This is the last of four posts exploring what motivates students in my series examining the Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education’s report on the Top 20 Principles From Psychology for Teaching and Learning. This time I turn my attention to Principle 12: “Setting goals that are short term (proximal), specific, and moderately challenging enhances motivation more than establishing goals that are long term (distal), general, and overly challenging.”

Goal setting, we’re told, is “important for motivation because students with a goal and adequate self-efficacy are likely to engage in the activities that lead to attainment of that goal. Self-efficacy is also increased as students monitor the progress they are making toward their goals, especially when they are acquiring new skills in the process.” When goals or targets are set for students, a process much along the following lines is usually followed:

  • Write down the goals;
  • Make goals specific and clear;
  • Indicate how you’ll measure goal accomplishment;
  • Have goal timelines and deadlines;
  • State goals in terms of specific outcomes or results;
  • Attach incentives for attainment and consequences for failure.

Look familiar? Trouble is, the evidence appears to be vastly overstated. King and Burton argue that goals only work in the narrowest of circumstances: “The optimally striving individual ought to endeavor to achieve and approach goals that only slightly implicate the self; that are only moderately important, fairly easy, and moderately abstract; that do not conflict with each other, and that concern the accomplishment of something other than financial gain” otherwise, research indicates that “goal investment, goal structure, and goal content may all lead to negative outcomes.”

So what does it actually mean? Well, everything or nothing. The bit that’s always particularly narked me is the notion that a target must be realistic, reasonable, attainable or achievable. If we conceive of targets in terms of their realism, aren’t we setting our sights rather low? How do we know what we can achieve until we’ve had a bloody good go? This sort of goal setting falls foul of the anchoring effect. In their landmark study, ‘Judgment under Uncertainty’, psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman demonstrated that the answers given to questions where subject had no idea what the correct answer might be was anchored by the statistic given on a rigged wheel of fortune which stopped only at the numbers 10 and 65. If the wheel landed on 10, subjects made a low estimate; if it landed on 65 the estimate was much higher. When we don’t have enough information to make a clear judgement, or when we make decisions concerning something too complex to fully grasp, instead of backing off and admitting our ignorance, we rush to any available information to make our decision. Targets, especially if they’re numerical, can have exactly this effect on our thinking.

Consider the case of Australian sheep farmer Cliff Young. In 1983, the 61-year-old won the inaugural Westfield Sydney to Melbourne Ultramarathon, a distance of 544 miles. For most of the first day he trailed way behind the leaders. After that first day’s running, most of the athletes underwent a strict regime of physiotherapy and nutrition, before going to sleep on special orthopedic beds. But no one told Cliff to stop. By running while the others slept, he took the lead on the first night and maintained it for the remainder of the race, eventually winning by 10 hours. He told the press that before running the race he had previously run for two to three days straight in wellies rounding up sheep. The Westfield run took him five days, fifteen hours and four minutes, almost two days faster than the previous record for any run between Sydney and Melbourne. Most of us are anchored by what has gone before. The idea of running for five days straight simply hadn’t occurred to anyone else. Would such a time have seemed realistic to other runners? Probably not. So should we set goals that appear unachievable or unrealistic?

Personally, I’ve always hated the idea of SMART targets. The acronym can mean a variety of different things – take your pick:

S – specific, significant, stretching

M – measurable, meaningful, motivational

A – agreed upon, attainable, achievable, acceptable, action-oriented

R – realistic, relevant, reasonable, rewarding, results-oriented

T – time-based, time-bound, timely, tangible, trackable

SMART goals are performance goals: “I will increase my grade in maths from a C to a B by the end of the term.” It might be better to set learning goals instead: “I will work hard on French coursework”. This kind of vague statement is the antithesis of most goal setting but learning goals are less susceptible to change and are more likely to be a useful strategy in a changing environment, or even over the longer term.

Eller, Schweitzer, Galinsky & Bazerman in looking at goal setting in the workplace suggest that “the beneficial effects of goal setting have been overstated and that systematic harm caused by goal setting has been largely ignored.” Here are three of the problems they identify:

  • When goals are specific they cause inattention blindness which prevents us from focussing on areas outside the goal
  • When goals are challenging they can create perverse incentives which make us more take unnecessary risks, more likely to cheat or lie to ourselves and more likely to become demotivated if insufficient progress is made
  • Goals which improve performance tend to inhibit learning.

This brings us to the focus of this principle. The report claims there are three important properties goals must have if they are to motivate students. They should be a) short-term (proximal) b)specific (because this makes them  easier to quantify and monitor), and c) moderately difficult (challenging but attainable).

Is this correct? King and Burton say this:

The optimally striving individual ought to endeavor to achieve and approach goals that only slightly implicate the self; that are only moderately important, fairly easy, and moderately abstract; that do not conflict with each other; and that concern the accomplishment of something other than financial gain.

Eller et al say that when we set goals we should consider the following questions:

  1. Are the goals too specific? – Narrow goals can blind people to important aspect of a problem.
  2. Are the goals too challenging? What will happen if goals are not met? How will individuals and outcomes be evaluated? Will failure harm motivation and self-efficacy?
  3. Who sets the goals? People will become more committed to goals they help to set. At the same time, people may be tempted to set easy-to-reach goals.
  4. Is the time horizon appropriate? Short-term goals may harm long-term performance.
  5. How might goals influence risk taking? Unmet goals may induce risk taking.
  6. How might goals motivate unethical behavior? Goals narrow focus. Individuals with goals are less likely to recognize ethical issues, and more likely to rationalise their unethical behavior.
  7. Can goals be idiosyncratically tailored for individual abilities and circumstances while preserving fairness? Individual differences may make standardized goals inappropriate, yet unequal goals may be unfair.
  8. How will goals influence culture? Individual goals may harm cooperation and corrode culture.
  9. Are individuals intrinsically motivated? Goal setting can harm intrinsic motivation. Assess intrinsic motivation and avoid setting goals when intrinsic motivation is high.
  10. What type of goal (performance or learning) is most appropriate given our ultimate objectives? By focusing on performance goals, we may fail to search for better strategies and fail to learn.

I’d say these questions would be far more useful for teachers to consider than the rather pallid suggestions made by the report:


  • Students need to be provided with many opportunities to set short-term, specific, and moderately difficult goals in their classroom work:
  • Keeping a written record of goal progress that is regularly checked by both the student and the teacher is especially desirable.
  • As students become proficient at setting moderately challenging proximal goals, they will learn to become intermediate risk takers (not aspiring too low or too high), which is one of the most important characteristics of achievement-oriented individuals.
  • Teachers can also help students begin to think about more distal goals by developing contracts with them that specify a series of subgoals leading to the larger, more distal goal.


References cited by the report