Properly defining and setting learning goals helps us to focus more on our learning, understand our intentions and motivations, and eventually lets us evaluate our learning efforts a lot better than without these goals. Let’s find out why in this blog.
This work was funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research as well as the German Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training (funding reference 21INVI01).
Firstly, we can all agree (and so does research) that a learning goal is a critical factor in the success of learning. Without knowing where we want to go, how could we successfully arrive there? Learning goals are the key drivers of learning motivation as they direct our attention towards goal-relevant learning activities and enhance our effort and persistence in pursuing them (Locke & Latham, 2002). It is equally important to know the exact point at which we start our journey toward the learning goal to find the best path. In other words, we need to know the status quo regarding knowledge and skills to determine whether our learning goal is attainable and what we need to do to attain it. My colleague David has written a fantastic blog article about this topic, so feel free to head over and dive deeper.
So, with learning goals being this important, why is it that learning goals are so often confused with the notion of having finished a course? This is often the case for both traditional learning environments, such as schools and universities, and online learning platforms.
The goal of learning is in fact not finishing a course!
Instead, we aim to acquire a new set of skills that benefits us as learners in one or the other way. These benefits may include solving a previously unsolvable problem, filling a new role in the company with the newly acquired skills, or simply being more confident with a particular topic. If we reflect a little longer, this implies that a learning goal is indeed not a course but can instead encompass a certain set of skills that need to be acquired by the learner. To be clear: A course can undoubtedly bring you to your goal, but so might any other. So, completing a particular course or event is not the goal!
Another key factor often overlooked is the question of who actually sets the learning goal. In particular, for workplace learning, a learning goal can be intrinsically motivated but is instead often mandated by external sources such as supervisors and company strategy. An easy example is mandatory compliance or security training instead of self-motivated learning activities out of curiosity. When was the last time that compliance training made you burst with curiosity?
Yet, learning platforms typically do not pay much attention to the involvement of a second stakeholder in the goal-setting process. However, supporting the learning processes towards externally set goals should be handled substantially differently from intrinsically motivated goals. Current recommendation systems, as well as learning support systems, should pay attention to these different types of goals.
Together with our research partners at the University of Mannheim, we decided to investigate the different learning goals at the workplace and their implications on the learning success of employees pursuing re- and upskilling activities. We conducted a literature study, screening more than twelve thousand publications regarding learning goals and narrowed them down to the most relevant ones.
It became evident that the key dimensions distinguishing learning goals are the ideas of self-regulation and motivation. Simply speaking, it is all about the motivation to work for the learning goal, which, as already mentioned, directly correlates with who actually sets the learning goal. In our research paper, we defined five different categories of learning goals spanning the motivational dimension ranging from intrinsic to external:
Alright, but how does this help us in practice?
Let’s quickly go through these goals and their implications for learning.
Intrinsic learning goals feature the highest amount of self-regulation and self-motivation. Pursuing such a goal, we are learning due to our high interest in expanding our knowledge and satisfying our curiosity and desire to study. If you’ve recently started a new hobby, you can probably relate. No one needs to force you to dive deeper into the topic. Instead, you’re naturally drawn towards it, maybe watching videos and reading more about it to satisfy your curiosity. Typically platforms such as YouTube support us with the desired information. They offer us the opportunity to explore a never-ending amount of new facets of the topic.
The high motivation to pursue an intrinsic learning goal impacts our learning success positively and often leads us to reach our goals.
It’s a lot of fun, easy enough!
However, it is often hard to find such high intrinsic motivation for a learning topic or training in a corporate learning setting. We can agree that there are many topics that we need to learn that we would rather not spend our evenings on.
There are other learning goal types with less intrinsic motivation attached to them. One such goal is what we call a personal development goal. When studying for such a goal, you aim to improve yourself and your own performance. You do this by trying to develop new skills that you consider helpful for both your personal and/or professional life. This might include improving your social skills and self-esteem or becoming an expert to attain credibility and recognition. Even a psychotherapy session has a personal development goal at its core.
What differentiates a personal development goal from an intrinsic goal is that the motivation partially comes from the outside, making it a partially external goal!
Even though you aim to improve yourself, you do this to influence how positively others (and you) view you. Learning with such a goal can sometimes require more external motivation and is often a little less fun and a bit more work.
Career development goals are located directly in the middle if we look along our spectrum of intrinsic to external learning goals. When the learning intervention can advance our careers by enhancing opportunities or maybe enabling a promotion or a switch to a different career path, we are motivated equally by ourselves and outside factors.
While we certainly want to improve ourselves, we are often not entirely free to choose how we do so!
