Goal setting and its constructs

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"Goal" has been defined simply as "something that the person wants to achieve" ( Locke & Latham, 1990, p. 2). Goal setting theory assumes that human action is directed by conscious goals and intentions" ( Locke & Latham, 1990, p. 4). "Goal setting" refers to a specific outcome that an individual is striving to achieve(Dweck, 1992).

Goal setting

Goal setting is a process that involves setting up specific objects, measurements and strategy to achieve the goal, which also includes the strategy modification in terms of the feedback or error made.According to earlier research, the two major attributes of goal setting are Content and Intensity(Rand, 1967).

Content of a goal is mainly talking about "WHAT" :the object and final results that people want to achieve, which contains several aspects:1. Goal specificity: how specific and clear the goal is: abstract goal, such as "find a good job", or really clarified goal, such as:"I want to be an interface designer in Microsoft who can be involved in improving 'Microsoft office' series"; 2. Task difficulty: how difficult to reach the goal, which actually includes cognitive process of self-esteem. It's a subjective comparing between the degree of proficiency or level of performance people are seeking and the level of current capability or potential capability that people have, which also involves the estimation of the effort that will take. More investment of effort are predicted, more difficult the goal that people would regard as. There was some arguments about the notion of task difficulty and goal difficulty. According to Locke & Latham's paper in 1981, the terms task difficulty and goal difficulty were often used interchangeably, but normally, goal refers to a final goal in terms of an event, while the tasks included could be sub-goals under the final one or the steps toward the termination of the whole process.

The evidence of a positive, linear relation between goal difficulty and task performance (assuming sufficient ability) was firstly found by Locke (1968), and later studies had supported this finding (Locke & Latham,1981), which says harder goals led to better performance than easy goals under the assumption that people have sufficient ability and further have accurate estimate of the ability.

Recent research in self-efficacy found out that students with over-confidence, who over-estimate their ability in terms of their goal setting, would have worse grades comparing to others, which also hurts their post-efficacy. But researcher also found that the outcome could be even worse for the student with self-humiliation. So it might imply that underestimation of the goal difficulty and over-estimation of self-capability may generate better outcome than overestimation of goal difficulty and underestimation of the ability.

Specific hard goals versus "do best" goals or no goals: Previous research found that specific, challenging (difficult) goals elicit higher effort investment and output than vague goals such as "do your best" (Locke, 1968). Subsequent research has strongly supported these results, although in a number of studies, no distinction was made between groups told to do their best and those assigned no specific goals(Locke & Latham,1981).

There are other aspects about multiple goals are goal complexity and goal conflict: Goal Complexity refers to the number and interrelation of the results aimed for, while Goal Conflict refers to the degree to which attaining one goal negates or subverts attaining another.

And Intensity of a goal is about "HOW", pertaining to the process of setting the goal or of determining how to reach it, which would be measured by such factors as the scope of the cognitive process, the degree of effort required, the importance of the goal, and the context in which it is set(Locke & Latham,1981). Goal intensity is positively related to goal content. more complex goal-setting requires more intense cognitive process to figure out, also may take longer time and more iteration in terms of initial goal modification and attaining.

According to Locke et al's paper in 1981, the interest of researchers in goal setting at that time had two sources, one academic and the other organizational. The academic source extends back in time from Ryan (1970) and G. Miller, Galanter, and Pribrani (1960), through Lewin, to the Wurzburg School and the associated concepts of intention, task, set, and level of aspiration (see Ryan, 1970, for a summary). The organizational source is traced from Management by Objectives programs, later widely used in industry (Odiorne, 1978).

Nowadays, Goal setting is an important componentof social learning theory (Bandura, 1977) in terms of its effect on task performance, while in the industry, lots of online tutorial, management tool and theory are produced based on goal setting components and aim at improving employee's working performance.

Goal commitment

Goal commitment is also an important component in goal setting theory. According to Locke et al (1981), it refers to the determination to try for a goal. Commitment implies the extension of effort,toward the accomplishment of an original goal and emphasizes an unwillingness to abandon or to lower the original goal(Campion & Lord, 1982). Goal commitment is basically about how much people would like to stick onto the goal: more important the goal is, more commitment to the goal and more persistent that people will be in attaining the goal.

Also self-efficacy, pre-investment (how much effort or resource have already been put into achieving the goal)and social environment may also influence the developing of goal commitment. In addition, the emphasis is on commitment to difficult or challenging goals instead of comparably easy or simple goals.


