
the degree to which students who reflected on their goals had high levels of both intrinsic and extrinsic
motivation. The autonomy of students’ goals predicted grade point average, high intrinsic motivation,
low extrinsic motivation, and improvement in social and emotional adjustment over time. These
findings contribute to the literature on personal goals by establishing the importance of having wellthought- through and autonomous goals during the transition to college.
1. Introduction
Personal goals have the potential to give meaning and coherence to an individual’s
motivational experience (Little, 1983; Emmons, 1989, 1996; Klinger, 1996). By
choosing autonomous goals that will develop important interests and abilities, and
by giving careful thought to the best means to pursue these goals, people can direct
their lives in a manner that promotes mental health and well-being (Gollwitzer,
1996; Sheldon & Elliot, 1997; Taylor et al., 1998). However, not all personal goals
emanate from one’s sense of self in the sense that they grow from genuine interests
and abilities. Instead, goals can have their roots in expectations imposed by others.
Likewise, not all individuals devote thought to choosing their goals. Without a
personal goal system that is carefully thought-through and connected with one’s
sense of self, individuals will have difficulty focusing their efforts and meeting
their basic psychological needs (Sheldon & Elliot, 1999). While potentially important at any stage of life, a personal goal system that promotes autonomy and
reflection is crucial during major life transitions. For many young adults, one such
transition occurs during their first semester of college (Cantor et al., 1987; Cantor
& Langston, 1989). The present study investigated whether students’ goals for attending a four-year residential college influenced their experiences during their first
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semester. Specifically, students who chose more autonomous goals and students
who devoted more thought to their goals were expected to experience a more
successful transition. To capture fully the first-semester student experience, three
somewhat different types of dependent variables were examined: motivational orientation, adjustment and academic performance.
The entering students at residential colleges have much to look forward to: an
expanded array of academic offerings, new social opportunities, an assortment of
extra-curricular activities, and for many, their first independent living experience
(Astin, 1993, 1999). With such a wide range of new challenges to pursue, a coherent personal goal system will be especially important for directing the entering
student’s energies. In order to feel satisfied with college life, students need to adjust well to the personal and social changes confronting them while maintaining
their motivation for their academic work (Astin, 1993; Baker & Siryk, 1984). The
immediacy of independent living goals and the enjoyment associated with social
and extracurricular goals may heighten their appeal relative to academic goals. Yet,
academic success is of central importance to college students (Cantor & Langston,
1989). An ability to sustain one’s motivation toward academic efforts is, thus,
critical.
Research on motivational orientation has suggested two types of motivation
that underlie college students’ academic efforts. The interest value and challenge
inherent in their academic work motivates students who are intrinsically motivated.
In contrast, students who respond to extrinsic forces are motivated by factors that
are separate from the work itself, such as earning high grades or satisfying parental expectations. Intrinsic motivation promotes creativity (Amabile, 1983, 1996;
Amabile et al., 1994), concept attainment (Grolnick & Ryan, 1987), and long-term
retention of course material (Conti, Amabile, & Pollak, 1995). When students are
intrinsically motivated they are more curious, more persistent, and show a preference for more novel and difficult tasks (Deci & Ryan, 1985, 1987) than when they
are extrinsically motivated. While extrinsic motivation may encourage academic
effort at exam time, the enduring and genuine interest that come with intrinsic
motivation more consistently sustain a student’s energy toward academic work
(Gottfried, 1985, 1990). These orientations may begin to develop during elementary and high school, but research has identified relatively enduring motivational
orientations only in college students (Vallerand et al., 1993; Amabile et al., 1994).
The less structured, more stimulating, and demanding college environment has the
potential to spark a students’ previoulsy dormant intrinsic motivation or to heighten
perceived pressure and lead to greater extrinsic motivation. Thus, the first semester
is likely to be quite important in determining a students’ motivational orientation
toward college-level academic work. The present study examines whether students’
goals for their college experience influence the degree of intrinsic and extrinsic
motivation they display toward their college work.
In addition to having a genuine interest in academic learning, students also need
to feel satisfied and content with college life in order to take full advantage of their
COLLEGE GOALS
191
college years. College adjustment has been conceptualized as including academic,
social, and emotional adjustment (Baker & Siryk, 1984). Students’ opinions of
the quality of education they are receiving and their degree of satisfaction with
their academic performance contribute to academic adjustment. While academic
adjustment is related to intrinsic motivation, in that a genuine interest in course material will facilitate academic involvement and success, academic adjustment is a
more direct indicator of how well students’ courses are matched with their interests
and abilities. Social and emotional adjustment reflect the degree to which campus
life, more generally, is meeting students’ individual needs. Students’ reactions to
the social opportunities on campus and their level of success in forming friendships contribute to social adjustment. Students’ experiences of homesickness and
reactions to stress may undermine emotional adjustment. Successful adjustment
in each of these areas is crucial to students’ overall success and satisfaction with
college life. A well-developed set of goals may facilitate adjustment in all areas to
the degree that goals promote involvement. Astin’s (1993, 1999) seminal work on
college adjustment demonstrates that active involvement in all areas of college life
is associated with emotional well-being and academic and social success.
