What kind of goals will improve your study performance?

Pauli Raivio·February 16, 2023·6 min read
What kind of goals will improve your study performance?

Almost all of us have goals toward which we strive, either consciously or by letting them act as a background motivation. Some goals are more vague dreams, while others are well-defined, concrete, and measurable.

In your studies, it is worth setting goals, at least for the subjects that have the greatest impact on your larger future goals. If, for example, getting into medicine is your dream, you should prioritize chemistry, biology, maths and physics in high school. Other subjects are worth taking seriously as well, but you might be able to give yourself a bit of a break compared to your main subjects.

Why set goals for studying at all? Isn't it enough to do our best and see where it gets us?

Thanks to decades of research by psychologist Edwin Locke and the subsequent research that has followed, we know that goals do indeed clearly correlate with performance, at least for the following reasons:

  1. Goals help us focus on what is important and direct our attention to the task at hand.
  2. Goals help us to work more efficiently.
  3. Goals help us overcome adversity when we are not progressing at our desired pace.
  4. Goals can help us form new habits and routines. They in turn help to achieve the goal.

What kind of goals are good goals

Improving grades is always a good thing in itself, but as a single goal, it is a poor one. You can compare over time whether your grades are really improving, but otherwise the goal remains distant and does not help to guide your studies other than perhaps as a background motivation.

A slightly better goal would be to specify that the average will rise by, say, 0.3 over the next semester. On the other hand, even this goal does not in itself tell us anything about practical action, and tracking progress is challenging.

A good goal is at the upper limit of our challenge level and, above all, clearly defined and malleable into sub-goals. For example, the grade goal should be further broken down into separate goals for each subject, and these should be broken down to the level of individual performance. At this point, we are already on the verge of a much more concrete goal.

In the chemistry exam, a B is a clear goal. If you have so far achieved a C in chemistry by studying independently for 2 hours a week for a course, you will know that either more hours or better quality study is required to achieve a B.

In order to have a clearly defined goal, it should be

  • measurable
  • decomposable into sub-goals

In this example, measurability would be achieved in two ways. First, we would define how much time we spend studying. As we noted, getting a B in the exam requires more work than before, so we set a time goal of 3 hours of independent study per week instead of the previous 2 hours. Note that this may mean compromising on another subject.

Secondly, we want to measure not only the time spent, but also how much we actually learn. Passive learning alone, such as reading materials, will not help in this work. Effective learning requires active work, and the best way to find out how well you are doing is to do lots of exercises, test yourself and using active revision methods such as flashcards and spaced repetition.

Performance and learning goals

In our recent example, we defined our performance goal as a grade B in a chemistry test. On the other hand, shouldn't our goal be to learn the desired subject and the test is, after all, just another way of measuring that goal?

Indeed, curricula emphasize the role of learning goals in relation to performance goals. So, for example, in high school, the goal is that students learn certain things in each subject and in the process learn a set of meta-skills, from information retrieval to teamwork.

However, the cold fact is that a student's future is ultimately measured by a few important tests such as the A level exams or the SAT. In preparing for these, it helps if the goal is to genuinely learn the subject, but on the other hand, tight schedules and broad subject areas lead us to optimize our studies so that we fuel up with knowledge in a form that ensures a good grade. In practice, this means emphasizing memorization over understanding.

It is still worth emphasizing learning goals and creating performance goals only when the performance itself strongly determines the future expectation horizon, as is the case with the SAT.

It is worth setting a performance goal at least as long as the world of learning puts the emphasis on grades and metrics rather than on knowledge, understanding and application. On the other hand, good performance, at least in most cases, requires at least some degree of understanding and application of the subject. It might therefore be best to be able to formulate a performance goal first, which is then translated into a knowledge goal and sub-goals:

  1. I want to get a "B" in my chemistry course (performance goal)
  2. This means that I need to know X and Y (performance goal and knowledge goal)
  3. I am also interested in chemistry, so I really want to know X and Y (performance goal)
  4. In order to get a B and know X and Y, I need to study chemistry independently for 3 hours a week (sub-goal)
  5. To measure my knowledge of X and Y, I need to be able to answer Z and Y (measurement)

It is not worth getting much more complicated than that, because there are so many random factors and variables in the outcome and the process that we might not achieve our goal or sub-goals anyway. Goals are like the X on a treasure map that marks the location of the treasure chest. It's good to know which way to go and where to look, but in the end it's the journey itself and getting the right tools that matters. By concentrating on learning, you will find the most direct route and the right place to dig. By focusing solely on the end result, your attention is only on the X on the map and all the benefits and joys of the journey are missed.

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