Using Goals to Motivate College Students: Theory and Evidence from Field Experiments

58 Pages Posted: 31 Oct 2016

See all articles by Damon Clark

Damon Clark

IZA Institute of Labor Economics

David Gill

Purdue University, Department of Economics

Victoria L. Prowse

Purdue University - Department of Economics; IZA Institute of Labor Economics; German Institute for Economic Research (DIW Berlin)

Mark Rush

University of Florida - Warrington College of Business Administration - Department of Economics

Multiple version iconThere are 2 versions of this paper

Abstract

Will college students who set goals for themselves work harder and perform better? In theory, setting goals can help time-inconsistent students to mitigate their self-control problem. In practice, there is little credible evidence on the causal effects of goal setting for college students. We report the results of two field experiments that involved almost four thousand college students in total. One experiment asked treated students to set goals for performance in the course; the other asked treated students to set goals for a particular task (completing online practice exams). We find that performance-based goals had no discernible impact on course performance. In contrast, task-based goals had large and robust positive effects on the level of task completion, and task-based goals also increased course performance. Further empirical analysis indicates that the increase in task completion induced by setting task-based goals caused the increase in course performance. We also find that task-based goals were more effective for male students. We develop new theory that reinforces our empirical results by suggesting two key reasons why task-based goals might be more effective than performance-based goals: overconfidence and uncertainty about performance. Since task-based goal setting is low-cost, scaleable and logistically simple, we conclude that our findings have important implications for educational practice and future research.

Keywords: goal, goal setting, higher education, field experiment, self-control, present bias, time inconsistency, commitment device, loss aversion, reference point, task-based goal, performance-based goal, self-set goal, performance uncertainty, overconfidence, student effort, student performance, educational attainment, MOOC

JEL Classification: I23, C93

Suggested Citation

Clark, Damon and Gill, David and Prowse, Victoria L. and Rush, Mark, Using Goals to Motivate College Students: Theory and Evidence from Field Experiments. IZA Discussion Paper No. 10283. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2861028

Damon Clark (Contact Author)

IZA Institute of Labor Economics ( email )

P.O. Box 7240
Bonn, D-53072
Germany

David Gill

Purdue University, Department of Economics ( email )

610 Purdue Mall
West Lafayette, IN 47907
United States

Victoria L. Prowse

Purdue University - Department of Economics ( email )

West Lafayette, IN 47907-1310
United States

IZA Institute of Labor Economics

P.O. Box 7240
Bonn, D-53072
Germany

German Institute for Economic Research (DIW Berlin) ( email )

Mohrenstra├če 58
Berlin, 10117
Germany

Mark Rush

University of Florida - Warrington College of Business Administration - Department of Economics ( email )

Gainesville, FL 32611-7140
United States
(352) 392-0318 (Phone)
(352) 392-7860 (Fax)

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