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How to Achieve Your Academic Goals

With the fall semester drawing near, and as our children gear up for school, we want them to flourish academically, athletically, and morally. This is especially true for those of us sending our kids off to college or boarding school. So, what advice can we give?

With the fall semester drawing near, and as our children gear up for school, we want them to flourish academically, athletically, and morally. This is especially true for those of us sending our kids off to college or boarding school. So, what advice can we give?

Often, we encourage our children to set goals. We have an almost religious belief in goal setting. But seldom do we distinguish among the types of goals.

Suppose your child wants to improve academically next semester. Is it better to focus on a specific performance-based goal (such as getting an A- in French, B+ in Calculus, etc.) or task-based goals (such as taking four of the five online practice exams offered in a particular class)? Does the type of goal matter? Would one work generally better for males than females?

Professors Damon Clark, David Gill, Victoria Prowse, and Mark Rush examined these issues with a recent study of nearly 4,000 undergraduate students at a public university (the school was not identified in the study).

They ran two experiments. To test the effect of performance-based goals, they randomly assigned about 1,000 students to a control group and another 1,000 students to the performance-based goals group. Same class, same materials. But within this latter group, the students set for themselves the letter grade they wanted to achieve in the semester-long, introductory course, and the desired scores on their midterm and final exams. Each time the students in the performance-based goals group got their quiz, midterm and final scores back, their gradecard reminded them of their personal academic goals for that class. (To graduate with a bachelor’s degree in the associated subject, the students needed a C or better in the course.)

The second experiment tested the effect of task-based goals. Here too about 1,000 students were randomly assigned to the control group and another 1,000 students to the task-based goals group. Again, same class, same materials. But within this latter group, the students were asked to set personal goals on a specific task, namely how many optional online practice exams they would complete before the class’s midterm and final exams. (As the practice exams were optional, they were not penalized if they skipped them.)

Mind you, all the students – in which ever group they were — had the opportunity to take these online practice exams. Indeed, the first page of the course syllabus emphasized to all students the opportunity to take these practice exams. Moreover, all students could access their private personalized online gradecard that tracked their performance. Each student could find out how well they were doing academically to date in the course.

So what did the study find? The students on average set high goals for themselves. Students in the performance-based goals group sought on average a grade of 90%. Students in the task-based goals group sought on average to take 80% of the practice exams.

Few students, however, actually achieved their goal. Roughly 25% of the students achieved their performance-based goal; roughly half the students achieved their task-based goal. But as the SNL-character Stuart Smalley would say, “…and that’s…okay.” By setting the task-based goal, the student was likelier to complete more online practice exams, than they would absent the goal.

Not only did the task-based goals increase the likelihood of completing the specific tasks, the setting (and completing) the task-based goals also led to better performance in the course. Interestingly male students appeared to benefit more from setting task-based goals than the female students. Setting the goals increased the number of practice exams the male students took (by about one extra exam), and their performance in the course (by about two points in credit and an increase in the probability of achieving an A– or better by almost ten percentage points). In contrast, setting the goals increased the number of extra practice exams the female students took by a tiny amount (less than 0.2 of an exam) and the result was not statistically significant. The study’s authors posit that male students might have less self-control than female students.

Thus setting (and accomplishing) specific task-based goals appeared to help the male students’ academic performance in the class.

In contrast, no such finding could be made for performance-based goals. Although the students in the performance-based goals group did slightly better than those in the control group, the difference was very small and not statistically significant (meaning there was a sufficiently high probability (i.e., more than 5 to 10 percent) of observing similar results without any of the students making any goals). There are several caveats. (See below.*)

But for student-athletes, the study’s findings may seem intuitive. For female high school rowers, breaking 8 minutes and then 7:30 on a 2,000-meter piece on the ergometer are often the goals. For males, the goals are often breaking 7 minutes, and then 6:30. Track and swimming have their own benchmarks.

But achieving that athletic goal for many is not self-fulfilling. By setting 7:30 as the 2K goal, it will not naturally animate all the workouts, diet, sleep patterns etc. in the direction of attaining that goal. So how then does your daughter break 7:30? Usually by specific workouts directed toward that goal. She assesses where she is, any particular weaknesses she has, and specific workouts and strategies to help her reach that goal. Then over the weeks she practices 2Ks to see how well she is progressing toward that 7:30 goal.

While task-based goals may seem intuitive to athletes, they may be harder to identify and implement in the classroom. Teachers, unlike the one in this study, may not offer practice exams with substantive feedback. So what can your child do?

One thing is for your child to come up with a roadmap of tasks that can help him or her improve academically.

Second encourage your child to ask the professor for tips to do well in the course. Typically this would include (a) at a minimum, to finish all the readings before class; (b) actively reading (such as writing comments in the margin identifying key issues and questions); (c) being prepared to discuss the materials in class; (d) identifying answers, issues or questions that came up in class that were contrary to what your child expected (for example a math problem with the same answer but a different process in reaching that answer); (e) creating a study outline for the course; (f) seeking from the professor any practice exams; and (g) meeting with the professor to go over the answers on the practice exam.

Finally, we love to see progress as linear. Namely each task will take us closer to the ultimate goal. But as any athlete knows, some practices are better than others. Some days you cannot lift five additional pounds. Half the students in the study, for example, did not achieve their task-based goal. But they still benefited. Setting that higher goal prompted them to take more tests than they otherwise would. So, encourage your child to identify the tasks to achieve their academic goals, and even more encouragement when they stumble.

The study is Damon Clark, David Gill, Victoria Prowse, and Mark Rush, Using Goals to Motivate College Students: Theory and Evidence from Field Experiments, National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 23638 (July 2017),

*One caveat is that the study involved one (unspecified) undergraduate introductory class at one university. Hopefully others will build on this study to see if they get similar results for upper-class courses. Second, the task here (online practice exams) was closely related to the performance on the exam. It is unclear how other tasks (such as more outside reading) would affect the grade. Third, the measured outcome (and success) was the letter grade, not necessarily the skills the students acquired. (Outside of skills-based classes, that is often a question.) Fourth, it is unknown what effect setting both task-based and performance-based goals would have had. Would setting both goals have helped to improve academic performance by an even greater margin? Finally, some students are intrinsically motivated. For example, about fifteen percent of the students in the control group (who were not asked to provide any goal) completed all fifteen of the available online practice exams. Moreover, the women in the control group completed on average more online practice exams than the men. Although the authors posit this to less self-control by the male students, one wonders whether other factors might have been at play. Was this a major (or university) which attracted relatively more intrinsically motivated female students?

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