Feedback generally refers to the information or situation that presents the output generated by the system or specific mechanism having causal information or behavior as input. Feedback was also called knowledge of result [KR] in Locke's study (Locke et al.), and attempts were made to separate the effects of feedback (i.e., knowledge of results [KR]) from the effects of goal setting to determine whether KR directly influenced performance or whether its effects were mediated by goal-setting activity (Locke, 1967; Locke & Bryan, 1968, 1969a, 1969b; Locke, Cartledge, & Koeppel, 1968). In the previous studies describe in Locke's paper in early 1980s, all subjects with specific goals also received knowledge of their performance in relation to their goals; individuals in the KR conditions received knowledge of their actual scores presented in such a way as to preclude their use in setting goals. Such knowledge of scores did not lead to better performance than no knowledge of scores. The evidence from these and related studies indicated that knowledge of scores was not sufficient to improve task performance. However, since groups with goals and no KR were not included, these studies did not test the possibility that KR may be a necessary condition for goals to affect performance(Locke, et al, 1981). These studies were conduct in late 1960s, and in later Power's study(1973), the linkage between goal setting and feedback within control systems was suggested. According to Powers, both goals and task feedback are compared by the mechanism labeled “comparator”. If a sufficiently large discrepancy of error exists, some form of remedial action is triggered. The dependence of the comparator on both goals and feedback is quite consistent with recent goal-setting research demonstrating that neither goals nor feedback, by themselves, significantly affect performance, but the feedback will definitely affect goal-setting or mediate the goal setting for reducing the discrepancy and the error-eliminating response will be initiated. Taking "to do a programming homework" as an example, the student may set up a goal as "spend 1 hour to complete the homework alone", but after half an hour, he notices that there are always errors reported and debugging takes much more time than his prior prediction, so he might want to change the goal into either spending one more hour in this homework or asking for help from peers or TA. Here, error reports from the compiler is the feedback or called knowledge of results that is interpreted to the student, which actually mediate his goal-setting.

Goal setting and feedback are widely believed to affect performance positively through enhancing the information and motivation necessary for work performance (Earley, Northcraft, Lee, & Lituchy, 1990).The performance benefit that goals produce is argued to stem from influencing the effort, persistence, and strategic direction of individual performance ( Locke, Shaw, Saari, & Latham, 1981).

Individual difference in laboratory study had also been looked into in Locke's study in early 1980s, and several variables have been examined: demographic variable (education, sex, age, race, job tenure) and personality variable (need for achievement, need for independence, self-esteem, internal vs. external control), but little significant results are found due to the inconsistent individual differences in the laboratory study (Locke et al. 1981).

Goal setting’s effect on student’s performance with classroom setting

Student Expectations About Affective Correlates of Academic

Performance often improves when difficult and specific goals have been set, which does not mean that goal setting techniques will automatically enhance actual school performance, of course, because that will also depend on other factors. One such factor is student perceptions of the consequences of goal setting, especially perception of affective consequences, which highly relates to the subjective estimation of the goal difficulty. To the extent that the affective consequences of goal setting are perceived as negative, it should be more difficult to persuade students to commit themselves to difficult and specific goals, no matter what the actual consequences are and even if other expected consequences are favorable. As a conclusion, students' expectations of affective consequences should support rather than disrupt beneficial effects of goal setting on performance, and examining the extent to which students have negative affective expectations about goal setting is critical(Wicker, Brown, Hagen, Boring, Wiehe, 1991).

Some main research findings in goal setting

  • specific and challenging goals lead to higher performance than easy goals, "do your best" goals, or no goals (Locke et al. 1981);
  • A harder task led to better weight-lifting performance than an easier task when subjects were deceived as to the actual weights (Ness & Patton,1979);
  • Goals affect performance by directing attention, mobilizing effort, increasing persistence, and motivating strategy development (Locke et al. 1981);
  • Goal setting is most likely to improve task performance when:
    • The goals are specific and sufficiently challenging;
    • The subjects have sufficient ability or the ability differences are controlled;
    • Feedback is provided to show progress in relation to the goal, rewards such as money are given for goal attainment;
    • The experimenter or manager is supportive, and assigned goals are accepted by the individual (Locke et al. 1981).
  • No reliable individual differences have emerged in goal-setting studies, probably because the goals were typically assigned rather than self-set (Locke et al. 1981);
  • Error could be reduced by changing initial goals (Campion & Lord, 1982);
  • Multiple goals: several tasks may be effectively coordinated through the use of multiple, goal dependent feedback loops(Campion & Lord, 1982);
  • The choice of initial goals: in many situation, the choice of initial goals is an important determinant of performance, especially when task feedback is slow or when tasks are not repetitive (Campion & Lord, 1982);
  • Goals may be set close to levels of past performance on familiar tasks (Campion & Lord, 1982);
  • Initial goals may be derived from higher level objectives which are hierarchically organized (Campion & Lord, 1982);
  • Initial goals may be externally influenced by social processed such as social comparison of modeling (Campion & Lord, 1982).


  1. Goal Setting and Task Performance: 1969-1980. Edwin A. Locke, Lise M. Saari, Karyll N. ShawGary P. Latham
  2. A Control Systems Conceptualization of the Goal-Setting and Changing Process. (1982). Michael A. Campion, Robert G. Lord.
  3. Goal Commitment and the Goal-Setting Process: Problems, Prospects, and Proposals for Future Research. (1987).John R. Hollenbeck and Howard J. Klein.
  4. Goal Setting, Achievement Orientation, and Intrinsic Motivation: A Meditational Analysis. (1994). Andrew J. Elliot, Judith M. Harackiewicz.
  5. Achievement Goals in the Classroom: Students' Learning Strategies and Motivation Processes. (1988).Carole Ames, Jennifer Archer.
  6. Student Expectations about Affective Correlates of Academic Goal Setting. (1991). Frank W. Wicker, Gall Brown, Anastasia S. Hagen, Wayne Boring, James A. Wiehe.