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What’s All the Hype About Goal Setting Anyway?

Jenn Curtis, Guest Post


Sports Past Childhood

As summer slowly begins to sunset, I can’t help but look forward to the promise of fall. Long days and ocean breeze give way to crisper air and changing landscapes (well, maybe not in our neck of the woods). To me, fall is a season of new beginnings. With the advent of a new school year comes the anticipation of possibility, the excitement of achievement. This fall, many of you will be participating in goal setting, so I thought what better time to offer up some hard evidence for the importance of what is admittedly one of our favorite activities.


Many students have dabbled in goal setting over the years: I want to get better at karate; I want to go to college; I want to run faster. Sound familiar? While goals like these are certainly a step in the right direction, research shows that specific goals (as opposed to the vague examples above) actually increase motivation more than general goals do. Perhaps an improvement on the latter goal above might be: I want to beat my personal best time by 2 seconds. Students then have a clear picture of exactly what they are working toward. Goals set in the near term also spark greater motivation than do long-term goals, according to a study by psychologist Albert Bandura. That’s why it is a good idea to set and/or revise goals for the academic year at the beginning of each academic year. But what I find particularly interesting is the fact that the degree of difficulty of the goal plays into motivation to attain it as well. That’s right! When goals are too easy, students’ motivation wanes, and similarly when goals are perceived as impossible, students are likely to feel defeated from the outset. Moderately difficult but attainable goals, on the other hand, lead to higher levels of motivation, according to research by Dale Schunk.


Perhaps Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, provided the best perspective when he wrote: “As we make and keep commitments, even small commitments, we begin to establish an inner integrity that gives us the awareness of self-control and the courage and strength to accept more of the responsibility for our own lives….The power to make and keep commitments to ourselves is the essence of developing the basic habits of effectiveness.” The bottom line is that goal setting enhances performance and self-efficacy, the personal belief in one’s own ability to succeed. Students feel empowered when they are clear about what they are working toward and when they see and then reflect upon the fruits of their labor. Indeed, mastering the art of setting goals enables students to plan out their own road map, honing the skills to tackle adversity, as opposed to merely becoming reactionary and complacent.


I close not with my words, but with the words of the great Henry David Thoreau, who wrote: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” Well said.

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