While each of these areas of adjustment, in part, reflects the degree to which
students have selected a university that is right for them, over time, students who
are best able to confront the transition to college should also become flexible and
resourceful in finding a social niche, emotional support, and opportunities to develop their talents. For this reason, it is important to examine changes in each area
of adjustment from the beginning to the end of the first semester. In contrast to
an intrinsic or extrinsic motivational orientation toward college coursework, which
becomes relatively enduring once it has been established (Amabile et al., 1994),
adjustment can fluctuate (Baker & Siryk, 1984; Astin, 1993). Thus, a successful
transition during the first semester depends not on students’ initial level of satisfaction with what the university has to offer but with an improvement in their
satisfaction over time.
To facilitate the intrinsic motivation and adjustment of new students, college
personnel strive to provide appealing course offerings, inspiring instructors, exciting social and extracurricular activities, comfortable living arrangements, and
emotional support for students (Astin, 1993). While prospective students (often
along with their parents) work hard to learn about college offerings and prepare
competitive applications, few explicitly think about preparing themselves motivationally for the college experience. A review of the self-regulation literature suggests that formulating goals, especially goals that connect with and well-represent
one’s sense of self, can maximize a new student’s intrinsic motivation and promote
successful adjustment over time (Cantor et al., 1987; Cantor & Langston, 1989;
Sheldon & Kasser, 1995; Sheldon & Elliot, 1997, 1999).
The goal setting literature has established that, on a wide range of tasks, having a
goal leads to better performance than not having a goal (Locke et al., 1981; Latham
& Locke, 1991; Cochran & Tesser, 1996). Much research on goal setting has been
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limited to short laboratory tasks (see Locke & Latham, 1991, for a review), but
more recently research has focused on long-term, personally meaningful goals that
individuals pursue in their everyday lives (Emmons, 1989, 1996; Cantor & Blanton,
1996). This research supports the idea that reflecting on one’s goals for a major life
transition will facilitate adjustment during that transition. Choosing goals carefully
will increase the probability that the goals will be appropriate to the individual’s
interests and abilities. Hence, these goals will be more likely to be connected to the
individual’s core sense of self (Sheldon & Elliot, 1999).
Reflecting on possible goals and selecting appropriate goals will also facilitate
goal attainment by giving the individual a firm goal intention. Gollwitzer (1996)
and his colleagues (Gollwitzer & Schaal, 1998) propose that effortful action begins
with a goal intention. A goal intention leads to forming implementation intentions,
or specific plans for action, which have been found to facilitate persistence in
pursuing a goal. Taylor and her colleagues’ (Taylor & Pham, 1996; Taylor et al.,
1998) research on mental simulation has established that imagining the process of
pursuing a goal facilitates obtaining that goal. Cantor and her colleagues (Cantor
et al., 1987; Cantor & Langston, 1989) found that plan reflectivity (the degree to
which one thinks through their plans) predicted academic performance among first
semester college students. These results together suggest that reflecting on one’s
goals for college will help to prepare students to persist in meeting their goals once
on campus. Reflection may be especially important for pursuing academic goals
because college students consistently rate them as more difficult and stressful than
social and extra-curricular goals (Cantor et al., 1987). In other words, choosing
appropriate academic goals and thinking through the best means of pursuing them
seems to be more effortful and, thus, requires more reflection than college goals in
other areas.
While simply thinking about your goals is expected to facilitate intrinsic motivation and adjustment, having the sense that these goals are autonomously chosen
can make them an even more powerful motivator. Despite the independence that
college students enjoy, some may still feel substantial pressure to meet the expectations of parents, teachers or, more generally, the adult world (Deci & Ryan,
1985). Thus, students may reflect on their future in college with these expectations
in mind rather than their own interests and abilities. Research on personal goals
suggests that goals can be self-chosen, but not truly ‘personal’ in the sense that
they are not fully integrated with the individual’s sense of self (Sheldon & Kasser,
1995; Sheldon & Elliot, 1997). Goals that are not integrated with the self reflect
pressures and expectations that an individual feels rather than their true interests
and abilities. Because students do not fully identify with these goals, they will
not be pursued as vigorously as more autonomous goals will be. The concept
of autonomous regulation was first proposed by Deci and Ryan (1985, 1987) as
part of their Self-Determination theory. An inner endorsement of, and a personal
willingness to pursue a goal characterize autonomous endorsement of that goal. A
goal that is endorsed in order to meet expectations or to lessen feelings of guilt or
COLLEGE GOALS
193
anxiety is not pursued with a sense of autonomy. Research shows that autonomous
regulation promotes successful goal attainment (Sheldon & Elliot, 1997). Autonomous regulation has also been found to be associated with positive affect and
well-being (Sheldon & Kasser, 1995). Thus, endorsing autonomous reasons for
pursuing goals should lead to better academic performance, higher levels of intrinsic motivation and better emotional and social adjustment during the first semester.
