Issues In Educational Research, 10(1), 2000, 77-91.

Task involvement and ego orientation in mathematics achievement: A three year follow-up

Shirley M. Yates
Flinders University


School performance has been related to students' prior achievement, attitudes towards specific aspects of school learning, and to motivational factors (Keeves, 1972). The importance of students' self-efficacy (Schunk, 1996), self regulation (Pintrich & Garcia, 1991; Zimmerman, 1990), self determination (Deci & Ryan, 1991), and causal attributions (Graham, 1991) have been emphasised within motivational psychology. In particular, goal orientation theory has been advanced to explain the relationship between students' beliefs about the causes of school success, and their engagement and persistence in academic learning (Dweck & Sorich, 1999). The present study considered whether achievement gains in mathematics could be predicted over time using measures which involved goal orientation beliefs.

Students' engagement, persistence, and academic achievement have been explained by two different academic goal orientations of task involvement and ego orientation, which in turn were related to students' implicit entity or incremental theories of ability (Dweck, 2000; Dweck & Leggett, 1988). Task involvement goals have been distinguished from ego oriented goals in terms of students' conceptions of success, different reactions for approaching and engaging in achievement activity, and different ways of thinking about the self, the task and the task outcomes (Ames, 1992; Nicholls, Cheung, Lauer & Patashnick, 1989). Through factor analytic studies these two orientations have been determined as independent dimensions of both personal academic goals and beliefs about the causes of school success (Nicholls et al., 1989; Nicholls, Cobb, Wood, Yackel & Patashnick, 1990).

Goal theory researchers have suggested that task involvement and ego orientation goals were orthogonal to each other rather than simply ends of a continuum (Maehr & Pintrich, 1991; Meece & Holt, 1993; Miller et al., 1993; Nicholls & Thorkildsen, 1989; Roedel, Schraw & Plake, 1994). Four dichotomous goal configurations were thus possible, as any given student may be high on both task involvement and ego orientation dimensions, low in both or high in one and low on the other (Schraw, Horn, Thorndike-Christ & Bruning, 1995). In addition, the two goal orientations have been found to be independent of actual and perceived ability (Nicholls et al., 1990). Task involvement and ego orientation were not necessarily fixed characteristics, as they have been influenced by conditions in school environments (Ames, 1992). Dweck (1986, 1989) suggested that the nature of achievement goal orientation changed in relation to subject-matter areas, but Duda and Nicholls (1992) found that high school students' causal explanations of success generalised across subject areas.

As task involved students held an incremental view of ability, they sought to improve their competence by increasing their knowledge and understanding irrespective of the performance conditions (Dweck, 2000). Ames (1992) postulated that effort and outcome covaried within a task involvement goal, with this attributional pattern leading to stronger achievement directed behaviour over time. Students' attention was more likely to be focussed on the intrinsic value of learning (Nicholls, 1984; Butler, 1988; Meece & Holt, 1990), and on effort utilisation, with the belief that effort led to success and that mastery was intrinsic to self-efficacy. Task involved students were oriented towards the development of new skills, to understand their work, to improve their level of competence or to achieve a sense of mastery based on self referenced standards (Dweck, 2000). Within this mental frame, students perceived ability as being incremental and improvable and were more confident in expending or investing effort (Schunk, 1996).

By contrast, ego orientation goals entailed a focus upon ability as a fixed attribute which determined a sense of self-worth (Covington, 1984; Dweck, 1986; Nicholls, 1984). Ego oriented students were motivated by a desire to do better than others, to demonstrate their competence publicly or to achieve success with little effort (Ames, 1992; Covington, 1984; Schraw et al., 1995). Learning was viewed as a way to achieve this desired goal, with attention being directed towards achieving normatively defined success (Dweck, 2000). Effort became a double-edged sword as the self concept could be threatened if trying did not lead to immediate success (Covington & Omelich, 1979b). Over time, effort could be seen as counterproductive, with increased effort interpreted as an indication of lack of ability.

