Chapter 3 Transformative education
Goal-setting and the power of saying I.WILL
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A unique goal setting intervention implemented by Professor Michaéla Schippers and supported by Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) I WILL initiative has created significant improvement in the performance and retention of RSM’s first-year bachelor students.
Dropouts from the first year of some university bachelor programmes can reach up to 50 per cent! After losing half the student body midway through the academic year, most universities can rack up significant deficits.
RSM’s I WILL goal setting initiative has proven to be a fun and engaging way to create more focused, confident, self-directed and successful students. What’s more, this initiative has begun to spread to other educational institutions in the Netherlands and abroad.
At the start of 2023, approximately 40,000 students from various study programmes have experienced the positive effects of I WILL goal setting. Student retention remains a serious and costly challenge for higher education institutions as the level of attrition observed across many learning institutions is high. With I WILL, RSM aims to contribute towards changing this.
The mother of intervention: being a force for positive change
Professor Schippers, professor of Behaviour and Performance Management and director of the Erasmus Centre for Career and Study Success (E=CS2), says about her research, “Without individual goals that fit with the organisation’s mission and vision, the organisational ‘vision statement’ stays in a drawer.” Prof. Schippers was a main contributor to the discussion when RSM decided on its mission to be a force for positive change in the world.
A proposed government policy from 2012 was intended to weed out less motivated bachelor students early on in the application process to help reduce losses of tuition and government funding due to students dropping out before completing their studies. This proposition motivated students to buckle down and earn more study credits in their first year. However, it also short-changed those students who were not yet clear on which path they should take in life. The proposed policy also came with a directive to raise the study credits required from 40 to 60. Programme staff had to find a new approach. And fast.
“I found an article on how goal setting helps students, and I sent it to RSM programme management, saying that a goal setting programme might be something we could try,” remembers Prof. Schippers. As a result, 800 students embarked on researching the first goal setting intervention. Since then, tens of thousands of students in the Netherlands and abroad have benefitted from RSM’s goal setting initiative.
Simple but revealing
The goal-setting initiative is deceptively simple and can be deeply revealing. It’s a three-stage online writing exercise that begins soon after the start of the academic year, asking students to:
- react to a series of questions about their ideas, plans for changes in what they want to learn, their social relations and their work. Using mental contrasting exercises, participants outline their ideal future and what they would consider the worst possible outcome for their lives.
- With this self-knowledge, each participating student defines and prioritises six to eight future goals. They describe the impact of those goals and create realistic and detailed plans to achieve the goals.
- This puts students in the position to distil their goals into a public I WILL statement and to commit to one specific goal.
Making a public commitment is critical to the success of the initiative and it’s the last stage of the process. “If you decide to stop smoking, great; but if you tell your friends you’ll stop smoking it’s obviously going to be more effective,” says Prof. Schippers.
It was clear that something good had come out of RSM’s first run of the I WILL initiative, and there were lots of positive emails from programme management. “We sensed that this cohort was doing much better than previous cohorts,” tells Prof. Schippers. “I wasn’t sure at the time that goal setting was going to make that big a difference, but, at the end of the year, we did the math.” We learned:
- The intervention led to a 20 per cent improvement in the number of study credits as well as retention.
- Some groups performed better than others; for example, male students and students with an ethnic minority background showed an average of 50 per cent improvement in performance.
- Gender and ethnicity gaps decreased.
- Struggling students started to perform much better.
That level of improvement has continued with thousands of first-year business students, who might have otherwise quit their studies early. Typically, participants enjoy other advantages from having a purpose in life. For example, they report an enhanced sense of wellbeing, less stress, more confidence and more clarity. In fact, goal setting may have a life-extending benefit: research shows that setting goals is one of the variables that contributes to living longer and leading a more fulfilling life.
Content analysis of the students’ stated goals revealed that goal setting wasn’t especially logical. The nature of the set goal didn’t affect student performance – participants might have even written about their holiday goals. Still, their study performance increased. What appears to matter most is setting the goals and striving to meet those goals.
“Most of the students who have benefitted up to now tend to be the ones who, like me, just went to university because it was expected of them. They started their bachelor programme with no idea as to what they are doing or what they are going to do,” says Robert Vlug, an RSM business school graduate. Robert concludes that, “The I WILL initiative inspired me to take the necessary steps to apply for teaching positions, which I enjoy.”
“The initiative is most positive when it’s started at the beginning of a student’s higher education journey,” says Prof. Schippers. When students set goals, they get on the right path and learn how to keep making small adaptations to their goals throughout their lives.