A Literature Review of Goals and Self-Efficacy Beliefs in Mathematics 

Categories: Goals In Life

Before beginning an action research project, it is important to search the current literature for related topics and research that informs the action research plan. Action research focuses on applying research to a teacher’s personal classroom and empowering the classroom teacher as their own researcher. When a teacher sees an issue, they are able to look at past research surrounding that issue and identify key themes that support and direct their own practice. For me, I noticed the issue of a lack of self- confidence in regards to mathematics in the students that I teach.

This led me to initially research methods of improving student self-efficacy in mathematics through teaching goal setting. My thought was that if students could learn to set reasonable academic goals that they could track and accomplish, they would develop a growth mindset and higher self-efficacy that would ultimately lead to higher achievement in mathematics.

Research Focus and Themes

The focus of my action research is measuring the impact of goal setting on self-efficacy in mathematics.

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Both goal setting and self-efficacy are buzz word topics in mathematics because they relate to what is considered a growth mindset. In the Mathematical Mindsets, fixed versus growth mindsets are explored in detail as the authors explain how the brain is malleable and its ability can always increase (Boaler & Dweck, 2015). This original reading sparked my research and is connected to several article I found related to goal setting and self-efficacy.

For me, the outcome I want to see in my students is an increase in the belief that they are able to learn and grow, specifically in their mathematics ability and understanding.

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As a teacher, I believe that all students can learn math, but many of my students do not share that belief. The main research question I would like to study is “how will my use of planning and implementing goal-oriented mathematics tasks and teaching goal-setting practices impact student self-efficacy in unit 2 of Analytic Geometry?” The main themes that I chose to research were broadly, goals and self-efficacy. The research I found overall revealed an interwoven connection between mindset, goal-orientation, self-efficacy and achievement.

Types of Goal Setting in the Classroom

The main intervention I want to try in my classroom is teaching and practicing goal-setting. Instead of researching different techniques to teach goal setting, I wanted to know more about the types of goals that are most effective in impacting students beliefs. I found that both student and teacher goals were examined and connected to student performance or mindset. When students develop a mindset that they can grow and become better at a task or subject, like math, then they will view challenges as opportunities to grow (Boaler & Dweck, 2015).

Boaler & Dweck (2015) summarized many years of research into their book which promotes the importance of students developing a growth mindset in order to achieve in mathematics today. Students with growth mindsets are more likely to write and follow growth goals (Bostwick, Collie, Martin, & Durksen, 2017). In this 2017 study, Bostwick et al. studied the underlying impact of a growth orientation shown through three measured growth factors: growth mindset, self-based growth goals, and task-based goals. Through an online survey that tested each of these factors, 119 Australian students across socioeconomic classes and school types were studied.

For my research, I was curious to see the impact of growth based goals versus task-based goals. Growth based goals are aimed at improving one self, like setting a personal best, whereas task-based goals are aimed at improving ones mastery or understanding of the task itself; these both differ from classic goals which are focused on outperforming peers (Bostwick, Collie, Martin, & Durksen, 2017). For my action research, I want students to think about both types of goals: growth-based and task-based. I want them to aim to do their best but also set goals of mastering certain content that lines up with the standards. While this study did not mention which of these goals made more of an impact, the evidence of students selecting either type of goal showed that they had an orientation towards growth (Bostwick, Collie, Martin, & Durksen, 2017).

It makes sense that the study found, “It is thus evident that when students are oriented toward growth, they are more likely to be engaged and achieve higher results (given they are striving for growth)” (Bostwick, Collie, Martin, & Durksen, 2017). In the section on further analysis, the researcher suggested looking into both goals and mindsets together to impact student performance. I think that Boaler and Dweck (2015) would agree that growth mindsets are related to growth goals and together both of these are needed for academic growth, especially in mathematics. For my research, I wondered if I could set reasonable goals for my students and see the same results as when they set goals for themselves. Researchers in The Netherlands found that teacher-set goals were effective in improving the performance of initially low performing elementary school students (Ritzema, Deunk, Bosker, & Kuijk, 2016).

