Victoria Prowse Victoria Prowse,

Higher Performance

How task-based goal setting can provide a simple, low-cost approach to improving student success

Balancing the need to provide an affordable, accessible education with a commitment to transforming students’ lives and preparing them for the future are ongoing challenges in higher education — and key pillars in the University’s “Purdue Moves” initiatives.

As evidenced by a six-year tuition freeze, the recent acquisition of Kaplan University and its online infrastructure and the newly opened Wilmeth Active Learning Center, Purdue has demonstrated its dedication to addressing these challenges in tandem.   

Now, ongoing research from the Department of Economics at Purdue University’s Krannert School of Management finds that task-based goal setting can also help on both fronts as a low-cost and logistically simple approach to improving students’ course performance.

In “Using Goals to Motivate College Students: Theory and Evidence from Field Experiments,” a working paper I co-authored with Krannert economics professor David Gill along with Damon Clark of the University of California Irvine and Mark Rush of the University of Florida, we move beyond existing studies that focus only on increasing student effort through performance-based financial incentives.

Policies and interventions such as scholarships and financial aid that require meeting a GPA threshold are typically expensive and often produce mixed results. There are concerns that college students exert too little effort, which can have negative consequences on their learning, graduation prospects and even their future employment.

While traditional economics holds a narrower view of capital that focuses primarily on labor, we take a more progressive, behavioral view that examines human capital as a component that includes the knowledge and skills possessed by an individual.

That perspective brings education very much into the realm of economics. It opens the door to new ways of restructuring classrooms, developing mentoring programs and refining teaching practices to counter individual behavioral biases and improve the human capital of our students.

Toward that end, we pose a simple question: Do college students who set goals work harder and achieve better outcomes?

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