Differences between ego oriented and task involved students have been found in the amount of time students spent on learning tasks, persistence in the face of difficulty, quality of engagement in learning, and use of adaptive mental strategies (Butler, 1987; Elliott & Dweck, 1988; Meece Blumenfeld & Hoyle, 1988; Nolen, 1988; Nolen & Haladyna, 1990; Graham & Golan, 1991). Students' endorsement of task involvement learning goals have resulted in adaptive behavioural responses including strategy shifting, increased effort, reanalysing a problem and persistence in the face of difficulty (Meece & Holt, 1993; Pintrich & De Groot, 1990). Students who endorsed ego orientation goals have been found to be more likely to exhibit maladaptive learning behaviours including low task engagement, less persistence, and the adoption of some helpless responses(Ames & Archer, 1988; Elliott & Dweck, 1988; Meece, et al., 1988). Task involved students have responded to impending failure by remaining task focussed (Dweck & Leggett, 1988), while ego oriented students chose simpler tasks, used inefficient strategies, or adopted an attitude of academic alienation so as to preserve their self image (Dweck & Leggett, 1988).

Clearly then, the adoption of task involvement goals could be expected to lead to long term achievement motivation in students. However, the extent to which this source of achievement motivation is related to actual achievement has not been defined clearly within the existing literature. Furthermore, while achievement in mathematics has been in examined in relation to school-type factors, curriculum considerations, gender differences, student characteristics and background, students' goal oriented beliefs have received little consideration (Bong, 1996). In an earlier report task and ego goal orientation measures did not correlate significantly with concurrently measured achievement in a sample of primary school children (Yates, Yates & Lippett, 1995). The present study was therefore undertaken to investigate the nature of the relationship between measures of task involvement and ego orientation in primary and lower secondary school aged students and their achievement in mathematics over a period of almost three years.



The study commenced in Term 1, 1993, with 328 students from Grades 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 in two South Australian metropolitan primary schools. Both schools were selected on the basis of an invitation from the principals who were interested in factors influencing the mathematics achievement of their students. In the first school students in Grades 4, 6 and 7 took part in the study, while in the second school all students from Grades 3 to 7 participated. In 1995 these students were traced to 26 primary and 24 secondary schools in both the government and non-government sectors. From 1993 to 1995 complete data were available for 243 students.


Progressive Achievement Tests in Mathematics: Tests 1, 2, 3 (ACER, 1984)
The Progressive Achievement Tests in Mathematics (PATMaths) consisted of three multiple choice formatted tests covering a range of general mathematics topics at different levels of difficulty. Items within each test were arranged in content groups in order of increasing difficulty, determined by Rasch analysis of the responses from the standardisation sample tested in November, 1983. Standard scores on the three tests were provided by ACER on a single Rasch scale.

Your Feelings in Mathematics: A Questionnaire
Task involvement and ego orientation goals in mathematics were measured with Your Feelings in Mathematics: A Questionnaire, a variant of the Motivation Orientation Scales (Nicholls et al., 1990; Duda & Nicholls, 1992). The questionnaire was composed of 25 items which commenced with the stem "Do you really feel pleased in maths when ..." followed by a statement reflecting either task involvement or ego orientation, with some filler items in random order. Students rated each statement on a five point scale ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree.

Administration of test and questionnaire
The PATMaths were administered to intact classes in Term 1, 1993 by school personnel in one primary school and by a male researcher in the second. Your Feelings in Mathematics: A Questionnaire was administered to intact classes in both schools by a male researcher. When the students were traced in Term 4, 1995, the test and the questionnaire were administered by either a male or female researcher. PATMaths Test 1, 2 or 3 (Form A) was administered in accordance with the timed standardised procedures specified in the Teachers Handbook (ACER, 1984). The level of the test that was most appropriate for the grade level of the student was chosen, with Test 2 administered to all students in Years 6 and 7, and all Year 9 taking Test 3. Students recorded their responses in pencil on an ACER computer scoring response sheet.


Achievement in mathematics

The PATMaths raw scores for 1993 and 1995 were converted to a scaled score, using the table from the Teachers Handbook (ACER, 1984). During the standardization process, the scaled scores had been calibrated for difficulty with the common-items linking procedure using the Rasch model calibration program BICAL3. The scores for the Tests 1, 2, and 3 were thus able to be placed on a single scale for both 1993 and 1995.

Correlations between mean achievement scores, Grade level, and gender were determined for both 1993 and 1995 (see Table 1 and Figure 1). The significant relationship between Grade level and achievement in both 1993 and 1995 was confirmed with one way analysis of variance, but there was no significant relationship between gender and mathematics achievement(see Table 2). The predictive relationship between achievement in 1993 and 1995 was substantiated with multiple regression using direct entry of the variables, although the Grade level and gender variables were not significant (see Table 3).

