Goals in educational settings

The goals we pursue in our daily lives aren't unlike those in educational settings such as school, college and university - the specific goal will be different yet the way it is selected and pursued is likely to be very similar. The overarching term for such goals is achievement goals and they are successful due mainly to the way they encourage self-regulated learning, or the changes in cognitive processes that lead to strategic action. This action is most often seen in the ability of a student to monitor, plan and evaluate their own learning as an integral part of goal pursuit. Achievement goals are, therefore, said to influence the quality, timing and appropriateness of cognitive strategies that, in turn, control the quality of one's accomplishments (Covington, 2000).

The way in which students approach goals, however, matters. If a student sets a goal as a means of outperforming others and appearing intelligent in the eyes of peers, there is a greater likelihood that the chosen goals will be less challenging. Easier goals lead to a higher rate of success, which is often seen as a sign of intelligence. They are also pursued differently because the student doesn't see them as being particularly difficult, so less effort is required and they can be achieved with little motivation. This view of goals as vehicles of self-esteem is known as the performance goal orientation and contrasts with the learning, or mastery, goal orientation.

The learning goal orientation constitutes a more adaptive and flexible mindset. Students who adopt this orientation are concerned with increasing their own competence and have a greater appreciation and understanding of what is being learned. Their goals tend to be self-referenced (doing better than the time before) rather than being concerned with looking intelligent or successful amongst their peers. They also display a tendency towards self-regulated learning, affectively monitoring their progress towards their goals and adjusting or discarding strategies that don't aid goal pursuit - all essential strategies for remaining academically buoyant.

Selecting and setting goals

Research by Edwin Locke and others has discovered that the more specific and challenging the goal is, the higher level of task performance. On the other hand, goals that are too easy or too vague or abstract result in less effort and commitment (Locke & Latham, 2006). For example, setting the goal 7 will do my best’ is far too vague to be useful while 7 will learn to play guitar' is more concrete and challenging.

A good example of this is a 2006 study by Gary Latham and Travor Brown (Latham & Brown, 2006). In their investigation into learning versus outcome goals, students on an MBA programme who set specific difficult learning goals (for example, to master specific course-related material) achieved higher grade point averages than those students who set only long-term, or end, goals (e.g. obtaining an A on the next test). This is, in part, due to the metacognitive nature of learning goals, that is, they encourage us to plan, monitor and evaluate progress towards goal attainment.

We might be tempted to set a number of different unconnected goals; however, research indicates that choosing one very specific goal is much better than spreading cognitive resources amongst several. One of the reasons New Year's resolutions often fail (in addition to the intention- implementation error discussed a little later) is that people simply choose too many. We need to remember that mental resources appear to be limited and it's all too easy to overload the system. Studies have found, for example, that people save more money if they focus on just one factor (saving for their child's education) rather than saving for several different things, such as education, healthcare and retirement (Soman & Zhao, 2011). This means that we only have one choice, so we'd better make it count.

Goals, therefore, need to be specific with a very clear target. We need to know exactly what success looks like, so a vague target such as 'work harder’ or 'do my best' will result in us not knowing if we have actually achieved our goal. People often pick happiness as a goal and this creates a similar problem in that we cannot be sure of what happiness actually looks like. There are workarounds, but only if we can identify the components that are known to increase our levels of general wellbeing, such as spending more time with friends or helping others. Even then, however, we will need to quantify this a little further, such as spending x amount of my time with my friends or volunteering once a week at the local homeless shelter.

Student goals might be related to achievement (such as 7 want to increase my progress by one grade') or behavioural (7 want to ensure 1 don't get a sanction').

They also need to be time-sensitive, so we need to decide by when we should have reached our goal. We might then suggest to a student that they increase their grade by one at the next half-term assessment or that a student avoids a sanction all week, so by Friday they know if they have achieved their goal.

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