Goal Setting

Updated on Dec 23, 2009

Goal setting is an important component of students' motivation, self-regulation, and achievement in academic settings. A goal is a behavior or outcome that one is consciously trying to perform or attain. Goal setting refers to the process of establishing that behavior or outcome to serve as the aim of one's actions. Goals can exert positive effects in achievement settings by directing learners' attention to important activities and away from distractions and by mobilizing their effort and persistence directed toward goal attainment. Given the centrality of goals to classroom learning, it is important that students set goals that are likely to have desirable effects.


Simply having a goal does not automatically benefit a student's academic performance. Researchers such as Bandura (1986) and Locke and Latham (1990, 2002) have identified various goal properties and have investigated how different goals link with achievement outcomes.

Goals may be cast as absolute or normative. An absolute goal has a fixed standard, such as reading one chapter in a book in one hour. A normative goal is relative to the attainments of others, such as being the first one in class to finish an assignment.

Goals can be distinguished according to how far they extend into the future. Goals may be relatively close at hand (proximal) such as reading one chapter tonight, or more long term (distant) such as reading one chapter by the end of the current week. Proximal goals lead to higher motivation directed toward goal attainment than do long-term goals (Bandura, 1986). Proximal goals are especially beneficial for children because they have short time frames of reference and are not fully developmentally capable of representing long-term outcomes in thought.

Goals also can be distinguished according to the specificity of their performance standards. Goals that incorporate specific standards (e.g., complete 20 problems in one hour) are more likely to enhance motivation and learning than are general goals (e.g., do your best) because specific goals better describe the amount of effort needed to succeed. Motivational benefits are not as great with general goals because almost any level of performance satisfies the standard (Locke & Latham, 2002).

An important goal property is difficulty, or how hard it is to attain the goal. In general, difficult goals (e.g., read a 30-page chapter tonight) boost motivation better than do easier goals (e.g., read five pages tonight), because students persist longer and expend greater effort when they pursue difficult goals. However, goal difficulty and motivation do not bear an unlimited positive relation with one another. Students are not motivated to attempt goals that they believe are impossible to attain. Difficult goals do not raise motivation and learning in the absence of the skills needed to attain them. Goals are motivating when learners view them as challenging but attainable (Locke & Latham, 2002).

Another way to differentiate goals is according to students' level of commitment to attain them. Goals do not affect performance in the absence of commitment (Locke & Latham, 1990). The goal properties identified above can help foster commitment. Students typically are more committed to attempt goals when they are specific, proximal, and moderately difficult, than when they are general, distant, and either overly easy or difficult.

Finally, goals can be distinguished by what students ultimately are trying to accomplish. A process or learning goal refers to what knowledge, behavior, skill, or strategy students are trying to acquire. An outcome or performance goal denotes what task students are trying to complete. While working on algebra homework, a student may have a goal of learning how to solve two equations in two unknowns (process) or a goal of finishing the homework assignment (outcome). Although both types of goals can motivate behavior, they can have different effects on learners' beliefs and cognitive processes. As Pintrich has shown, process goals focus attention on the skills needed to learn. Students often evaluate their progress in learning, and the belief that one is learning can enhance motivation. In contrast, outcome goals focus attention on completing tasks. These goals can lead learners to compare their work with that of others, which can lower motivation among students who are not making adequate progress.


To explain why goals affect achievement behaviors, researchers have advanced different theories. Locke and Latham (1990) proposed that the key components are goal choice and commitment. Goal choice includes the goal people are trying to obtain and the level at which they are trying to attain it. Goal commitment refers to how enthusiastic people are about a goal or how determined they are to achieve it. Locke and Latham identified several factors that affect goal choice and commitment, including personal-individual factors such as skill level and previous performance and social-environmental factors such as group norms and the nature of authority and feedback. Because this theory was developed and tested in organizational settings, it places strong emphasis on external factors.