Sometimes we need to obtain a specific degree or learning certificate to be eligible for a particular career or position, even though the topic might not be our favorite, and we might have given up long ago if we had the choice. We might have to sit through training sessions or finish learning content online even though we wouldn’t do so were it up to just our motivation to do so.
Okay, let’s take a quick break here and consolidate.
As you can see in the three goal categories mentioned so far, when learning is not driven by learning goals or processes, we are highly motivated to achieve from within ourselves. The more we move towards these external learning motivators, the more learning support also needs to change. But before we come to this, let’s first look at the last two categories.
Shifting even further towards externally set learning goals, learning for specific problems or projects comes to mind. We call these learning goals use-case specific. When facing a new challenge on the job, sometimes the necessary skills or tools for the solution are not available yet, which requires us to upskill to accomplish the task. And even though we might not be inclined to learn these new things purely out of interest, the requirements of the task essentially force us to look into them. This is the first example of a learning goal that should be attained rather quickly and without detour so that the task at hand can be accomplished (and nothing more!). Further exploration of the topic, in many cases, represents rather a hindrance than support.
Last but not least, in the corporate learning setting, the most externally set goals we found and categorized in our research are the work requirement goals. These comprise learning topics that you probably wouldn’t tackle yourself if it weren’t for the pure necessity of it. A simple example is onboarding training offerings with all kinds of organizational, mandatory compliance topics, recurring security workshops, or general information everyone in the company needs to have seen.
Don’t get us wrong!
This is not to demean these training offerings or deny their importance, but we might agree that these are probably not the most entertaining ones we’ve done. As a consequence, the learning goal, in this case, can often be to simply get it done and over with. Eventually, this is a learning goal where finishing the course might actually be the goal from a learner’s perspective.
We are constantly working on ways for our learning platform to adapt to different types of learning goals and to make learning activities more successful. However, we also believe that learners and, in particular, learning and development departments can benefit from simply understanding and acknowledging the different learning goals for what they are.
As you can imagine, depending on the type of learning goal, different approaches to upskilling need to be taken by organizers, teachers, learning platforms, and, ultimately, learners. What is equally important is to expect different results depending on the learning goal.
In short, we gathered the following three insights:
Goal setting is a means to focus!
Before starting to learn, we need to make sure to define the learning goal. Go ahead and choose one of the above categories and ask yourself:
“Which goal do I pursue? Why do I pursue it?”
If you’re working in employee development and need to organize training interventions, ask yourself which types of learning goals your training covers. Do you expect your learners to love the training intrinsically, or do they simply have to do it? Both expectations are fine, but they will require you to provide different types of motivation and organization support.
At edyoucated, we include the dimension of goal setting as a highly relevant factor in our platform. We let you set up skill profiles as goals and help you reach the varying learning goals for the different types of learning interventions. For example, entirely externally set goals might be seen as more cumbersome than motivating, so learners should be enabled to finish the necessary content quickly and without detours. However, when learning is out of interest or curiosity, exploration opportunities can be offered.
Setting learning goals in a workplace often needs to be a strategic group effort and include the learners, supervisors, HR, L&D, and company strategists. Get together and align on what you aim for and how company strategy translates into upskilling goals and initiatives. Then sit down and refine how this translates into learning goals for the learners. Which types of goals are involved? How do we think the learning goals will influence motivation and expectations for the training offerings? Agree on this together, and you’ll be bound for success. And if you like, we’ll help you with this critical step.
Last but not least, measuring learning success is a goal-dependent process.
So what does that mean?
Traditionally, the impact of learning has always been hard to measure, as it often only gets apparent after a long delay and can only be measured indirectly. So, to find some way to evaluate the success of learning activities, we often use the “number of learners having completed the course” as a proxy for success. But, after reviewing the above learning goals, do you see why this might not be a good idea?
For some learning goals, it might be absolutely right, like for work requirement goals. Non-completion of mandatory training offerings can definitely not be seen as a success. But what happens on the other side of the spectrum? If you offer (or have done) training that lets learners explore new topics and broaden their perspective, a few “incomplete or failed” courses might actually be a good thing. Or at least not as bad as it sounds. Learners might have tried and found that other topics are much more to their liking. Was the learning successful? We’d say so.
So, whenever evaluating learning activities and initiatives, think about which goals you had in mind and measure their success accordingly.
Very well, that’s it for today, and we hope you’ve enjoyed the read! If you want to dive deeper into our research and aren’t afraid of scientific literature, why don’t you have a look at our article? It’s open-access and bursting with topical information for you to read.
edyoucated is funded by leading research institutions such as the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), the Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training (BIBB), Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action (BMWK).