The present study sought to investigate the degree to which reflection on goals
and the autonomy of goals of prospective students predicted college adjustment, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and academic performance during the first semester
of college. Hypotheses were that:
(a) reflection on goals will predict intrinsic motivation, positive change in academic adjustment, and academic performance;
(b) autonomous regulation will predict positive change in reported adjustment (especially social and emotional adjustment), intrinsic motivation, and academic
performance;
(c) these effects will be obtained with SAT scores, high school GPA, and social
desirability scores statistically controlled.
2. Method
2.1.
PARTICIPANTS
Participants were entering first year students at a small liberal arts college in the
northeastern United States. Three hundred and eighty two students volunteered to
participate by responding to a questionnaire mailed to the homes of all incoming
students (N = 731) in July of the summer preceding their first year at college. Fiftytwo percent of the sample was female, and 48% was male. All were between the
ages of 17 and 20. Of those who volunteered, 200 were invited to participate in two
follow-up assessments during the fall semester of their first year. In the first followup 159 students participated, making our initial participation rate 79.5%. Eighty-six
students participated in the second follow-up session for a continued participation
rate of 43%. To assess whether attrition influences our variables of central interest,
independent groups t-tests were carried out between students who dropped out and
students who continued their participation on all continuous variables at each stage.
No significant differences were observed.
2.2.
MATERIALS
2.2.1. College Goals Questionnaire (CGQ)
This instrument was developed specifically for use in the present study and is
included as Appendix A. The CGQ was designed to assess the degree to which
students reflected on their goals before coming to college and the level of autonomy
associated with their goals. The CGQ first asks respondents to rate the importance
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of 30 goals. Three blank spaces are provided in order to allow students’ to add their
own goals if they were not included on the initial list.
The goals that were listed represent central motives that lure young adults to
college (e.g., securing a good job, becoming well-educated, establishing enduring friendships, etc.). The list was developed during undergraduate student focus
groups. A total of 18 students participated in three focus groups. These students
were asked to list as many goals as they could think of for coming to college. They
were then asked to divide their goals into meaningful categories. The group then
discussed the various categories of goals they had developed. All major categories
listed by these 18 students were included on the CGQ, even those that were likely
to be endorsed only by a few students (e.g., to develop as a musician).
The CGQ provides a list of goals, rather than asking students to generate their
own goals (although they did have the option of doing so by using blank spaces)
because it is designed to measure the level of autonomy and the degree of reflection
associated with students’ most important goals rather than the content of the goals
themselves. The relatively few number of participants who wrote in their own goals
and the comments written by participants at the end of the CGQ indicated that the
list captured goals that were important to these students. Despite the efficiency of
the standardization of goals on the CGQ, the ecological validity of this method may
be lower than methods which require students to generate goals independently.
To assess the autonomy of students’ goals, the second section of the questionnaire asked students to list their four most important goals and then to rate five
reasons for choosing these goals as most important. These reasons were based on
the autonomous and controlled reasons used by Sheldon and Elliot (1997). The first
highly autonomous reason was intrinsic satisfaction: ‘Because working toward this
goal will be personally satisfying and enjoyable’. The second reflected integration
of the goal into the self: ‘Because I genuinely believe that this is an important
goal to strive toward; I endorse it freely and value it wholeheartedly’. The first less
autonomous (or controlled) reason reflected parental control: ‘Because it is important to the people closest to me, achieving this goal would make them happy and
proud’. The second reflected anticipated compensation: ‘Because it is important to
society; I will receive tangible benefits and be considered a more valuable person if
I achieve this goal’. The third indicated introjected regulation: ‘Because if I didn’t,
I would feel guilty, ashamed or anxious; I feel as though it is a goal I ought to
have’.
The final section of the questionnaire was designed to measure the degree to
which students reflected on their goals. Specifically, four items asked students to
indicate where they fell on a continuum where one end indicated that students had
not reflected at all, and the other indicated that students had reflected a great deal
before filling out the questionnaire. Because it is socially desirable to think through
one’s decisions, two items asked students to indicate the ease with which they filled
out the questionnaire. Presumably, students who had already given a good deal of
thought to their goals would not find it difficult to decide which of the listed goals
COLLEGE GOALS
195
were important to them, while students who had not given much thought to their
goals would find it difficult. These items were ‘I found it easy to decide which goals
were important to me – I found it difficult to decide which goals were important
to me’, and ‘I knew why the goals I chose were important to me – I had to think
about why the goals I chose were important’, The other two items asked whether
students thought about their college goals in a straightforward manner. These items
were: ‘I found that I had already thought about the kinds of goals listed – I had not
yet given detailed thought to the goals I will pursue in college’, and ‘I spend a good
deal of time thinking about the goals I will pursue in college – I very rarely think
about the goals I will pursue in college’.
