One of the things I have found from learning science research is that using intuition to select learning solutions frequently fails. For example, the concept of learning styles appears very reasonable. Why wouldn’t teaching people in the manner that they prefer work best? But, research shows no correlation between how people prefer to learn and what works best for remembering and application. And in many cases, what people prefer is the opposite of what would best help them. People have a way of overturning expectations and assumptions, which is why research into which learning methods really work is important.

There’s some very helpful research about the use of goals for learning. But before we dive into it, I’d love to have you answer the following question to see what you think is the right answer.

Question: How important are specific learning goals for helping people learn? (Select the best answer.)

A. Specific learning goals are very important. An individual’s learning goals are far more important than the organization’s learning goals.

B. Specific learning goals are very important. The organization’s learning goals can be as important as the individual’s learning goals.

C. Specific learning goals can make participants anxious and unable to learn. Being anxious about meeting the goals is not a good state for learning.

I’ll explain what the research says is the correct answer in this blog. I think you’ll agree that it is interesting and very applicable to organizational learning.

Should We Set Goals?

I learned a lot about goal setting when gathering information for my upcoming book, Practice and Feedback for Deeper Learning. One of the best places to find data on goal-setting for instruction is from Edwin Locke, an American psychologist who investigated goal setting and its impact on work motivation for more than three decades with co-researcher Gary Latham. Their work on goal setting is widely cited in industrial and organizational psychology.

Locke and Latham’s primary conclusion was that the most difficult goals produced the highest levels of performance as long as goals were reachable. An important implication of this finding is that we must know the prior knowledge and skills of participants. This is because goals for people with more prior knowledge and skills should be more difficult than goals for people with less prior knowledge and skills.

According to Locke and Latham, goals affect performance through various mechanisms. Two of these mechanisms are direction and persistence.

  • Direction: Goals direct attention and effort toward activities that promote achievement of the goals and away from activities that prevent or inhibit achievement of the goals. Implication: Goals also direct learning practitioners away from less valuable content and activities.
  • Persistence: Harder goals commonly require an extended effort. Implication: Training for harder goals cannot be one isolated event. We must find ways to carry practice and feedback beyond the training room, for continual progress.

Locke and Latham found that specific and difficult goals consistently led to better performance than telling people to do their best. Their explanation for this outcome is that do your best has no reference point for what people should achieve.

There is a critical implication for learning practitioners. We should share learning objectives and they should be specific enough to remove ambiguity as to whether people are meeting it. As an aside, one of the most important purposes of feedback in instruction is to remove ambiguity. In other words, feedback should help people understand whether they met the goals and if not, why any performance gaps exist, and how to close them.

Whose Goals Matter?

I expected to find that an individual’s personal learning goals would be more important than an organization’s learning goals. But I was wrong. Locke and Latham’s research found that assigned goals were as effective as personal goals if participants understood the rationale for the assigned goals and felt they could meet them. (I’ll discuss “felt they could meet them” next month as it’s another critical factor in the outcomes of organizational learning.)

But, people who were able to take part in deciding which strategies to use for meeting goals performed better and had more confidence in their ability to meet the goals. Goals that were assigned to learners without their full understanding of why those goals were worthwhile led to lower performance.

What Type of Goals Are Effective?

The type of goal also made a difference in how well people progressed. Research found that it is better to set learning goals rather than performance goals because performance goals imposed during learning can make people anxious and anxiety makes it hard to learn. Rather than tell people they must get 85 percent right for a very challenging task, we should consider setting a learning goal of improving their personal score by 10 percent in each trial. Or, when asking people to discover problem-solving strategies, we could ask them to find two strategies that don’t work and two that do. Freedom to fail and learn from mistakes helps people persist. And this is one of the keys to the strategies that help people feel like they can meet goals, which I’ll discuss next month.

The answer to the question I asked at the start of this blog is B: Specific learning goals are very important. The organization’s learning goals can be as important as the individual’s learning goals. This is because learning goals set the direction and reduce ambiguity. But the goals should ideally be learning rather than performance-oriented because performance goals while training make people anxious and anxiety is a very poor state for learning.

I’d love to know what you think of this research and how you might use it in your training. Any questions? Ask away!


These URLs were available at the time I wrote this article. URLs often change, so if they are not active when you use them, search for them by cutting and pasting the name of the reference + PDF.

Locke, E. A., and Latham, G. P. 2002. “ Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35 year odyssey.” American Psychologist 57(9): 705-717.

Locke, E. A., and Latham, G. P. 2006. “New directions in goal-setting theory.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 15(5): 265-268.