Higher education institutions should incorporate goal-setting interventions into their curricula because they enhance students' life skills and academic performance, says Professor Michaéla Schippers of Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM). She presented her research that shows goal-setting’s positive impact on student performance and well-being at her inaugural lecture on 16 June; the lecture officially sealed her appointment as Endowed Professor of Behaviour and Performance Management.
Her audience of colleagues, students, family, friends and the University Council welcomed her to the academic community and applauded the quality and relevance of her research, which has already been adopted into the curriculum of RSM’s bachelor programme and is set to have a wider impact. Schippers' first public lecture, entitled 'IKIGAI: Reflecting on goals optimises performance and happiness', was preceded by a Goal-Setting Forum earlier in the afternoon. The video of the inaugural address can be viewed here.
Ikigai: A sense of life purpose has profound effects
Schippers’ research builds on the theory of goal-setting and its role in a more fulfilling life. Self-regulation (i.e. the ability to act towards longer term goals) has long been associated with better life outcomes, and she was curious to know if anything would make people so enthusiastic about a goal that they would automatically self-regulate.
Having a purpose in life or a reason for being – what the Japanese call ikigai – is a fundamental human need and has been shown to increase health and longevity across cultures, sexes and age groups. Previous research has also shown that the act of goal-setting can optimise task and academic performance ‒ and it can save costs.
Prof. Schippers used this knowledge to help RSM students at the same time as she tested the theory of goal-setting. She devised a goal-setting course for her BSc Business Administration students, which was experiencing a drop-out rate of around 50 per cent in the first academic year. Student drop-outs are more frequent among certain demographics, including male students and ethnic minorities.
“Maybe they are unsure of their goals,” said Schippers. Their long-term goals are often abstract, so short-term goals, such as going out for a beer the evening before an exam rather than studying can seem much more attractive. “But what if they had clear long-term goals and concrete plans for reaching them? Suddenly these become much more compelling,” she said.
How goal-setting transforms students' performance
In 2011, Schippers set about conducting a large-scale goal-setting intervention involving 4,800 students at Erasmus University Rotterdam. Students identified between six and eight life goals and planned how to achieve them within a clear timeline. They also identified obstacles, and how they would overcome them. Students then condensed their life purpose into a public statement using RSM’s forward-thinking I WILL movement, which has now collected more than 10,000 statements. Throughout the academic year, students updated a diary of goals, and completed online questionnaires.
The impact on performance was profound, said Schippers. Drop-out rates went down 20 per cent after the first year of intervention and students earned 20 per cent more credits; they also reported more stable goals, increased motivation and greater resilience against setbacks.
What’s more, the gender gap in performance has since closed completely, and the ethnicity gap has closed by 38 per cent, reported Schippers, with the performance of ethnic minority males increasing by up to 50 per cent. After the second year of the study, the ethnicity gap was 98 per cent closed. “Essentially the performance gaps between these groups had been closed by the intervention,” she said.
Schippers intervention set students on a virtuous cycle that persisted throughout their study. “We saw that they had higher GPAs at the end of their bachelor programme.” The experiment also led to cost-savings because students did fewer re-sits. Moreover, the university benefited from the extra tuition fees for students who would have otherwise dropped out.
There is proof that goal-setting works, and produces changes across the board. Schippers used questionnaires to control for factors like motivation, conscientiousness, age, extroversion, and the need for cognition.
“Goal-setting theory has always stressed that in order to see results you need to formulate very specific, time-bound goals and we saw this in our experiment,” she said. “It sets you on a path of self-regulation and success, because your goals are concrete and not so far in the future anymore.”
Mandatory goal-setting intervention should be part of every higher education curriculum, Schippers told the audience. Voluntary goal-setting does not produce the same effect; while most individuals do want to strengthen their performance, they rarely set aside the time to address their goals.
“Goal-setting is part of the positive psychology movement. These are exciting times for science because we know these interventions have huge effects. And as a school, it fits with what we want to achieve: we want to be a force for positive change,” she concluded, before giving her thanks to family, friends and colleagues.
Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is one of Europe’s top 10 business schools. RSM provides ground-breaking research and education furthering excellence in all aspects of management and is based in the international port city of Rotterdam – a vital nexus of business, logistics and trade. RSM’s primary focus is on developing business leaders with international careers who can become a force for positive change by carrying their innovative mindset into a sustainable future. Our first-class range of bachelor, master, MBA, PhD and executive programmes encourage them to become critical, creative, caring and collaborative thinkers and doers. Study information and activities for future students, executives and alumni are also organised from the RSM office in Chengdu, China. www.rsm.nl
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