The CGQ yields scores for autonomy and reflection. The autonomy score is
computed by averaging students’ ratings of autonomous reasons and subtracting
the average of their ratings of controlled reasons (Cronbach’s alpha = 0.78); the
reflection scale is computed by averaging the four bipolar items asking about reflection (Cronbach’s alpha = 0.55). The relatively low reliability of the reflection
scale resulted from low, but positive, correlations between the two different kinds
of reflection items. Because both types of items were thought to be important
indicators of reflection, all four items were used.
2.2.2. Student Adaptation to College Questionnaire (SACQ)
The SACQ (see Baker & Siryk, 1989) measures adjustment to college. Academic
adjustment, social adjustment, and emotional adjustment were of particular interest
for this study. Each of these scales has shown high inter-item reliability in previous
research (Cronbach’s alphas ranged from 0.82 to 0.87 for academic adjustment,
from 0.83 to 0.89 for social adjustment, and from 0.73 to 0.79 for emotional adjustment), as well as in the present sample (Cronbach’s alphas for 1st follow-up
= 0.86, 0.91, and 0.77, for 2nd follow-up = 0.86, 0.92, and 0.79 for academic,
social, and emotional adjustment, respectively). Validity has been established by
examining relations between these subscales and other relevant variables including
attrition, first year grade point average, social activity participation, and the seeking
of psychological support services (Baker & Siryk, 1984, 1989).
2.2.3. Work Preference Inventory (WPI)
The WPI was designed to assess individual differences in students’ level of intrinsic
and extrinsic motivation toward their college work (see Amabile et al., 1994).
The two primary scales each show high inter-item reliability, both for this sample
(Cronbach’s alphas = 0.76 and 0.78) and in previous research (Cronbach’s alphas
= 0.75 and 0.70, for intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, respectively). Previous research also shows that the instrument has adequate test–retest reliability (intrinsic
motivation: 0.89, extrinsic motivation: 0.80) and is related in meaningful ways to
other measures of motivation (Amabile et al., 1994).
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2.2.4. Social Desirability Scale (SDS)
This scale is widely used to assess the extent to which participants endorse socially
desirable responses (Crowne & Marlowe, 1960).
2.3.
PROCEDURE
Incoming students were mailed the CGQ in the second week of the July preceding
their first year in college. Accompanying the CGQ was a letter explaining the
procedures and general purpose of the study (to understand more fully the reasons that people choose to go to college). Recipients were asked to respond to the
questionnaire and return it if they were interested in participating.
In September of their first year, 200 of the students who responded to the CGQ
were contacted by phone and asked to participate in a follow-up session. These
students were either enrolled in Introductory Psychology and offered credit toward their experiment participation requirement or were offered $10 to participate.
Those students who agreed were scheduled for group sessions late in September,
during which they responded to the SACQ, WPI, and the Marlow-Crowne Social
Desirability Inventory. The same procedure was used to recruit participants for
the late- November follow-up during which students responded to the SACQ once
again.
SAT scores (verbal and math combined), high school grade point averages and
first semester college grade point averages were obtained from the registrar’s office
with the permission of participants.
3. Results
Zero-order correlations among the 13 predictor and outcome variables were computed and are reported in Table I. The two central predictors, autonomy and reflection, were only slightly correlated. These predictors were also both positively
related to intrinsic motivation, and autonomy was negatively related to extrinsic
motivation. Several outcome measures were interrelated (especially measures of
adjustment). These relationships were moderate, suggesting that measures of motivation, adjustment, and performance are separable and tap distinct constructs.
Multiple regression analyses were conducted to examine relations between the
two predictor variables, autonomy and reflection (from the CGQ), and the outcome variables of interest: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation (from the WPI), first
semester grade point average, and academic, social, and emotional adjustment
(from the SACQ). Adjustment variables were measured at two points in time
(September and November). The model used for analyses predicted the change
in adjustment from September to November by entering September adjustment as
a covariate in the analyses. In addition to the central predictor variables, two control variables were entered simultaneously in all equations: SAT score (verbal and
math combined), and social desirability (from the SDS)1 . In equations predicting
2
3
4
5
6
7
1. Autonomy
0.09 0.05 0.12
0.24∗∗ −0.26∗∗∗ 0.17∗∗
2. Reflection
–
0.00 0.16∗ 0.32∗∗∗ 0.07
−0.04
∗
0.03
0.21∗∗∗
3. SAT Score
–
−0.19 −0.01
4. Social Desirability
–
0.09
−0.11
0.04
5. Intrinsic Motivation
–
0.19∗∗
0.13
6. Extrinsic Motivation
–
0.11
7. Grade Point Average
–
8. Academic Adjustment
in September
9. Academic Adjustment
in November
10. Social Adjustment
in September
11. Social Adjustment
in November
12. Emotional Adjustment
September
13. Emotional Adjustment
November
8
0.15
0.22∗∗
0.03
0.26∗∗∗
0.31∗∗∗
0.02
0.32∗∗∗
–
9
10
0.12
0.06
0.29∗
0.09
0.12
−0.17∗
∗∗
0.31
0.27∗∗∗
0.16
0.12
0.01
−0.09
0.35∗∗∗ −0.14
0.67∗∗∗ 0.41∗∗∗
–
11
12
13
0.21∗
0.22∗∗
0.33∗∗
0.07
0.06
0.11
−0.11
0.08
0.25∗
∗∗
∗∗∗
0.33
0.26
0.26∗
∗∗
−0.08
0.18
0.01
∗∗
−0.06
−0.19
−0.17
−0.15
0.07
0.11
0.21
0.57∗∗∗ 0.43∗∗∗
0.41∗∗∗
0.34∗∗∗
0.50∗∗∗
0.54∗∗∗
–
0.81∗∗∗
0.44∗∗∗
0.48∗∗∗
–
0.39∗∗∗
0.53∗∗∗
–
0.81∗∗∗
COLLEGE GOALS
Table I. Correlations among motivation, academic achievement and adjustment variables
–
∗ p < 0.05; ∗∗ p < 0.01; ∗∗∗ p < 0.001.
