Break goals down

Goals, therefore, need to be specific but we also benefit from breaking them down into manageable chunks, that is, sub-goals that can be pursued individually but ultimately lead us to our long-term goal. We can approach our sub-goals in different ways by either identifying the different tasks needed to complete each one or breaking them down into pockets of time or as a series of repeated tasks.

Marginal gains

The first method is similar to the concept of marginal gains, a method that attracted a great deal of attention when applied to the Great Britain cycling team. The idea is that by breaking down our goals into a series of components and improving the performance of each component by, say, 1 per cent, we can make a dramatic difference to our overall long-term goal. In terms of cycling, there are many factors that contribute to success, such as strength, stamina, technique, diet and so on, and by focussing on these individually we add to the whole. A teacher might, therefore, set a goal for a student to raise their performance by one grade, then break down the goal into the components involved. We might slightly increase subject knowledge while improving exam technique. We could also take this further by, perhaps, reducing exam-related anxiety and looking at other factors such as quality and quantity of sleep and concentration. By breaking the larger goal down into discrete components, the ultimate aim becomes more manageable (and when tasks are more manageable the more likely people are to cope when things don't go according to plan).

Time management

The second method involves time management - how much time we need to put aside in order to reach our goal. An example of this was a study conducted by one of history's most influential psychologists, Albert Bandura (Bandura & Schunk, 1981). Along with Dale Schunk, Bandura recruited children struggling with maths and gave them all intervention booklets consisting of 42 pages of around 258 subtraction problems. The children were then split into two groups. One group were advised to complete six pages in each of the seven allotted sessions while the other group were given no such advice. The group who were given the advice not only progressed more rapidly, they also showed a greater enjoyment for maths at the end of the seventh session. This also makes intuitive sense; breaking down, say, a two-thousand word essay into sections with approximate word counts is much less arduous than tackling the task head on without guidelines. This method is particularly useful if you need to repeat a set of activities on a regular basis, such as once a day or once a week.

Tacking smaller daily goals is, therefore, preferable to tackling a large one. Similar results have been found in other settings and with different types of people. For example, academics who commit to writing one page a day are actually more prolific than those thought of as 'binge writers' (Service & Gallagher, 2017, p. 35). What we are doing here is noting the importance of our proximal (short-term) and distal (long-term) goals and the relationship between them. While our distal goals maintain our drive towards the ultimate goal, proximal goals generate a clear focus of what needs doing in the here and now.

No matter how hard we try, however, even setting very specific goals won't necessarily lead to better performance. This is especially the case in education if students assign their own goals. Students will often set goals that require some kind of prerequisite knowledge that they fail to recognise. If I were to set the goal, 'I want to play guitar in a rock band' (a goal that is both specific and challenging), I would be neglecting the obvious weakness of this cunning plan, namely, I don't yet know how to play guitar. This is particularly relevant if we are discussing learning specific goals because we may very well choose a goal that we are ill-equipped to achieve. Teachers, therefore, need to recognise that often it's best to set goals for students rather than allowing them to set their own goals. That said, letting students choose their own goals can be beneficial, but teachers need to be cautious. Choosing our own goals increases feelings of autonomy and encourages intrinsic motivation. Self-set goals have also been found to increase task engagement, benefit psychological wellbeing and, at least in some studies, enhance performance. Self Determination Theory (a highly influential model of motivation) would suggest that it's much better for students to set their own goals than have a teacher assign them; however, research also finds that having goals assigned by a superior, such as a teacher, is a more effective motivator than self-assigned goals. Other-assigned goals also appear to encourage commitment and persistence over time, while also showing a more consistent pattern with regards to performance, while students who self-assign goals often struggle to consistently pursue them (see Seo, Patall, Henderson & Steingut, 2018).

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