Table 1: Mean mathematics achievement scores by Grade level and gender for 1993 and 1995

1993Gender nMeanSD 1995MeanSD
Grade 3 Combined
Grade 548.11
Grade 4 Combined
Grade 652.94
Grade 5 Combined
Grade 754.86
Grade 6 Combined
Grade 857.67
Grade 7 Combined
Grade 956.81
Total Combined

Figure 1

Figure 1: Mean achievement in mathematics by Grade level and gender

Table 2: Analysis of variance: Mathematics achievement in 1993 and 1995
by Grade level and gender

N = 243
Sum of
DF Mean
FSig. F
1993 Mathematics Achievement
1993 Grade level4837.11 41209.2849.460.000
Gender29.13 129.131.19NS
Interaction65.18 416.300.67NS
Residual5696.52 23324.45

Total10671.66 24244.10

1995 Mathematics Achievement
1995 Grade level1817.89 4454.4718.540.000
Gender44.85 144.851.83NS
Interaction89.13 42.280.91NS
Residual5711.81 23324.51

Total7584.95 24231.34

NS = Not Significant

Table 3: Regression analysis: Predicting mathematics achievement in 1995 by
1993 mathematics achievement, Grade level and gender

1995 Mathematics Achievement
N = 243
rBeta tSignificance
of t
1993 Mathematics achievement 0.740.7513.540.000
1993 Grade level 0.43-0.04-0.63NS
Gender -0.06-0.030.70NS
Multiple R = 0.74
R square = 0.54
NS = Not Significant
F = 93.73
Significance of F = 0.000

Your Feelings in Mathematics: A Questionnaire

Prior to the factor analysis of Your Feelings in Mathematics: A Questionnaire with principal components analysis and the oblimin rotation procedure, items 2, 7, 11 and 25, designated as filler items, were deleted . Factor one with an eigen value of 7.47 was composed of 15 items which measured task involvement. Factor 2, with a eigen value of 2.36 was comprised of six items that measured ego orientation. There was a moderate correlation of 0.40 between the two factors. On the basis of these results the questionnaire was then divided into two separate scales of Task Involvement in Mathematics and Ego Orientation in Mathematics, each of which independently met the criterion of unidimensionality for the application of the Rasch procedure. Each scale was then Rasch analysed with the QUEST program (Adams & Khoo, 1993).

Task Involvement in Mathematics
The 15 items that composed the task involvement scale were Rasch analysed using the data from the 1993 administration of the scale to 328 subjects from Grades 3 to 7 (see Table 4). Items 16, 20 and 21 were deleted as their infit mean squares were outside the acceptable range of 0.83 to 1.20. Scores for each student were then calculated on the basis of the 12 items in the final scale, with the case estimates derived from the concurrent equating method. The raw scores for 1993 and 1995 were initially pooled, the case estimates determined from the 486 cases and the estimated scores calculated for each subject for the two occasions. Concurrent methods have been found to yield stronger estimates than equating based on common item difference or anchor item equating procedures (Morrison & Fitzpatrick, 1992; Mohandas, 1996).

Table 4: Item analysis of the 1993 Task Involvement in Mathematics rating scale

n = 328 First analysisFinal analysis
Do you really feel pleased in maths when... Infit
1you really get busy with the work 1.060.551.120.54
3you really understand things 0.970.510.940.54
5you learn new things about mathematics 1.060.521.040.56
6what the teacher says makes you think hard 0.940.660.960.66
9the problems make you think hard 0.960.661.030.66
10you are making good progress in learning difficult things 1.040.521.030.55
13you find a new way to solve a problem 1.020.521.020.54
15something you learn makes you want to find out more 0.950.621.020.62
16you solve a problem by working hard 0.730.70Deleted
17something you find out really makes sense 1.010.551.000.55
18you work hard all the time 0.920.630.940.65
20the teacher looks at your work 1.160.53Deleted
21the teacher says its time for a test 1.320.52Deleted
22you try your hardest 0.910.580.900.61
24the teacher says you are doing excellent work 0.950.460.930.48

Ego Orientation in Mathematics
The six item ego orientation in mathematics scale was analysed with the Rasch procedure using the 1993 data from 328 subjects from Grades 3 to 7. Item 14 was deleted as it did not fit the scale (see Table 5). Estimate scores for each student were then calculated on the basis of the remaining five items, with the case estimates being derived from the concurrent equating of the pooled 1993 and 1995 scores.