197
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Table II. Summary of multiple regression analyses predicting motivational orientation and grade point average
(N = 159)
Outcome variable
β
Intrinsic motivation (R 2 = 0.15∗∗∗∗ )
Reflection
Autonomy
SAT score
Social desirability
0.27∗∗
0.17∗
0.01
−0.02
Extrinsic motivation (R 2 = 0.12∗∗∗ )
Reflection
Autonomy
SAT score
Social desirability
0.15∗
−0.31∗∗∗∗
0.07
−0.05
Grade point average (R 2 = 0.12∗∗∗ )
Reflection
Autonomy
SAT score
Social desirability
Intrinsic motivation
Extrinsic motivation
0.13∗
0.18∗∗
0.19∗∗
0.00
0.17∗∗
0.19∗∗
∗ p < 0.15; ∗∗ p < 0.05; ∗∗∗ p < 0.01; ∗∗∗∗ p < 0.001.
GPA and adjustment, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation were also entered as control
variables.
The results of these analyses are summarized in Tables II and III. These tables
report both the overall R squared for each analysis to provide an estimate of the percent of variance in the outcome variable that is accounted for by the predictor variables, as well as the standardized regression coefficients which provide measures
of how each predictor contributed to the regression equation.
The three analyses reported in Table II showed that:
(a) autonomy and reflection are significant predictors of intrinsic motivation;
(b) autonomy shows a significant negative relationship with extrinsic motivation,
while reflection shows a significant positive association with extrinsic motivation; and
(c) autonomy, SAT score, and intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are significant
predictors of first semester college GPA.
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COLLEGE GOALS
Table III. Summary of multiple regression analyses for college goals variables predicting college adjustment in november
(n = 86)
β
Academic adjustment (R 2 = 0.51∗∗∗∗ )
Previous academic adjustment
Reflection
Autonomy
SAT score
Social desirability
Intrinsic motivation
Extrinsic motivation
0.62∗∗∗∗
0.16∗
0.01
0.13∗
0.16∗
−0.09
−0.02
Social adjustment (R 2 = 0.74∗∗∗∗ )
Previous social adjustment
Reflection
Autonomy
SAT score
Social desirability
Intrinsic motivation
Extrinsic motivation
0.79∗∗∗∗
0.04
0.21∗∗∗
0.03
0.12∗
−0.24∗∗∗
0.03
Emotional adjustment (R 2 = 0.73∗∗∗∗ )
Previous emotional adjustment
Reflection
Autonomy
SAT score
Social desirability
Intrinsic motivation
Extrinsic motivation
0.77∗∗∗∗
0.12∗
0.18∗∗∗∗
0.19∗∗
0.08
−0.21∗∗
−0.03
∗ p < 0.15; ∗∗ p < 0.05; ∗∗∗ p < 0.01; ∗∗∗∗ p < 0.001.
The three analyses reported in Table III showed that:
(a) for all three types of adjustment there is a fair degree of stability; previous
adjustment was the strongest predictor;
(b) reflection was a weak positive predictor of positive change in academic and
emotional adjustment; and
(c) autonomy strongly predicted positive change in social and emotional adjustment.
Interestingly, intrinsic motivation, which was intended as a control variable, emerged
as a significantly predicting negative change in emotional and social adjustment.
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REGINA CONTI
For all of the analyses reported in Tables II and III, the F-values for the overall
equations were statistically significant.
Taken together, these analyses show substantial support for my hypotheses.
Results in which reflection was a significant predictor provide support for two parts
of hypothesis one. Reflection on goals significantly predicted intrinsic motivation
toward academic work (see Table II). Reflection also marginally predicted change
in academic adjustment from September to November (see Table III). The zeroorder correlation between reflection and academic adjustment in September and
November was positive. However, there was only a weak relationship between
reflection on goals and first semester grade point average.
Results in which autonomy was a significant predictor provide substantial support for hypothesis two. Autonomy scores significantly predicted intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation (negative relationship), and grade point average (see
Table II). It is interesting to note that autonomy accounted for nearly as much
variance in first semester college GPA as SAT scores. Autonomy also significantly
predicted improved social and emotional adjustment from September to November.
