The right—and wrong—kinds of goals can affect student grades

Focusing less on final results can help students achieve better final grades, reports Nick Roll for Inside Higher Ed.

During a survey of nearly 4,000 college students, authors for a research paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research measured the outcomes of two distinct kinds of goals: performance-based and task-based. Performance-based goals were defined as a desire by a student to earn a specific grade by the end of the course, and task-based goals were the desire to focus on the specific tasks required to reach that grade.

The participating students were all undergraduates enrolled in an on-campus four-credit course at an undisclosed public university. The researchers divided the students into two groups, one that focused on performance-based goals and another that used task-based goals.

The researchers found that performance-based goals did not have a statistically significant effect on students' final grades. But the group of students who focused on task-based goals did end up with stronger academic performance, writes Roll.

The findings suggest that students who set performance-based goals are not always aware of the steps they need to take in order to achieve those end goals, according to Victoria Prowse, one of the authors of the paper and an associate professor in the economics department at Purdue University.

The researchers say their findings also provide another way to motivate students to do well academically. Other strategies such as rewarding students with money can be difficult to deploy on a large-scale basis, writes Roll. But getting students to focus on short-term, manageable goals is not only free, but can be used at any institution, large or small.

Advisors, faculty, and other student-facing campus leaders can help students implement this strategy. This could involve getting students to commit to things they've already been assigned, but helping them look at the short-term results instead of the final grade. For example, focusing on the benefit of doing a particular homework assignment or studying for an exam, writes Roll.

The researchers acknowledge that their study did have limitations. A focus on task-based goal setting was generally more effective for male students than female students, which Prowse attributes to the amount of self-control and discipline that female students already possess without the help of this strategy. Furthermore, it seemed to work better for students who were already doing just fine academically, but not so much for lower-performing students, writes Roll (Roll, Inside Higher Ed, 8/1).

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