Bandura's social cognitive theory (1986) posits that human functioning results from reciprocal interactions among personal factors (e.g., cognitions, emotions), behaviors, and environmental conditions. There are two primary cognitive sources of motivation (personal factors): goals and expectations. Goals help to focus and sustain effort toward task completion. As people work on tasks they compare their performances with their goals. Positive self-evaluations of progress raise self-efficacy (discussed below) and sustain motivation. The perception of a discrepancy between present performance and the goal can create dissatisfaction and raise motivation for goal attainment.

Bandura's theory identifies two types of expectations. Outcome expectations are beliefs about the likely consequences of actions. Based on their past experiences and observations of models in their environments people form beliefs about the likely consequences of given actions. People are likely to act in ways that they believe will lead to desired outcomes. Outcome expectations can motivate behavior over long periods when people believe that their actions will eventually result in success.

Efficacy expectations, or self-efficacy, refers to personal beliefs about one's capabilities to learn or perform actions at designated levels (Bandura, 1997). Self-efficacy is not the same as an outcome expectation. Students may believe that studying diligently for an exam will produce a high grade (positive outcome expectation) but may doubt their capabilities to study diligently (low self-efficacy). Often, however, self-efficacy and outcome expectations are related. Students with high self-efficacy for doing well in school expect to receive good grades for their coursework. Both types of expectations can affect motivation.

Bandura (1997) noted that people gauge their self-efficacy from their performances, observations of models, forms of social persuasion, and physiological indexes (e.g., heart rate). Actual performances offer the best source of information; successes generally raise and failures may lower self-efficacy. Students receive information about their capabilities by observing others perform. Observing similar others succeed can raise observers' self-efficacy. Social persuasion, such as when a teacher tells a student “I know you can do this,” can raise self-efficacy, but this increase will not last long if students perform poorly. Physiological symptoms can be informative of self-efficacy. When students

Effective athletic training places a strong emphasis on both proximal and process goals.Effective athletic training places a strong emphasis on both proximal and process goals.©RICHARD HAMILTON SMITH/CORBIS.

notice that they are less anxious studying for an exam, they may feel more self-efficacious about performing well on it.

Bandura's social cognitive theory (1986) contends that learners set goals that they feel self-efficacious about attaining and believe that when attained will result in positive outcomes. They evaluate their goal progress as they work on the task. Their self-efficacy and motivation are strengthened when they believe that they are making progress toward their goals. Self-efficacy is further enhanced when learners attain their goals, as well as their motivation to set and pursue new goals.

Goal setting also is a key component of self-regulation, or the process by which students activate and sustain cognitions, behaviors, and affects systematically oriented toward the attainment of goals. Zimmerman's three-phase model of self-regulation (2000) includes forethought, performance/volitional control, and self-reflection. The forethought phase precedes performances and refers to processes that set the stage for action. The performance/volitional control phase includes processes that occur during learning and affect motivation and action. During the self-reflection phase, learners reflect on their performances and determine whether changes in behaviors or strategies are needed.

Goals and self-efficacy are active throughout the model. In the forethought phase, learners set goals and have a sense of self-efficacy for attaining them. As they work on the task they mentally compare their performances with their goals to determine progress. Their self-efficacy is sustained when they believe that they are making goal progress. During self-reflection learners determine whether their present approach is effective. If they feel self-efficacious for succeeding but believe that their present strategy is not working well enough, they may alter their strategy by working harder, persisting longer, deciding to use a different method, or seeking help from others. These self-regulatory processes promote learning, motivation, and self-efficacy.


Goal setting research in education has established the importance of specific, proximal, and moderately challenging goals as beneficial for motivation and learning. Schunk has conducted several studies investigating these variables. In these studies, elementary school children received instruction on arithmetic operations and opportunities to practice solving problems. In one study some children received a specific goal denoting the number of problems to complete, whereas others were given a general goal of working productively. Compared with the general goal, the specific goal promoted higher self-efficacy and mathematical achievement.

Bandura and Schunk conducted a similar study investigating goal proximity. Over several sessions children received instruction that explained and demonstrated subtraction operations and opportunities to practice solving problems. Proximal-goal children were asked to complete a portion of the instructional material during each session; distant-goal children were told to complete all of the material by the end of the last session. Proximal goals raised motivation during the sessions, as well as children's self-efficacy and subtraction achievement, better than distant goals.