All of these relationships were observed with SAT, social desirability, and intrinsic
and extrinsic motivation statistically controlled, supporting hypothesis three.
4. Discussion
The results of this study show that both reflecting on one’s goals for college and
the autonomy of those goals are related to success during the first semester. Specifically, students who reflect on their goals for college report higher levels of
intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Students who feel autonomous in their goal pursuit are more intrinsically motivated, less extrinsically motivated, perform better
academically, and show improvement in social and emotional adjustment over the
first several months of college. Although not all predictions were supported, these
findings present a pattern that is consistent with the view that developing a sense
of purpose for attending college provides a motivational foundation that is crucial
to successful adjustment, motivation, and performance. These findings add to the
literature supporting Self-Determination theory and have interesting implications
for the growing literature on personal goals. This work also suggests practical
approaches to help young adults prepare themselves for college.
The study of goal-setting, which has traditionally depended on laboratory experiments, has increasingly become concerned with the importance of goals in the
context of individuals’ everyday lives (Cantor & Blanton, 1996; Emmons, 1996;
Klinger, 1996; Sheldon & Elliot, 1997). The present research adds to this literature
by showing that simply thinking about one’s goals prior to approaching the transition to college is associated with greater intrinsic motivation toward academic
work during the first semester. Reflection on goals was shown to have positive
motivational effects, despite the limited reliability of the four-item measure used
in this research. These results are consistent with the view that reflecting on goals
COLLEGE GOALS
201
leads to a greater ability to mobilize one’s energy toward academic pursuits, but
they are also consistent with other patterns of causality. It is possible, for example,
that students who are tending toward an intrinsic motivational orientation during
high school are more excited about the academic goals they will have the opportunity to pursue in college. Hence, these students think more about their goals and
also report more intrinsic motivation during their first semester.
The observed pattern of results also does not rule out the possibility that reflection can have negative implications for some students. Work on problem-focused
coping suggests that while thought directed toward life problems can sometimes be
productive, this kind of reflection can also carry the negative emotional effects that
come with rumination (Greenberg, 1995; Schiaffino & Revenson, 1995). Further
research is needed to explore the process that explains the connections observed in
this study. Longitudinal research that begins early in high school could investigate
why some students reflect on their goals for college while others do not. Field
experiments could explore whether interventions that promote reflection on college
goals are effective in promoting intrinsic motivation and academic adjustment and
if reflection can lead to rumination.
Understanding the content of students’ reflections and the mechanisms by which
they have beneficial effects is another area where future research is needed. Such
research could investigate whether reflection has its positive effects by influencing
goal choice or by influencing the strategy or persistence with which students pursue their goals. In the present study, only a very weak relationship was observed
between reflection and autonomy, suggesting that reflecting on college goals did
not necessarily lead students to choose goals they genuinely wanted to pursue.
Previous research suggests that reflection will influence the strategies and persistence with which an individual pursues his goals. For example, Gollwitzer’s (1996;
Gollwitzer & Schaal, 1998) research on implementation intentions suggests that
reflection focused on developing specific plans for action will facilitate goal attainment. Research on mental simulation is consistent with this view. Taylor and Pham
(1998) found that reflecting on the process of attaining a goal facilitates exerting
effort toward that goal while reflecting on the outcome of attaining a goal does
not have such an effect. Clearly, some kinds of reflection are more productive than
others.
In addition to simply thinking about one’s goals for college, a firm connection
between those goals and one’s sense of self is important for positive adjustment and
motivation. In the present study, students who were pursuing autonomous goals,
goals that were closely linked with their sense of self, faired substantially better
than those whose goals felt externally controlled.
Autonomy was related to academic performance and intrinsic motivation as
well as improved emotional and social adjustment over time. These findings add
to the already extensive literature supporting Self-Determination theory (Deci &
Ryan, 1985, 1987, 1991; Deci, 1999). They are also consistent with the SelfConcordance model (Sheldon & Elliot, 1999) which draws on the concepts of
202
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Self-Determination theory to explore the means by which autonomous goal pursuit
leads to well-being. This model outlines the process of choosing goals that are well
matched with one’s core interests and values, successfully attaining those goals
and experiencing enhanced well-being. The present study shows that students who
choose college goals that are experienced as autonomous are adjusting more easily
to college life, and are more successful academically.
Choosing autonomous goals and reflecting on those goals appears to be important regardless of a student’s level of academic ability. It is possible that students’
tendency to reflect on their goals and feel autonomous in pursuing them could be
determined by students’ intellectual ability. One might imagine that academically
talented high school students would have more of a tendency to look ahead to
college and also would fare better once they arrived. The present results do show
that measures of academic ability were associated with academic performance and
to a lesser extent with motivation and adjustment. However, the impact of reflection and autonomy was substantial even when these variables were included in
the regression equations. Thus, while academic ability is important for success in
college, it may be less important than having well-thought-through, autonomously
regulated goals. This motivational preparation for college had positive effects not
only for the academically gifted, but for all students who participated in the present
research.