Stability of the achievement, task involvement and ego orientation measures
The consistency of relative performance in mathematics was calculated with the intraclass correlation (rho = 0.36) and interclass correlation (r = 0.73). When the stability of task involvement and ego orientation between 1993 and 1995 was measured with intraclass and interclass correlations, it was evident that while neither measure was particularly stable, the task involvement scale was more robust over time (see Table 6).

Table 5: Item analysis of the 1993 Ego Orientation in Mathematics rating scale

n = 328 First analysisFinal analysis
Do you really feel pleased in maths when... Infit
4you know more than the others 0.910.750.940.79
8you do better than the other children 0.850.770.880.80
12you are the only one who can answer a question 1.050.701.110.73
14you can see others making mistakes 1.490.59
19you finish before your friends 1.03 0.741.170.75
23you score better on the test than others 0.810.770.890.79

Table 6: Intraclass (rho) and interclass (r) correlations between the 1993 and 1995 measures of the Progressive Achievement Tests in Mathematics, Task involvement in Mathematics and Ego orientation in Mathematics.

N = 243rhor
Progressive Achievement Tests in Mathematics0.360.73
Task involvement in Mathematics0.320.34
Ego orientation in Mathematics0.180.20

The relationship between mathematics achievement and goal orientation in 1993 with achievement in and goal orientation in mathematics in 1995
The relationships between the measures of achievement and attitudes to mathematics in 1993 were examined by bivariate correlations (see Table 7), and by multiple regression (see Tables 8 and 9). There was a weak correlation between mathematics achievement and task involvement for both 1993 and 1995. There were also significant relationships between task involvement and ego orientation for both years. With direct entry multiple regression for both 1993 and 1995 mathematics achievement was most strongly predicted by prior performance in 1993, but neither task involvement nor ego orientation measured in 1993 significantly added to the prediction of achievement in 1995 (see Table 8).

Table7: Correlations between achievement, task involvement and ego
orientation in mathematics in 1993 and 1995

n = 243 234 56
1 1993 Maths achievement 0.74***0.13*nsnsns
2 1995 Maths achievement
3 1993 Task involvement

4 1995 Task involvement

5 1993 Ego orientation

6 1995 Ego orientation

* p <.05, ** p <.01, *** p <.001 , ns correlation not significant

Table 8: Regression analysis: Predicting mathematics achievement in 1995 by mathematics achievement, task involvement and ego orientation in 1993

1995 Mathematics achievement
N = 243
rBetat Significance of t
1993 Mathematics achievement 0.730.7316.390.00
1993 Task involvement
1993 Ego orientation -
Multiple R = 0.74
R square = 0.55
F = 96.04
Significance of F = 0.000

Table 9: Regression analysis: Predicting task involvement and ego
orientation in 1995 by achievement in mathematics, task involvement and ego orientation in 1993

1995 Mathematics achievement
N = 243
rBetat Significance of t
1993 Mathematics achievement
1993 Task involvement 0.340.294.680.000
1993 Ego orientation
Multiple R = 0.39
R square = 0.15
F = 10.81
Significance of F = 0.000
1993 Mathematics achievement -0.06-0.04-0.64NS
1993 Task involvement -0.02-0.06-0.87NS
1993 Ego orientation
Gender -0.16-0.14-2.290.02
Multiple R = 0.25
R square = 0.06
F = 4.11
Significance of F = 0.003

The effects of the three measures in 1993 on both task involvement and ego orientation respectively in 1995 were then analysed by multiple regression (see Table 9). While there was no significant relationship between mathematics achievement and the two indices of goal orientation, there were interesting relationships between the measures of task involvement and ego orientation. Specifically, there was a significant relationship between task involvement and ego involvement in 1993 with task involvement in 1995, while ego orientation in 1995 was predicted by ego involvement in 1993 only.

Summary of the results

The major findings can be summarised as follows
  1. Mathematics achievement
    Achievement in mathematics in 1993 was strongly predictive of achievement in mathematics in 1995. Analysis of variance indicated that achievement in both 1993 and 1995 was significantly related to the Grade level of the students but not to their gender.

