Do grades feel like a crap shoot?
A chance outcome in an uncertain world?
When school gets hectic, it’s easy to flail aimlessly. After the dust finally settles and your final grades arrive, you wonder what happened.
One of the best ways to stay on track is to set academic goals for your class.
Grades follow intention. By setting clear goals, you focus your effort. And keep your bearings when things get wonky.
Yet, what kind of goals should you set? Should you go for straight A’s or just aim to learn all you can?
These different objectives emphasize either mastery or performance. Two broad types of academic goals that you might set for a class.
Mastery goals reflect your desire to develop competence. If you want to learn as much as you can about world history, learn how to play a piece on the piano or throw a better spiral, you’ve set mastery goals.
Performance goals are about showing your competence. If you want to get an “A” in a class, win the science fair or be the state champion in the 400 m, you’ve set performance goals.
So, do you aim for the “A” or just set out to do your best?
Some have suggested that mastery goals were the only way to go, and warned about the potential harm of focusing on performance.
The theory was that a student with a mastery goal would learn more deeply. They’d read the material, think about it on a deeper level and try to combine it with what they have learned in other classes and the world at large.
Students who adopt performance goals, according to this line of reasoning, tend to learn only what they need to learn to do well on a test. They might memorize facts and dates well, but they aren’t interested in applying the material to everyday situations.
The problem is that these descriptions reflect an either-or mindset. You either hold a mastery goal or a performance goal. Alone.
But how does a person who endorses both academic goals approach a class?
Multiple Academic Goals
Judith Harackiewicz and her colleagues took this question head on. They studied how kinds of academic goals relate to interest and performance in school.
The researchers measured both mastery and performance goals independently. Students could show either type of goal alone, both kinds of goals, or neither. Related to the last case, they also measured, “work avoidance.” Here, the goal is to get the work done with the least possible effort.
Harakiewicz and her team published their research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
The results supported the idea of multiple goals. Mastery and performance goals worked together to enhance motivation and performance.
Mastery goals fostered interest in the subject matter. And those who set performance goals from the outset ended with higher grades.
Yet, performance goals did not detract from students’ intrinsic interest. As long as they had the mastery goals in mind, students got into the material.
How to Set Academic Goals
When combined, mastery and performance goals can yield the best outcomes for you.
The problem with only setting performance goals is that they can drive you to seek the easiest path to get your desired grade. You might be tempted to draw on ways that don’t contribute to mastering the material, like sucking up to the teacher, or in the extreme, cheating.
On the other hand, a mastery goal by itself isn’t specific enough. It’s hard to know if you met a goal to learn all you can. Without a clear way to measure the result, you can too easily conclude that you did your best.
Fortunately, you can easily combine these goals with a simple line of thinking.
First, frame your objective in terms of learning. Your main goal is to learn the material.
Then, think about the grades you receive as a way to measure your learning.
By setting a goal for a grade, you’re creating an expectation for how much to learn.
For your Algebra class, you may decide your goal is to learn at least 90% of the material. By aiming for an A, with scores of 90% or better on homework, quizzes, and major tests, you give yourself a clear diagnostic for whether you are meeting your specific learning goals.
Or, depending on your personal circumstances, maybe your goal is to avoid a D or F. So, you aim to learn at least 70% of the content and earn a C minimum. Set a goal that’s realistic for your situation.
When you fall short of the goal, use the feedback to figure out where things went wrong. Was there a concept you didn’t understand as well as you might have? Maybe you didn’t master, “order of operations” as well as you thought.
Do you need to adjust your study strategies for this subject? Perhaps you need to spend more time reading your text and explaining the examples to yourself. Or, giving yourself practice tests.
In this way, you use your scores and grades to measure your learning progress. And obtain crucial feedback on how well you are meeting your mastery intentions.
By adopting both mastery and performance goals, you’ll tend to stay interested in a class, even when the work is hard. You are also likely to remember the material long after the class is over because you dug deep to understand the subject.
SMART Goals for School and Beyond
You can practice and improve your ability to set goals that help you succeed in school. Like any good habit, you can ingrain this approach into your thinking. And, you can also take it beyond school, to the next step of your journey.
Goal setting is a skill that’s useful in many areas outside of school. In business, effective goals have five things. These things are defined by the acronym SMART, which was first popularized by George Doran in a 1981 issue of Management Review.
SMART goals are specific, measurable, achievable, results-focused, and time-bound.
The way we combine the two kinds of academic goals fits the SMART goals framework well. It keeps our focus on the important academic result, subject mastery. It allows us to be realistic about what we can achieve. And it provides clear expectations with specific objectives we can measure. All this happens within the duration of your class.
Learning to set effective academic goals will provide you with useful tools you need to not only succeed in school, but in your future career as well.
Image Credit: Blueeyes
Harackiewicz, J. M., Barron, K. E., Carter, S. M., Lehto, A. T., & Elliot, A. J. (1997). Predictors and consequences of achievement goals in the college classroom: Maintaining interest and making the grade. Journal of Personality and Social psychology, 73(6), 1284-1295. DOI: 10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.1994
Doran, G. T. (1981). There’s a SMART way to write management’s goals and objectives. Management review, 70(11), 35-36.