The present research also investigated the possibility that the hypothesized relationships could be accounted for by a tendency to respond in a socially desirable
manner. Although the rated autonomy of students goals and their reported adjustment was significantly related to social desirability scores, these effects could not
have accounted for the hypothesized relationships observed.
Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation were also included as control variables in the
analyses of academic performance and adjustment to confirm that the effects of
autonomy and reflection were not simply a function of motivational orientation.
The connection between academic adjustment and reflection shown in the correlation analyses did not emerge in the regression analyses suggesting that intrinsic
motivation may play a mediating role. In the analyses of emotional and social
adjustment, intrinsic motivation emerged as a negative predictor, perhaps indicating competition between adjustment domains. Students primarily motivated toward
becoming involved in their academic work may have greater difficulty with social
and emotional adjustment.
Several limitations must be considered in interpreting the findings of the present
study. There was substantial drop out between each of the questionnaire administrations. The findings reported may have been influenced by the characteristics
of the self-selected group of individuals who chose to respond at each followup. The limited reliability of reflection measure also may have influenced these
findings. Future research can further explore the effects of reflection by using
a more extensive measure of reflection which shows better reliability and distinguishes between different types of reflection. The present study also did not
COLLEGE GOALS
203
examine changes in intrinsic and extrinsic motivation from high school to college.
Such data would be useful for determining how intrinsic motivation toward college
coursework develops.
In summary, these findings represent an important first step toward understanding why some individuals are well able to mobilize their efforts in college, while
others have difficulty. The theoretically derived hypotheses tested in the present
study have considerable applied value. High school teachers, guidance counselors,
and parents may consider encouraging students to reflect on their goals and to
choose personally important goals while they are preparing for college. Colleges
might profit from focusing pre-matriculation writing assignments on goal clarification. First-semester instructors could include personal goal setting as topic for personal reflection essays, and class discussions could be used to promote autonomous
goal pursuit. The results of the present study suggest that these efforts would be
well worth the additional time they would require. Developing a personal goal
system that facilitates a successful transition to college will prepare the young adult
to take every opportunity to develop his or her interests and abilities in college and
beyond.
Notes
1
Preliminary analyses established that there were no significant gender differences.
To examine the interaction between reflection and autonomy their product was also
entered in preliminary analyses. This term was not a significant predictor in any of
the final equations. High school GPA was initially entered as a control variable.
Because it accounted for a significant proportion of variance only in the intrinsic
motivation equation, it was dropped from subsequent analyses.
Acknowledgements
I would like to thank Paula Crivelli, Amy Grennan, Bethany Klynn, Carla Maine,
Michele Park, Katharine Pitula, Kelly Rourke, Danielle Schade, Jill Smith, and
Eliza Whoriskey for their help with collecting the data reported here. I am also
grateful to Robert W. Baker, John F. Dovidio, Anne Fontana, Caroline Keating,
Kennon Sheldon, and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on an
earlier version of this article.
204
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Appendix A: College goals inventory
Indicate how important each goal is for you right now by circling one number from
1 (not at all important) to 5 (extremely important). Feel free to add personal goals
that are not listed in the blanks at the bottom of the page.
How important is it to you to...
Not
at all
become a well educated person?
explore topics that are new to you?
live away from your family?
develop enduring friendships?
prepare for a fulfilling career?
increase your earning potential?
learn more about your culture?
learn more about other cultures?
meet new and interesting people?
secure a good job after graduating?
make independent decisions?
develop strong writing skills?
begin an intimate relationship?
pursue admission to graduate programs?
prepare yourself to contribute to society?
decide what you value in life?
earn high grades?
develop as an athelete?
develop as an artist or musician?
learn more about yourself?
assume a leadership position on campus?
join a fraternity/sorority?
enjoy the social life on campus?
increase your ability to solve problems?
develop your academic potential?
explore career options/alternatives?
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
Extremely
2
2
2
2
2
2
2
2
2
2
2
2
2
2
2
2
2
2
2
2
2
2
2
2
2
2
3
3
3
3
3
3
3
3
3
3
3
3
3
3
3
3
3
3
3
3
3
3
3
3
3
3
4
4
4
4
4
4
4
4
4
4
4
4
4
4
4
4
4
4
4
4
4
4
4
4
4
4
5
5
5
5
5
5
5
5
5
5
5
5
5
5
5
5
5
5
5
5
5
5
5
5
5
5
205
COLLEGE GOALS
Not
at all
make contacts for your career?
Extremely
1
2
3
4
5
1
2
3
4
5
1
2
3
4
5
1
2
3
4
5
Of the goals listed on the first page, please choose the four that are most important
to you and list them in the boxes on next two pages. Then, for each goal, respond
to the 5 items below it by circling the one number that corresponds to how true that
statement is for you.
Most important goal: (choose from list on page 204)
Why is this goal important to you?
