New Research Shows That Setting Goals Helps Students Do Better in Their Classes

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Whether you’re planning to run a marathon or achieve a specific career, setting goals is a good first step towards planning for the future. Goal-setting offers direction and a sense of purpose in our lives, so it should come as no surprise that setting goals can actually help students do better in their classes. At Macmillan Learning, our Learning Science & Insights team was curious about the impact that setting and then reflecting on goals could have in student success. They have been researching its impact over the past five semesters. Spoiler alert: there is a correlation!

But before we get to the data, here’s some important background about why goal-setting and reflection is something we wanted to learn more about, and how we went about that learning.

The Backstory of Goal-setting & Reflection Surveys

When Macmillan Learning was developing its digital learning platform, Achieve, a critical area of focus for us was self-regulated learning. We recognized that students’ ability to plan, monitor, and evaluate their own learning processes (a process called metacognition) touches on so many elements that are important to learning and retaining information, and built in several tools to help support it. Notably, we focused on students’ ability to reflect on what they’d like to accomplish and created an aptly named feature called Goal-setting and Reflection Survey (GRS). 

The GRS within Achieve engages with each of the three phases of metacognition: planning (where students set goals and plan how to accomplish them), monitoring (where students check in on and track their progress), and evaluating (where students decide whether or not their strategies have been successful, and decide to seek help). Ideally, five different surveys will be deployed throughout the semester to allow students to set goals for themselves and reflect on their progress throughout the semester. Flexibility was built in the GRS though, so that instructors could assign and students could make use of them as needed.

The GRS will typically begin with the introductory survey -- arguably the most critical since it helps to establish the initial guidance for students and helps instructors get to know the students in their class. Checkpoint surveys that ask questions such as “how often did you give yourself enough time to complete assignments” are used to give students the opportunity to re-evaluate their learning strategies, while also giving instructors the opportunity to better understand where the class is struggling. While these were also designed with flexibility, and can be used as needed, they’re most successfully used following exams and major assignments. According to Macmillan Learning Implementation Scientist Kelly Boden, this is because the questions are created for them to reflect on strategies and performance, these are most "fresh" in their mind after exams and projects.

“Students commonly struggle with the self-awareness required to think about their own thinking that self-regulated learning requires. Being intentional about what they’d like to gain from a learning experience and how they’ll accomplish those goals can help students develop their metacognitive skills and succeed both in and out of class,” Boden said.

Results of Goal Setting & Reflection Research

To learn more about the impact of Goal-setting & Reflection Surveys, Macmillan Learning funded a series of research studies from fall 2019 through fall 2021. The studies represented 115 institutions, with 136 unique instructors, teaching 292 courses across eight different subject areas to 7,225 students. Various institution and course sizes as well as course formats were represented, including face-to-face, virtual synchronous and virtual asynchronous. The diverse student sample included 47% non-White or Asian, 22% who were first in their families to go to college, 65% who were eligible for financial aid, and 31% who had a high school GPA lower than 3.5.

Overall, benefits to GRS include better academic performance, motivation, self-efficacy and engagement. 

  • Students who completed two or more Goal-setting and Reflection Surveys performed significantly better in theirdata.PNG courses than students who only completed one survey or didn’t complete any surveys. Assigning more than two surveys, including the introductory survey and at least one checkpoint survey, increased grades by an average of 3.4 - 8.4% compared to students who did not complete the surveys, depending on how many surveys were assigned.  

  • Students self-reported higher self-efficacy and emotional engagement. Students who completed at least one checkpoint survey had significantly higher self-reported self-efficacy and academic engagement, particularly emotional engagement. Completing a checkpoint survey moved students closer to reporting being “very confident” in their ability to complete their coursework than those who didn’t, who were closer to “pretty confident”.

  • Students who completed a checkpoint survey moved closer to “often” reporting being emotionally engaged in their course than those who didn’t, who were closer to "sometimes" being emotionally engaged. 

  • Students participating in the research believed the GRS was a valuable tool. In fact, 75% of the students agreed or strongly agreed that the surveys helped them improve as a student during the course. Eighty percent agreed or strongly agreed that the surveys helped them to think about their goals and learning habits in and out of the classroom.

“We all have experience with setting goals and then following up on those goals in our personal lives. We also see consistently in the educational literature that metacognitive practices impact learning. It’s been rewarding to see the literature come to life as we learn more about the impacts on learning outcomes from the GRS in practice,” said Guido Gatti, Sr. Quantitative Research Analyst.

Gatti added that with just 15 minutes a month to reflect on study skills, study strategies and goals, the students can learn skills to help support their success. Given these findings, here are some best practices for instructors to incorporate the Goal-setting and Reflection Surveys into their instruction:

  • Assign the Introductory Survey in the first few weeks of a semester
  • Create at least one Checkpoint Survey (assigned right after an exam or project could be more impactful). 
  • View insights and reports of student survey responses to get insights beyond just grades to help identify areas where students may be struggling. 

Macmillan Learning takes our research seriously. Each study undertaken by our Learning Science & Insights Team is Institutional Review Board (IRB) approved. This particular research was reviewed by the Human resources Research Organization, an accredited third-party IRB with no affiliation to Macmillan Learning. 

If you’d like more information about the study, click here to read the white paper or check out this previously recorded webinar featuring Mollie Anderson on the value of GRS.