  2. Goal orientations and achievement in mathematics
    Weak but significant correlations were found between task involvement and concurrent achievement (r =0.13 in both cases). Ego orientation did not correlate with achievement in either 1993 or 1995. Overall, goal orientation in mathematics as measured by the task involvement and ego orientation constructs was not related to Grade level or gender except in the case of ego orientation in 1995, where a significant gender difference was evident. In this case boys were found to endorse ego goals more readily than the girls.

  3. The influence of achievement in mathematics, task involvement and ego orientation in 1993 on achievement in mathematics, task involvement and ego orientation in 1995
    Once prior achievement was included in the regression equation, it was found that task involvement failed to add to the prediction of subsequent achievement. Task involvement in 1995 was predicted by both task involvement and ego orientation in 1993, but ego involvement in 1995 was predicted only by the same measure in 1993.


Overall further evidence was found for the remarkably strong impact of past achievement on current achievement, a relationship borne out despite the fact that the majority of students were tested on different forms of the Progressive Achievement Tests in Mathematics, with the scores equated with the common Rasch-derived scale as published in the test manual. These data thus make a further contribution to the known validity of this mathematics achievement instrument.

Goal orientation data, in the form of task involvement and ego orientation questionnaire measures, failed to add to the prediction of achievement over time. Task involvement significantly correlated with achievement across both time phases, but failed to account for additional variance in the 1995 achievement data once the effect of prior achievement had been accounted for in the regression analysis. The notion that goal orientation measured by task involvement, would facilitate actual achievement gain across time was not supported. The second goal dimension of ego orientation similarly did not add to the prediction of achievement gain over time. In hindsight it was evident that the measure of ego orientation was inadequate, as it was based on only five items, and possessed a weak level of stability.

It should be noted that the two goal orientation measures used in this project were based on a trait theory assumption: that it was possible to assess goal orientations at one point in time in order to tap into enduring dispositions. This assumption was supported by other research using similar measures (see Ames, 1992), but it should be recognised that many of the researchers in the goal theory tradition have regarded the goal dimensions as situationally induced states. The extent to which students can be meaningfully assigned to dispositional categories such as "ego oriented" and "task involved" is unknown.

In a further set of analyses, not reported above, quartile splits were used on the goal orientation measures to contrast students extremely high and low on the goal dimensions. In relation to achievement, none of these analyses was significant, thus paralleling the results reported above. Hence, overall, the current data suggest that it would be unwise to make predictions of future performance changes in achievement domains from simple questionnaire measures of dispositional goal orientation.

It certainly is possible, and very likely that goal orientation measures relate meaningfully to achievement gain, but uncovering the nature of this relationship will require designs and measures more complex that the ones used within this study. Past research been very productive in tracing relationships between goal orientation, achievement related indices, and other motivational variables. In the light of the existing literature it is possible that linkages between dispositional goal orientations and achievement gain could be mediated by environmental conditions such as classroom climate and perceived competitiveness which were not addressed in this study.

Significance of the study

  1. The influence of prior performance was evident for mathematics over a three year period for students from Grades 3 to 9.

  2. While task involvement did correlate with the contiguous measure of mathematics achievement in 1993, the evidence indicated that it did not predict subsequent achievement over and above the effects of prior achievement. Ego orientation failed to correlate with achievement at any point in time. This finding however, must be tempered by the evidence that the measures were only weak to moderately stable across time, and the ego measure in particular was based on only a small number of items.

  3. The study has made a significant contribution to the goal orientation literature, particularly given the longitudinal nature of the design.

  4. While the present findings failed to give strong support to the notion that dispositional goal orientations were predictive of achievement gain, there is a large body of evidence within the research literature indicating that goal orientations relate to many aspects of motivated achievement related behaviour. The extent to which goal orientation measures can be regarded as having trait-like qualities is a matter as yet undecided.


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This study was supported by a Flinders University of South Australia Research Board Establishment Grant to Shirley M. Yates in 1995.

Thanks are extended to Professor John Keeves for his kind patience, expert knowledge and encouragement throughout the project.

Thanks are also extended to the staff and students in the 50 schools without whom the study would not have been possible.

Author: Dr Shirley Yates, a senior lecturer in the School of Education at Flinders University, holds qualifications in Speech Pathology, Psychology and Education. Her research interests are centered around developmental and educational psychology. She is currently involved in longitudinal studies of co-education and school climate.

Please cite as: Yates, S. M. (2000). Task involvement and ego orientation in mathematics achievement: A three year follow-up. Issues in Educational Research, 10(1), 77-91.

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