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The importance of setting goals

The importance of setting goals

Published on April 16, 2021

The importance of setting goals
Dr. Sean Hutchins

Why do some students succeed and others drop out? Why can practice sometimes feel aimless and unrewarding for students? Why do certain teaching techniques work with some students, but not others? The answers to these questions revolve around goals and motivations. Psychological research clearly indicates that setting goals is an important driver of motivation, well-being, and achievement. Furthermore, the types of goals that are set can make a difference, and expert guidance can play a role in helping to shape a student’s progress.

Goal-setting has been shown to be an important factor in success across many different disciplines. In a study of Canadian Olympic athletes, daily training goals were a common characteristic of training regimens. In business, too, research indicates that setting difficult but achievable goals with structured guidelines and feedback leads to the greatest productivity among team members. Even in situations where people need to overcome hardships or setbacks, such as physical or mental therapy, setting practical and recognizable goals — and assessing performance towards them — is part of the therapist’s toolkit to boost performance and general well-being.


Types of goals

Achievement goal theory posits two main types of motivating goals: mastery and performance. Mastery goals involve the development of competence — being able to play a Bach invention, complete a marathon, or understand trigonometry are all mastery goals. These goals can be achieved through hard work and appropriate guidance, but do not require external validation or comparison to others. So if your goal is to learn to make bread, you can achieve that goal whether or not you post a picture of your loaves on Instagram. In contrast, performance goals involve the demonstration of competence. Examples of performance goals include getting the highest grade on a test, winning a figure-skating competition, or getting chosen for a solo. These types of goals are motivating, but the motivation isn’t developing the skill itself, but rather proving your ability to others — often, but not exclusively — through competition.


Mastery and personal achievement

Of course, both goals can and do exist together. Students are often motivated to develop and demonstrate their competence. However, psychologists generally find that mastery goals lead to longer-term achievement for students and lower rates of drop-out. One reason is that the drive to improve oneself is more within one’s control — not everyone can get the highest grade or play the lead role. Furthermore, mastery goals are more likely to satisfy a student’s need for autonomy, rather than dependence on validation from others.
A teacher’s methods can help to reinforce their students’ mastery orientation. For instance, stressing the role of practice and process over results can lead to sustainable motivation. Direct comparisons and competitions between students, on the other hand, will help to foster less-desirable goal orientations among students. A student’s motivation is not just a disposition, but also a function of their educational situation.

The role of structured feedback

Because of this, external motivators will also affect a student’s achievement. Exams and assessment can play a crucial role in a student’s development, providing benchmarks and motivation for both mastery and performance goals. Teachers can use exams to reinforce either type of motivation and help guide a student’s internal goals.
There is even research showing that structured assessment can help motivate music students. A study of primary school music students showed that students who performed for adjudicators learned more when they were given numerical grades and concrete feedback rather than when they were just given comments on their performances. Setting attainable goals guided by structured feedback led to higher performance and motivation.

In sum, goals are crucial to motivation, and different types of goals can lead to different outcomes. Although goals are the student’s own, they can be influenced by teachers and external factors like assessments. Ultimately, setting these types of goals and receiving structured feedback are important factors in success.

Sean Hutchins

Dr. Sean Hutchins
is a neuroscientist and the Director of Research at The Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. He received his Ph.D. from McGill University, studying music and the mind. His current work examines the role of musical training and experience on cognitive and linguistic abilities.