In an earlier blog I discussed what research says are important characteristics of goals themselves if we want to improve educator performance and students outcomes . The next line of questioning for me then became: What is it about having a goal that improves performance? How do I think and behave differently with a goal than without one?
Over four decades of research, as summarized in the book New Developments in Goal Setting and Task Performance, identified several mechanisms through which goals help improve results. For example, goals influence what individuals choose to do and not to do. Goals help us focus on what we identify as important. For example, we will increase our focus on actions we believe will help us attain the goal, and disregard those actions that won’t. Goals generate increased effort and enhance persistence so that we will continue to strive to realize the goal in the face of adversity. Finally, in situations where we don’t have all the skills or knowledge we need, simply having goals causes us to engage in new and different strategies to reach these goals. These mechanisms (focus, effort, persistence, and learning) are the “how” goals improve performance; what about the “how much”?
“How much” improvement depends on several factors, such as our perceptions of the consistency between the goals and our interests and values, and how strongly we believe we can meet or exceed the goals. In other words, for educators with achievement-related goals, we need to think that raising student achievement is important, that how it is measured is appropriate, and that the goal itself is challenging but not unrealistic.
According to a study of goal setting participation in a British financial services organization, our perceptions and beliefs are also impacted by the level of participation we have in the goal-setting process and our supervisor’s communication and persuasiveness about the value of the goals. If we trust them and if there is a perception of fairness in the goal-setting and evaluation processes, then our participation in setting the goal improves our commitment to the goal. More commitment means more improvement.
Think of this in another way. Much of the difference goals make is due to the effect on a person’s motivation. Daniel Pink explains that a person’s level of motivation is impacted by their sense of autonomy (the desire to direct their own lives), mastery (the urge to get better and better at something that matters), and purpose (the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves). If we perceive goals this way, it is likely we will be motivated to achieve them, and better things will happen for us and the students we serve.
Photo credit to Jayneandd.