Self-Regulation through Goal Setting. ERIC Digest.
by Schunk, Dale H.
Self-regulation, or systematic efforts to direct thoughts, feelings,
and actions, toward the attainment of one's goals (Zimmerman, 2000), has
assumed increasing importance in the psychological and educational literatures.
What began with research on self-control in therapeutic contexts has expanded
to such diverse areas as education, health, sports, and careers (Bandura,
Most theories of self-regulation emphasize its inherent link with goals.
A goal reflects one's purpose and refers to quantity, quality, or rate
of performance (Locke & Latham, 1990). Goal setting involves establishing
a standard or objective to serve as the aim of one's actions. Goals are
involved across the different phases of self-regulation: forethought (setting
a goal and deciding on goal strategies); performance control (employing
goal-directed actions and monitoring performance); and self-reflection
(evaluating one's goal progress and adjusting strategies to ensure success
This article addresses the operation of goals in self-regulation to
include the influence of goal properties and other goal-related factors.
Acquiring self-regulatory competence is an important developmental task
and enhances human functioning across the life span (Bandura, 1997; Schunk
& Zimmerman, 1997). By understanding the role of goals, counselors,
teachers and other practitioners will be able to work with students and
clients to assist them in learning effective ways to manage their lives.
THEORY AND RESEARCH EVIDENCE
Goals enhance self-regulation through their effects on motivation, learning,
self-efficacy (perceived capabilities for learning or performing actions
at given levels), and self-evaluations of progress (Bandura, 1997; Schunk,
1995). Initially people must make a commitment to attain a goal because
it will not affect performance without this commitment (Locke & Latham,
1990). Goals motivate people to exert effort necessary to meet task demands
and persist over time. Goals also direct individuals' attention to relevant
task features, behaviors to be performed, and potential outcomes, and goals
can affect how people process information. Goals help people focus on the
task, select and apply appropriate strategies, and monitor goal progress.
As people work on a task they compare their current performance with
the goal. Self-evaluations of progress strengthen self-efficacy and sustain
motivation. A perceived discrepancy between present performance and the
goal may create dissatisfaction, which can enhance effort. Although dissatisfaction
can lead to quitting, this will not happen if people believe they can succeed
such as by changing their strategy or seeking assistance. Goal attainment
builds self-efficacy and leads people to select new, challenging goals.
Despite these benefits, goals do not automatically enhance self-regulation.
Rather, the goal properties of specificity, proximity, and difficulty are
Specificity. Goals that incorporate specific performance standards are
more likely to enhance self-regulation and activate self-evaluations than
are such general goals as "do my best" or "try hard" (Locke & Latham,
1990). Specific goals raise performance because they specify the amount
of effort required for success and boost self-efficacy by providing a clear
standard against which to determine progress.
A wealth of evidence in various domains supports the preceding benefits
of specific goals (Bandura, 1997; Boekaerts, Pintrich, & Zeidner, 2000;
Locke & Latham, 1990). The one exception is when specific goals are
overly easy to accomplish, in which case they are less effective than general
but difficult goals (Locke & Latham, 1990).
Proximity. Goals are distinguished by how far they project into the
future. Proximal, short-term goals are achieved more quickly, and result
in higher motivation and better self-regulation than more temporally distant,
long-term goals. As with specificity, there is evidence from various domains
supporting this prediction (Bandura, 1997; Boekaerts et al., 2000; Locke
& Latham, 1990).
At the same time, some research shows that proximal goals do not promote
performance better than distant goals (Locke & Latham, 1990). One suggestion
is that individuals working toward distant goals may subdivide them, which
produces the benefits. Proximal goals strengthen self-efficacy because
they allow clear and frequent self-evaluations of progress. It often is
difficult to determine progress toward a distant goal (Schunk, 1995).
Difficulty. Unlike specificity and proximity, goal difficulty does not
bear a linear relationship to performance. Overly easy goals do not motivate;
neither are people motivated to attempt what they believe are impossible
goals (Schunk, 1995). Assuming that people have the requisite skills, goals
that are moderately difficult seem to have the best effects on motivation
and self-regulated performance (Locke & Latham, 1990).
Self-set goals. Researchers have found that allowing individuals to
set their goals enhances motivation and self-regulation, perhaps because
self-set goals produce higher goal commitment (Schunk, 1995). Other research,
however, has not substantiated this conclusion (Locke & Latham, 1990).
When people accept the legitimacy of assigned goals and commit themselves
to attaining them the benefits are as strong as when they set goals themselves.
In working with students and clients it may be necessary initially to
assign goals while simultaneously teaching them goal-setting strategies.
As people learn to set realistic goals we might expect that self-set goals
would produce higher self-efficacy and better self-regulated performance
than assigned goals because they will be committed to attaining their goals
and feel efficacious about doing so.
Multiple goals. In recent years researchers have investigated how people
deal with multiple goals. Individuals can accomplish more than one goal
at a time assuming that they have the cognitive and physical capabilities
to do so and the goals do not conflict (Locke & Latham, 1990).
The situation becomes trickier when each goal alone is attainable but
together cause conflict; for example, an adolescent who wants to be socially
popular but also achieve well in school. More research is needed on this
situation, but we might expect that goal importance would affect which
goal is pursued more vigorously.
Learning and performance goals. Educational researchers have investigated
the differences between mastery or learning goals, which involve learning
skills or strategies, and ego or performance goals, which focus on performing
well to avoid appearing incompetent (Dweck, 1999). Although performance
goals can exert powerful motivational effects, learning goals are especially
effective in enhancing self-efficacy and self-regulation (Schunk, 1995).
Future research will help clarify their operation in educational and therapeutic
Theory and research suggest a short list of ways to use goal setting
effectively as a component of self-regulation. The following strategies
are especially useful.
* Subdivide a long-term goal into proximal sub-goals. Help learners
determine what sub-goals must be accomplished to attain their long-term
* View the goals as reasonable and commit to attempt to attain them.
Provide verbal encouragement (e.g., "You can do this.") to learners to
help motivate them to accomplish their goals.
* Self-monitor progress. Students must learn how to gauge progress in
learning or performance. Provide progress feedback on tasks where it is
difficult for learners to gauge progress on their own.
* Use strategies for coping with difficulties. When progress is minimal
students might seek help, attempt to determine a more effective strategy,
or re-evaluate the goal and timelines.
* Self-evaluate capabilities. The perception of progress will strengthen
self-efficacy, which is critical for continued motivation and self-regulation.
Goal setting is an integral component of self-regulation. Setting goals
is a generic strategy that can be applied in various domains. Effective
goal setting requires that people set a long-term goal, break it into short-term,
attainable sub-goals, monitor progress and assess capabilities, adjust
the strategy and goal as needed, and set a new goal when the present one
is attained. This multi-step plan is a key to promoting healthier human
functioning, higher motivation and perceived self-efficacy, and self-regulated
learning and performance across the life span.
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