A group of 361 2nd and 3rd grade students were tracked as the teachers practiced collaboratively giving students growth goals based on pre-test scores and post-test projected abilities. To combat the subjective nature of teacher’s setting goals for students, teachers went through strict training and had to follow a step-by-step process of goal setting via rubrics and outlined descriptions of each level of academic performance. However, even with these precautions in place, there is question as to how appropriate the goals that the teacher selected were. Examining the data showed that 81% of students met their teacher goals, which may actually indicate they were too easy (Ritzema, Deunk, Bosker, & Kuijk, 2016).

This brought up an issue I hadn’t considered: meeting a goal is not an indication of growth in all circumstances, especially when the goals are classically defined, as they were in this study. The goals that the teachers set for their students in this 2016 study were performance goals on standardized tests, which I do not want to focus on in my action research. The study did confirm that I want students to develop growth goals because they found that higher teacher goals showed higher achievement (Ritzema, Deunk, Bosker, & Kuijk, 2016). Even though this study focused on teacher goal setting in elementary school, it aligns with Bostwick et. al.’s research that a goal-orientation improves academic performance. As part of my own action research, I want set classic goals for my students to show them that I believe they can improve, and that I want to help them grow, as all of these studies so far have shown the importance of.

However, while it may be more straightforward to become an expert in setting goals for my students for an action research focus, this research of teacher-set goals specifically directed me back to thinking that I want to study student’s own goals and their self-efficacy rather than my goals for them. I attribute this clarity of focus to the results of the 2016 study. The results of teacher-set goals showed “that the positive change influenced the posttest scores of initially low performers in a positive way, but negatively affected those of initially high performers” (Ritzema, Deunk, Bosker, & Kuijk, 2016). Both of these studies clarified that I would like to focus on my students developing a growth orientation through growth and task goals, and supplemented by me setting goals for their performance in a more classic format.

Goal Setting Framework

As mentioned, the idea of goal setting is being explored all throughout the world at this time, as many teachers and researchers are realizing the power of students motivating their own learning through goal setting. In two unique cases, an entire curriculum was built around this principle that goal setting could significantly impact student performance, growth, and achievement. For both middle school traditional students and high school students with special needs, researchers note the importance of self-regulation through goal setting. When Vermont legislated Act 77 which mandated that all students create a personal learning framework for their curriculum, teachers took research into their own hands and studied the impact of personal learning platforms (PLP) on student engagement and the teaching practice in a middle school humanities cohort (Nagle & Taylor, 2017). During this 2 year study, students in the 7th and 8th grade began to be coached through a scaffolded process of goal writing, which was tracked through Blogger and Google platforms.

Teachers found that student originally had difficulty with the goal writing process. They wrote broad outcome oriented goals like “make a goal in soccer” at first but eventually developed the habit of focusing on process- oriented goals like “becoming better at soccer” (Nagle & Taylor, 2017). This finding was encouraging to me because it showed that through explicit training and showing students expectations of written goals, they did improve with goal writing ability, which I hope to see in my action research. Setting goals develops a growth mindset and as students explore who they are and what they want to do, they realize what the are capable of.

Furthermore, I think that using an online platform for writing and tracking like Blogger or Google may work well in my action research so that I can view everyone’s goals and chart progress with them in one location. Through the shift that Act 77 brought to the curriculum, students learned how to set and work towards their goals which allowed students to lead more of the learning in the classroom and increased engagement (Nagle & Taylor, 2017). While my action research won’t try to change the whole curriculum or graduation requirements, which was the context of this particular study, the notable improvement of student goal writing and engagement in a classroom context impacted my intended research. This study gave me an idea on how to use technology to assist with goal setting and tracking as well.