Not at
all true
for me
Because it is important to the people
closest to me, achieving this goal
would make them happy and proud.
Very
true
for me
1
2
3
4
5
Because it is important to society. I will
1
receive tangible benefits and be considered
a more valuable person if I achieve this goal.
2
3
4
5
Because if I didn’t, I would feel guilty,
ashamed, or anxious. I feel as though it is
a goal I ought to have.
1
2
3
4
5
Because I genuinely believe that this is an
important goal to strive toward. I endorse it
freely and value it wholeheartedly.
1
2
3
4
5
206
REGINA CONTI
Not at
all true
for me
Because working toward this goal will be 1
personally satisfying and enjoyable.
My primary reason is my interest in
the experience itself.
Very
true
for me
2
3
4
5
Second most important goal: (choose from list on page 204)
Why is this goal important to you?
Not at
all true
for me
Very
true
for me
Because it is important to the people closest
to me; achieving this goal would make them
happy and proud.
1
2
3
4
5
Because it is important to society. I will
receive tangible benefits and be considered
a more valuable person if I achieve this goal.
1
2
3
4
5
Because if I didn’t, I would feel guilty, ashamed,
or anxious. I feel as though it is a goal I ought
to have.
1
2
3
4
5
Because I genuinely believe that this is an important 1
goal to strive toward. I endorse it freely and value
it wholeheartedly.
2
3
4
5
Because working toward this goal will be personally 1
satisfying and enjoyable. My primary reason is my
interest in the experience itself.
2
3
4
5
207
COLLEGE GOALS
Third most important goal: (choose from list on page 204)
Why is this goal important to you?
Not at
all true
for me
Because it is important to the people closest to me;
achieving this goal would make them happy and
proud.
Very
true
for me
1
2
3
4
5
Because it is important to society. I will receive
1
tangible benefits and be considered a more valuable
person if I achieve this goal.
2
3
4
5
Because if I didn’t, I would feel guilty, ashamed,
or anxious. I feel as though it is a goal I ought
to have.
1
2
3
4
5
Because I genuinely believe that this is an important 1
goal to strive toward. I endorse it freely and value it
wholeheartedly.
2
3
4
5
Because working toward this goal will be personally 1
satisfying and enjoyable. My primary reason is my
interest in the experience itself.
2
3
4
5
Fourth most important goal: (choose from list on page 204)
Why is this goal important to you?
Not at
all true
for me
Because it is important to the people closest to me; 1
achieving this goal would make them happy and
proud.
2
Very
true
for me
3
4
5
208
REGINA CONTI
Not at
all true
for me
Very
true
for me
Because it is important to society. I will receive
1
tangible benefits and be considered a more valuable
person if I achieve this goal.
2
3
4
5
Because if I didn’t, I would feel guilty, ashamed,
or anxious. I feel as though it is a goal I ought
to have.
1
2
3
4
5
Because I genuinely believe that this is an important 1
goal to strive toward. I endorse it freely and value it
wholeheartedly.
2
3
4
5
Because working toward this goal will be
personally satisfying and enjoyable. My primary
reason is my interest in the experience itself.
2
3
4
5
1
Please respond to each of the following sentence stems by circling the one number
that best corresponds to how you felt while filling out the first two parts of the
questionnaire.
Which statement describes how you feel?
A
B
A is
true
for me
B
true for
me
I found that I had already
thought about the kinds
of goals listed on the
first page.
I had not yet given
1
detailed thought to the
goals I will pursue
at Colgate.
2
3
4
5
I found it very easy to
decide which goals
(on page 204) are
important to me.
I found it difficult to 1
decide which goals are
important to me.
2
3
4
5
209
COLLEGE GOALS
A
B
I knew, right away, why I had to reflect before
the goals I chose are
deciding why the goals
important to me
I chose are important.
(pages 205 & 206).
A is
true
for me
B
true for
me
1
2
3
4
5
I spend a good deal of I very rarely think about 1
time thinking about the the goals I will pursue
goals I will pursue.
at Colgate.
2
3
4
5
I deliberated, toward
I have always known
the end of high school, that I would attend
about whether to
college.
attend college.
1
2
3
4
5
I had a difficult time
I decided which college 1
deciding which college to attend quickly.
to attend.
2
3
4
5
I found filling out this I did not find filling out 1
questionnaire useful in this questionnaire useful.
clarifying my college
goals.
2
3
4
5
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Biographical Note
Regina Conti earned her Ph.D. in social psychology at Brandeis University and is
presently an associate professor of psychology at Colgate University. Her research
investigates the ways in which our guiding motives influence the quality of our
work and experience. She has conducted studies investigating the motivational
determinants of creativity, learning, procrastination, and our experience of time.
Her work on procrastination was recently published in a special issue of the Journal
of Personality and Social Behavior. An article on her research investigating the role
of time in motivational experience will appear in the Journal of Personality in the
upcoming year.
The author has requested enhancement of the downloaded file. All in-text references underlined in blue are linked to publications on ResearchGate.
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