Our students were underperforming and had low levels of motivation. We had dropout rates of around 50 per cent, and there were large differences in the academic performances of male and female students.
At the same time, we noted that many of our students didn’t know what their goals were, or were drifting through their studies without having made a conscious choice about their direction.
We implemented a goal-setting programme and got a positive effect. We got significant improvements in the number of credits (ECTS) earned, and in the number of students retained in the study programme – and these effects remained when controlling for age, gender, registration date, personality traits, motivational aspects, and secondary school performance.
It’s clear that analysing students’ detailed writing about their goals actually predicts study success, and there’s a linear relationship between the extent of students’ participation in the goal-setting programme and their academic performance.
We tested this. In 2011, Prof. Michaéla Schippers began putting students through her goal-setting programme at three faculties of Erasmus University Rotterdam, at Hogeschool Rotterdam, Avans Hogeschool, Ijselcollege, Segbroek College and Fioretti College. Our programme managers began to notice a difference. “We sensed that this cohort was doing much better than previous cohorts,” says Prof. Schippers. “I wasn’t sure at the time that goal-setting had made the big difference, but at the end of the year we did the maths: our calculations showed that the intervention had led to a 20 per cent improvement overall in number of credits (ECTS) as well as retention.”
We got 77 more BSc Bedrijfskunde students to stay the course. They got their 40 ECTS (this has since risen to a mandatory 60 ECTS) and they were able to move on in their studies. “Some groups didn’t show that much improvement, but in other groups it was a lot higher – for example for male ethnic minorities there was a 50 per cent improvement. The gender and ethnicity gaps decreased, and struggling students started to do much better.”
We have maintained that level of improvement over the past six years; it means we kept around 450 students from potentially dropping out, and gave them the advantages of having a purpose in life: less stress, more confidence, more clarity, and a better immune system.
We were surprised to find that the kind of goals that students write about don’t actually matter. Simply the act of setting a goal improves performance. They just need to have a goal.
You can read much more about our research into goalsetting here.