Schunk's research also has addressed goal difficulty during school learning. In one study, children received long-division instruction and practice opportunities. All children received the same instruction and practice time. Some children were given a more difficult goal (higher number of problems to complete), whereas others received an easier goal (lower number to complete). Difficult goals led to higher motivation during learning, self-efficacy, and skill acquisition.

Goal progress feedback provides information about progress toward goals and can promote self-efficacy and motivation when students cannot derive progress information on their own. It often is difficult for children to know whether their reading comprehension or their written expression is improving. Research by Schunk and Rice with children with reading difficulties showed that giving children feedback on how well they were learning to use a comprehension strategy improved their reading comprehension self-efficacy and achievement. Schunk and Swartz obtained comparable results in writing achievement and found that self-efficacy and achievement gains generalized to different types of writing assignments and maintained themselves over time.

Researchers have addressed how process and outcome goals affect motivation, learning, and self-regulation. In the Schunk and Rice study, children were taught a comprehension strategy. Some received a process goal of learning to use the strategy to answer comprehension questions, whereas others were given an outcome goal of answering questions. The process goal, coupled with progress feedback on how well the children were using the strategy, promoted self-efficacy and achievement the best. With college students, Schunk and Ertmer found that a process goal of learning computer applications led to higher self-efficacy, self-judged learning progress, and strategy use, compared with an outcome goal of performing the applications.

Research by Zimmerman and Kitsantas found benefits from shifting from process to outcome goals. High school students were taught a writing revision strategy. Some students received a process goal (following steps in the strategy) or an outcome goal (number of words in sentences). Others initially were given a process goal but then were advised to shift to an outcome goal. Learners who changed goals as their revision skills developed demonstrated higher self-efficacy and skill than students who pursued either the process or the outcome goal.


Goal-setting research in school settings shows that students' learning, motivation, and self-regulation can be improved when students pursue goals that are specific, proximal, and moderately difficult, receive feedback on their goal progress, focus their attention on learning processes, and shift their focus to outcome goals as their skills develop. These points have implications for educators who desire to use goal setting systematically.

Much educational planning is based on proximal, specific, and moderately challenging goals. Teachers typically plan daily lessons around specific student learning outcomes. Content difficulty usually is low initially to ensure that students acquire skills but increases as students become more proficient.

Students may need to be taught how to set goals that are proximal, specific, and moderately difficult. Many students are not realistic about the steps involved in completing a project or about how much time is required to complete those steps. Goal-setting research suggests that the key to completing a long-term task is to divide it into short-term goals. Educators who work with high school students who have to write a research paper can help them subdivide this task into proximal and specific steps, such as deciding on the topic, doing library and Internet research, outlining the paper, and writing the first draft. Timelines can be established for the subgoals. As students gain experience with goal setting, they will be able to set realistic goals on their own.

Educators can help students focus on process goals by providing feedback that stresses processes, such as how well students are using a strategy, budgeting their time, and completing subgoals. However, as the research by Zimmerman and Kitsantas showed, outcome goals can be highly motivating and lead to skill gains once students have acquired some competence. Teachers can shift students to focusing on outcome goals that are self-referenced such as how well students are doing currently compared with how they did previously, rather than socially referenced such as how well they are doing compared with how classmates are doing. These social comparisons will not raise self-efficacy among students who perceive that they are performing worse than their peers.

Finally, goal setting theory and research underscore the importance of developmental factors. Because children have short time frames of reference, immediate goals are motivating, whereas long-term goals are not. Short, focused lessons reflect this idea. With development, students are better able to cognitively represent long-term outcomes. Teachers can work with students to help them break long-term goals into short-term subgoals, establish timelines, and assess their progress toward their goals. Teachers also can assist students in evaluating their capabilities to engage in these tasks, which will help to develop their self-regulatory competencies. Students who graduate from high school with a mindset that includes the importance of setting goals and assessing progress will be well prepared to meet future educational and life challenges.


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Zimmerman, B. J., & Kitsantas, A. (1999). Acquiring writing revision skill: Shifting from process to outcome self-regulatory goals. Journal of Educational Psychology, 91, 241–250.

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