Goal Setting Leads to Success

The start of the new school year brings time management and achievement challenges for busy adults. Effective goal setting can make the difference between successful progress and being overwhelmed by all the responsibility. The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) report Using Goals to Motivate College Students: Theory and Evidence from Field Experiments says that goal setting can act as an effective “internal commitment device for students.” A self-set goal allows students to control how and when they complete it.

The report distinguished between performance goals and task-based goals. The report authors believe that students can benefit more from setting a task-based goal, such as how many lectures to attend or practice exams to take, than from an outcome-based or performance goal, such as achieving a particular grade in a course. Students have the control over their achievement of a task-based goal. Students don’t have ultimate control of outcome-based goal achievement since that can depend, at least in part, on a professor’s evaluation.

The NBER report also states that setting task-based goals can help students improve their performance. “(T)ask-based goal setting is an intervention that can improve college outcomes: asking students to set goals for the number of practice exams to complete increased the number of practice exams that students completed and increased course performance.” They concluded that this was because achieving the goal of completing tasks, encouraged the student to set more task-oriented goals which had the final result of improved course performance.

Edwin Locke and Gary Latham have written the definitive studies on goal-setting, and in their work they explain how goal setting works.
1. Goals direct attention toward goal-relevant activities and away from goal-irrelevant activities.
2. Goals have an energizing function
3. Goals affect persistence
4. Goals affect action by leading to using task-relevant strategies.

These principles are interrelated and help explain the NBER results. For nontraditional students who have multiple obligations vying for their time and energy, these principles show why goals can help focus their energy. With limited time for academic study, a clear goal will direct work and activity toward completion of a specific task and help tune-out distractions. Completion of a task eliminates the stress and worry related to it, leaving energy available to move on toward the next step or goal. It is easier to persist toward a defined goal when progress through steps is visible. Part of setting a goal is to define and use the strategies that are relevant to reaching the goal.

When students practice goal setting they earn benefits beyond success in their class. They earn benefits that will help them be successful in their careers. The Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching paper Setting Goals: Who, Why, How? states that, “Students who invest in their goals also demonstrate greater persistence, creativity, and risk ¬taking in their achievement of those goals.” These are traits that can benefit individuals as they work in their career. When someone commits to the behaviors necessary to achieve a goal, they are learning to self-regulate their behaviors and will be able to work towards success in many situations.