Study finds way to motivate students while maintaining autonomy


Even as a graduate student, Jin Seo struggled to balance personal goals with the research assigned to her. Seo, an educational psychology doctoral candidate, said she thought passion and determination was enough, but her personal goals kept slipping away. So she decided to find out why.

Through researching study habits, Seo discovered and decided to look into the effects of the “if-then” action plan. The plan is simple: Instead of trying to achieve abstract goals such as “I want to exercise more,” individuals plan exactly when, where and how they exercise.

“Having a goal is completely different from achieving it,” Seo said. “Research suggests that students don’t feel that their goals are valuable or see any utility benefit … So, when students set a goal but don’t set a concrete plan to achieve it, they often fail to actually put in effort.”

After conducting a pilot study, Seo received promising results showing the strategy can be applied to any goal, self-set or assigned. Subjects who used the plan outperformed those who didn’t because they outlined when and where to achieve their goals and prevented distractions, Seo said.

Seo found that the plan created tension — pressure to complete a task — and greatly increased the likelihood of attaining personal aims.

Rebecca Steingut, an educational psychology graduate student and co-author of the study, said this kind of goal-setting is paramount to college students, who are experiencing a new level of freedom. 

“I’m really excited about this as sort of intermediate step,” Steingut said. “When you’re learning as a college student, you’re learning to set your own goals to achieve those goals.”

Compared to high school, college is incredibly unstructured, and students without organizational skills can flounder easily, Seo said. This method of goal achievement can help students by giving them structure they create themselves, thereby increasing self-reliance.

Marlone Henderson, an associate professor of psychology and co-author of the study, said students should learn how to use the “if-then” plan as freshmen to set them on a better path for the next four years.

“We can teach them the benefits of this,” Henderson said. “At some level it’s just informing them about this finding, letting them know the impact and the power of these plans, and I really see it as a tool to help students.”