Task-based goals improve course performance

A study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research finds that students that establish task-based goals get robust positive effects on task completion, which in turn increases task performance, while performance-based goals have only small positive effects on course performance.

Photo: Flickr

Policy-makers worry that students exert too little effort, with a negative effect on their learning and employability. Financial incentives are the most common way of addressing this issue, but they have not provided good results. In a new paper, researchers aimed at finding out whether goal setting can motivate students to work harder.

Investigations have found that the lack of self-control has negative effects on learning, and commitment devices can be used to self-regulate behavior. Goal setting can act as a commitment device to allow students to increase their effort.

The study, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, found that students that establish task-based goals get robust positive effects on task completion, which in turn increases task performance, while performance-based goals have only small positive effects on course performance.

The working paper “Using Goals to Motivate College Students: Theory and Evidence from Field Experiments” conducted two field experiments with almost four thousand college students. One experiment asked students to set goals for performance; the other asked them to set goals for a particular task.

“In considering both task-based goals and performance-based goals, our aim is not to test which is more effective. Instead, we aim to understand separately the impacts of two goalsetting technologies that could easily be incorporated into the college setting,” states the paper.

It is also worth noting that task-based goals were more effective for male students than for female students. This is consistent with evidence from other studies, which have shown that males have less self-control than females, thus, they have greater room for improvement in this area.

There are three reasons why performance-based goals are not very effective. First, performance is realized in the future, and present-biased students might not care about the future outcome. Second, goals might not induce effort due to the uncertainty in the relationship between hard work and performance. Third, performance-based goals are likely to seem risky, and therefore less effective.

The results of the study suggest that if tasks are set correctly, task-based goals can improve educational performance and college outcomes. The researchers recommend to incorporate task-based goals in the design of the courses or, in a traditional course format, professors can encourage students to set goals for particular tasks.