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

The concept of goal setting falls within the broad domain of cognitive psychology and is consistent with cognitive behavior modification (Meichenbaum,1977). The present interest of researchers in goal setting has 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, now widely used in industry (see Odiorne, 1978, for a summary), back to the Scientific Management movement founded by Frederick W, Taylor (1911/1967). These two strains of thought converge in the more recent work of Locke (1968), Latham (Latham & Yukl, 1975b), and others who have studied the effects of goal setting on task performance.Goal setting is also an important componentof social learning theory (Bandura, 1977).

Two major attributes of goal setting in the earlier research are Content and Intensity(Rand, 1967).

Content of goal setting

The content of a goal is the object or result being sought.

The main dimensions of goal content that have been studied most are specificity or clarity (the degree of quantitative precision with which the aim is specified)and difficulty (the degree of proficiency or level of performance sought). The terms task difficulty and goal difficulty are often used interchangeably.

Task difficulty: The evidence of a positive, linear relation between goal difficulty and task performance (assuming sufficient ability) was firstly found by Locke (1968), and more later studies have supported these findings. Four results in three experimental field studies demonstrated that harder goals led to better performance than easy goals.

Goal specificity: Specific hard goals versus "do best" goals or no goals. Previous research found that specific, challenging (difficult) goals led to higher 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.

Goal Complexity refers to the number and interrelation of the results aimed for.

Goal Conflict refers to the degree to which attaining one goal negates or subverts attaining another.

Intensity of Goal setting

The Intensity of a goal pertains to the process of setting the goal or of determining how to reach it. It 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. Goal intensity may be related to goal content. For example, a more intense psychological process is needed to set complex goals and to figure out how to attain them than the process needed to set and attain simple goals.

Goal commitment

Goal commitment, according to Locke et al, (1981), refers to the determination to try for a goal. Commitment implies the extension of effort, over time, toward the accomplishment of an original goal and emphasizes an unwillingness to abandon or to lower the original goal (Campion & Lord, 1982). In addition, the emphasis is on commitment to difficult goals. There is little in the literature to advocate the use of easy goals. Commitment to difficult goals should also be distinguished from acceptance of difficult goals, which merely refers to the initial use of a goal assigned by another person as a referent. Goal acceptance does not necessarily imply that the individual is bound to the standard. The present review deals conceptually with goal commitment because commitment is more critical for predicting performance. For example, one can initially accept a difficult goal and yet not demonstrate subsequent commitment to that goal over time.


Feedback is also called knowledge of result (Locke et al.). In Locke’s study, 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 most carefully controlled of these studies, 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. In later having link here, the linkage between goal setting and feedback within control systems was suggested. According to Powers, the referent sate to which environmental information is compared cal be thought of as a goal. Both goals and environmental (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. If either a meaningful goal or feedback is missing, no error can be detected and no error-reducing response will be initiated.

Three measurements of performance

Effort: Since different goals may require different amounts of effort, effort is mobilized simultaneously with direction in proportion to the perceived requirements of the goal or task. More effort would be expended on hard tasks (which are accepted) than on easy tasks. Higher workloads produce higher subjective effort, faster heart rates, and higher output per unit time than lower workloads.

Persistence is directed effort extended over time.

Strategy development: It involves developing strategies or action plans for attaining one's goals. Although strategy development is motivated by goals, the mechanism itself is cognitive in essence; it involves skill development or creative problem solving.

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). Goal setting theory has proved to be among the most robust and useful theories in organizational science. Strong support has been found for two of Locke ( 1968 ) main postulates: Difficult goals lead to higher levels of performance than easy goals, and specific, difficult goals lead to higher performance than do vague, difficult goals ( Mento, Steel, & Karren, 1987; Tubbs, 1986). 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 To date, individual differences have received little attention in the goal-setting literature, although 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 benefit of goal setting appear to be well documented in numerous studies: 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. 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 desired.

Summary of main research findings

  • A review of both laboratory and field studies on the effects of setting goals when performing a task found that in 90% of the studies: specific and challenging goals lead to higher performance than easy goals, "do your best" goals, or no goals. [task difficulty, goal specificity]
  • 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) [task difficulty]
  • Goals affect performance by directing attention, mobilizing effort, increasing persistence, and motivating strategy development.
  • Goal setting is most likely to improve task performance when:
    • The goals are specific and sufficiently challenging;
    • The subjects have sufficient ability (and 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.
  • No reliable individual differences have emerged in goal-setting studies, probably because the goals were typically assigned rather than self-set.( Need for achievement and self-esteem may be the most promising individual difference variables)
  • Error could be reduced by changing initial goals
  • Multiple goals: several tasks may be effectively coordinated through the use of multiple, goal dependent feedback loops
  • 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.
  • Goals may be set close to levels of past performance on familiar tasks.
  • Initial goals may be derived from higher level objectives which are hierarchically organized
  • Initial goals may be externally influenced by social processed such as social comparison of modeling.


  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.