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Crossing the Finish Line

Operational Definition: What is Goal Commitment?

Motivation is a complex construct with many theoretical conceptualizations. It is also commonly misunderstood by faculty, staff, and administrators, who label students as simply being “motivated” or “unmotivated.” While such attributions may, in some ways, be true, in order to improve student success, it is necessary to gain a deeper understanding of why and how students are unmotivated so that efforts can be made to change that state.

Goal Commitment in the ISSAQ framework is a facet most closely related to a measure of motivation toward retention, persistence, and completion. It’s operational definition, focusing on a student’s value and prioritization of a college degree goal, is rooted in two widely studied theories of motivation and behavior.


First, expectancy-value theory (EVT) frames human behavior as being driven by two perceptions. The “value” aspect deals with an individual’s perceived importance of that behavior, and it is this aspect that is closely related to Goal Commitment. “Expectancy” refers to an individual’s belief (or expectation) that they are likely to successfully perform that behavior (see Wigfield, Tonks, & Klauda, 2009; note that expectancy relates to Self-Efficacy, which is also included in the ISSAQ framework). Barron and Hulleman (2015), in discussing academic motivations, add perceived cost as an additional

aspect of EVT, which is also addressed by several ISSAQ items.


Another noted psychological theory that relates to Goal Commitment is the Theory of Planned Behavior (TpB; Ajzen, 1991; Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975; also referred to as the “Theory of Reasoned Action”). According to TpB, behavior is best predicted by intention, which is in turn predicted by three factors: attitudes, norms, and efficacy. Attitudes refer to positive/negative evaluations of the behavior, and are closely related to Goal Commitment. Efficacy, like expectancy, deals with one’s perceived ability to perform the behavior (and, again, relate to Self-Efficacy in the ISSAQ framework). Finally, norms refer to the perceived social acceptance or endorsement of the behavior, and relate to several items addressed by Sense of Belonging in the ISSAQ framework.


TpB has been widely studied and applied in a wide array of settings. Perhaps most importantly, a meta-analysis of behavioral change interventions based on TpB found them to have significant impacts across a wide array of settings (Steinmetz et al., 2016).


Empirical Relationship to Success (Does it Predict Student Success?)

Repeated studies have found factors similar to Goal Commitment to be strongly related to student outcomes in higher education. The Robbins et al. (2004) meta-analysis, comparing academic, noncognitive, and socioeconomic predictors of both academic success and retention, found “academic goals” to have an estimated correlation with retention exceeding that of high school GPA, SAT/ACT scores, and socioeconomic status. 


Both Robbins et al., as well as a meta-analysis by Richardson, Abraham, and Bond (2012), found goal commitment to be significantly related to GPA, though not in the same magnitude as measures of academic preparation (e.g., HSGPA, ACT/SAT).


Finally, Markle et al. (2013) found “commitment to college goals” to be significantly predictive of first-semester GPA, retention, and performance in entry-level English courses.

Practical Relationship to Success

Reframing “motivation” as Goal Commitment has several practical implications in understanding and supporting student success. First, when working with a student who may be perceived as “unmotivated,” Goal Commitment - when considered with ISSAQ factors - can identify underlying mechanisms of that mindset. Is it due to to a student’s lack of belief in themselves (i.e., Self-Efficacy)? Is it because they feel unsupported by those around them (i.e., Sense of Belonging)? Or, is it, in fact, their perceived value of their path in college: Goal Commitment.


The relationship between Goal Commitment and student success is likely intuitive: a student is unlikely to put forth effort toward something they do not value and/or prioritize. More importantly, however, this multifaceted framing of motivation allows for more targeted messaging and interventions that relate to a particular student’s strengths and challenges. This helps faculty, staff, and administrators avoid labels such as “unmotivated” and, instead, identify mindsets and attitudes that can be discussed with students.

How do I help students improve in Goal Commitment?

Goal Commitment is a Dispositional Factor.

This means that direct interventions should be provided in the context of a broader coaching conversation.

Goal Commitment is perhaps the quintessential Dispositional Factor in the ISSAQ framework. Helping drive the perceived value and importance of a college degree can certainly be informed by external resources (e.g., articles about the importance of a college degree, activities to help with goal setting), but changing a student's values and goals will require meaningful conversation and coaching. 


To this end, you will note that the Student Resource Hub mostly works to frame students' perspectives and connect them with institutional resources. As a Coach, you may not be the individual to have these conversations with students, but understanding both the individual and institutional strategies for addressing Goal Commitment can help connect students with the appropriate external and institutional resources.



Abel, J. R., & Deitz, R. Despite Rising Costs, College Is Still a Good Investment (No. 20190605). Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Ajzen, J. (1991). The theory of planned behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 50, 179–221.

Barron, K. E., & Hulleman, C. S. (2015). Expectancy-value-cost model of motivation. Psychology, 84, 261-271.

Chan, R. Y. (2016). Understanding the purpose of higher education: An analysis of the economic and social benefits for completing a college degree. Journal of Education Policy, Planning and Administration, 6(5), 1-40.

Fishbein, M., & Ajzen, J. (1975). Beliefs, attitudes, intention and behavior: An introduction to theory and research. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Markle, R., Olivera-Aguilar, M., Jackson, T., Noeth, R., & Robbins, S. (2013). Examining evidence of reliability, validity, and fairness for the SuccessNavigator assessment. ETS Research Report (No. RR-13-12). Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

Poropat, A. E. (2009). A meta-analysis of the five-factor model of personality and academic performance. Psychological bulletin, 135(2), 322.

Richardson, M., Abraham, C., & Bond, R. (2012). Psychological correlates of university students’ academic performance: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 138(2), 353-387.

Robbins, S. B., Lauver, K., Le, H., Davis, D., Langley, R., & Carlstrom, A. (2004). Do psychosocial and study skill factors predict college outcomes? A meta-analysis. Psychological bulletin, 130(2), 261.

Steinmetz, H., Knappstein, M., Ajzen, I., Schmidt, P., & Kabst, R. (2016). How effective are behavior change interventions based on the theory of planned behavior?. Zeitschrift für Psychologie.

Wendler, C., Bridgeman, B., Markle, R., Cline, F., Bell, N., McAllister, P., & Kent, J. (2012). Pathways through graduate school and into careers. Educational testing service.

Wigfield, A., Tonks, S., & Klauda, S. L. (2009). Expectancy-Value Theory. In Handbook of motivation at school (pp. 69-90). Routledge.

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