Similarly, another study in an alternative environment found that goal setting helped students with IEPs gain life skills and academic proficiency in a modified curriculum (Buzza & Dol, 2015). Buzza and Dol (2015) “studied the effects of goal-setting intervention on self-efficacy, motivation beliefs, and academic engagement in alternative 10 grade math classes for learners with special needs.” The students in this study were in an alternative program focused on math and literacy. They were enrolled in classes that gave them certificates of skills that local businesses said they wanted in a new employee. They enacted a goal setting process under a self-regulated learning (SRL) model (Buzza & Dol, 2015).

Goals were read and coded based on 4 criteria: completion, emotional links, detail, and focus, while self-efficacy and motivation was measured through Likert-scaled survey. The sample size was small, around 12 students, due to absenteeism, and the only statistically significant improvement of the goal intervention was goal quality, not motivation, efficacy or achievement (Buzza & Dol, 2015). While the aggregated data did not show marked differences, individual students did improve significantly in their motivation, self-efficacy, and achievement during the goal writing intervention time (Buzza & Dol, 2015).

I found the framework that was used in both of these studies were similar, though the context and population was different. In both cases, researchers taught students how to write goals through modeling and feedback on goal quality and measured a difference in student’s ability to write and maintain goals as well as the academic interest and motivation in some cases (Buzza & Dol, 2015; Nagle & Taylor, 2017). These two studies together informed my action research project by encouraging me to use previously developed methods and models to teach goal setting. These studies also reflect the outcome that goal-orientation can be improved and its development affects students learning behavior (Bostwick, Collie, Martin, & Durksen, 2017).

When students understand how to write and track specific, measurable, appropriate goals, they will begin to see marked differences in performance as well as mindset shifts towards an attitude of growth. Self-Efficacy in Mathematics In general, my understanding of self-efficacy is the belief that one can do or be successful at a particular skill. More specifically, “academic self-efficacy, how self-efficacy is perceived in school context, is learners’ self- perceived confidence to successfully perform a particular academic task” (Recber, Isiksal, & Koc, 2016). As it turns out, studying self-efficacy is rather difficult to do in isolation. Ones belief about oneself are so interconnected to many other facets of their history, experiences, and culture. Two studies, one much more recent than the other, show differences between self-efficacy and achievement.

In 1987, Brahm Norwich studied self-efficacy’s impact on mathematics achievement while “factors, such as self-concept of math ability, prior task achievement, and prior self-efficacy were taken into account.” Seventy-two students age 9-10 performed a mathematics task and rated their believed proficiency on an 11 point scale through 4 trials. Through comparing student’s performance and believed performance, Norwich found that there was no statistical evidence to show that self-efficacy contributed to predicting performance (Norwich, 1987). In other words students who thought they did well, did not necessarily do better than students who thought they got it wrong. This study questioned results and the leading idea that self-efficacy can predict performance.

The study pointed out the multiple factors that contribute to performance, and highlighted that self-efficacy is merely one factor (Norwich, 1987). Though this is not what I expected to see in research, this was an important article because it reminded me that in my action research efforts to improve self-efficacy, even if I am successful, I may not automatically see increased academic performance. The complexity of self-efficacy was further examined in a more recent study focusing on revealing the impact of gender and school type of self-efficacy as well as other factors in mathematics (Recber, Isiksal, & Koc, 2016). This 2016 study examined seventh graders self-efficacy through a 14 question Likert scale questionnaire developed by previous researchers called MSES (Recber, Isiksal, & Koc, 2016).

The goal was to see if school type (private, public, Catholic, etc.) or gender impacted self-efficacy. They found that gender had a statistically significant on self-efficacy scores where boys had higher levels of self-efficacy in mathematics than girls but school type did not impact self-efficacy (Recber, Isiksal, & Koc, 2016). While the study measured other factors, the self-efficacy section was of the most interest to me and my action research. The results highlighted to me that I may need to support my female students more in the development of their belief that they are able to complete a mathematics task successfully. I wonder if this difference shown in middle schoolers impacts the gender discrepancies that are found in mathematically rigorous careers like engineering.

Similarly to the previous study from 1987, this research shows there is a reverse impact of academic performance and self-efficacy (Recber, Isiksal, & Koc, 2016). This intuitively makes sense because students who see academic success will think they are able to repeat that success on subsequent performance. This finding from both studies relates to my action research because my hope is that students will see their ability to meet personal growth goals that will impact self-efficacy which will then impact their goal setting in the same way that academic performance and self-efficacy are related. Because self-efficacy is so complex, as a meta-cognitive process, I hope to simply measure student’s beliefs and see what happens as introduce goal setting and growth mindset exercises into the classroom.

Concluding Connections of Literature

Overall, the studies mentioned in this review connect the underlying theories and principles to precious research that focuses on growth mindsets, goals, and self-efficacy. Unfortunately, many of the studies that I found focused on younger populations than what I will be working in (Nagle & Taylor, 2017; Bostwick, Collie, Martin, & Durksen, 2017; Ritzema, Deunk, Bosker, & Kuijk, 2016; Norwich, 1987; Recber, Isiksal, & Koc, 2016). They highlighted goal setting or self-efficacy in elementary or middle school students. This is most likely attributed to the fact that one’s belief about one’s ability is formed rather early on and is more difficult to shift in order students, in my opinion. However, everyone’s mindsets have the ability to be modeled and shifted, and teaching goals in a way to motive students towards believing that they can grow in their ability may be most impactful later in life (Boaler & Dweck, 2015).

The research and article I found about goals and self-efficacy gave me insight into data collection methods, which primarily center around coding student goals based on given criteria and student surveys before, during, and after mathematics tasks to measure self-efficacy on a Likert scale. There are many more studies about goal-setting theories and impacts as well as students and teacher’s self-efficacy and the impact that your beliefs can have on your ability. After searching through the literature, I decided to narrow my focus on primarily teaching students how to write, track, and attain growth and task based goals to improve student’s academically related self-efficacy and overall mindset towards their ability to grow in mathematics.


  1. Boaler, J., & Dweck, C. (2015). Mathematical Mindsets. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  2. Bostwick, K., Collie, R. C., Martin, A., & Durksen, T. (2017). Student’s Growth Mindsets, Goals, and Academic Outcomes in Mathematics. 225, 107-116.
  3. Buzza, D., & Dol, M. (2015). Goal Setting Support in Alternative Math Classes: Effects on Motivation and Engagement (Vol. 25). Waterloo, Ontario, Canada: Exceptionality Education International.
  4. Mrazek, A., Ihm, E., Molden, D., Mrazek, M., Zedelius, C., & Schooler, J. (2018). Expanding minds: Growth mindsets of self-regulation and the influences on effort and perseverance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 164-180.
  5. Nagle, J., & Taylor, D. (2017). Using a personal learning framework to transform middle grades teaching practice (Vol. 11). Colchester: Information Age Publishing, inc.
  6. Norwich, B. (1987). Self-Efficacy and Mathematics Achievement: A Study of Their Relation. Journal of Educational Psychology, 384-387.
  7. Recber, S., Isiksal, M., & Koc, Y. (2016). Investigating self-efficacy, anxiety, attitudes and mathematics achievement regadrding gender and school type. Anales De Psicologia, 41-51.
  8. Ritzema, E., Deunk, M., Bosker, R., & Kuijk, M. (2016). The relation between teacher-set performance goals and students’ mathematical achievement. Groningen, The Netherlands: Groningen Institute of Educational Research.

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A Literature Review of Goals and Self-Efficacy Beliefs in Mathematics . (2021, Dec 10). Retrieved from http://studymoose.com/a-literature-review-of-goals-and-self-efficacy-beliefs-in-mathematics-essay

A Literature Review of Goals and Self-Efficacy Beliefs in Mathematics 

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