The Power of Goals

How setting — and being reminded of — goals are moving the needle for learners

Marianne Sorba
Aug 14, 2018 · 3 min read

The very first moments of a course are a crucial point to engage learners for the long haul, and many learners need a nudge to get started — especially those who have yet to invest their time and resources in their learning journey.

The literature has consistently shown that having specific goals in mind helps learners build motivation and stay focused, resulting in more positive learning outcomes. We decided to test that hypothesis in the Coursera context, enabling learners to choose short- and long-term goals right when they enroll.

The implementation is simple: when the learner enrolls in a course, a pop-up message encourages her to set her goals for the course. She can choose both short and long term goals.

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From there, we track the learner’s progress against her goals to help her stay focused and to build motivation and satisfaction. This includes reminding the learner of her goal through notifications via email and on-site pop-ups, in addition to sending a congratulatory message once the goal is completed.

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Consistent with the literature, we find that goal-setting notably drives learner outcomes. Learners who have the opportunity to set goals completed on average 4.0% more items than those who didn’t. Given that only 14% of those with the opportunity chose to actually set goals, this is a very positive treatment effect on the treated.

A few other learnings:

  1. Short-term goal setting is a signal of how motivated the learner is. The more active a learner is, the more likely she is to set a goal. For example, learners who have set a goal are twice as likely to interact with the learner community by posting in the forum than those who didn’t set a goal.
  2. Long-term goals are a signal of what learners are looking for in a course — and this varies in interesting ways. For example, learners who enroll in Data Science courses are more likely to want to discover new career opportunities, while learners who enroll in Life Science courses are more interested in achieving their educational aspirations; and learners who have paid for their course tend to be more career oriented while free learners are more interested in gaining skills and confidence.
  3. Perhaps not surprisingly, the added effect of goal reminders is significant — really significant. Being reminded of her goal makes a learner 7% more likely to complete it relative to a holdout who set goals but received no reminder.

Given the success of this pilot, we decided to work on extensions to improve it. Now, learners have the opportunity to set a free-text goal in addition to choosing among a set of predefined goals. We are currently digging in on these responses to glean insights about how learner goals can inform future product and content-creation decisions.

Since not all learners are interested in goal setting — and in many of our other messages — we also implemented a feedback loop to only send the most valuable messages. With this implementation, we going forward only send the goal setting message to learners who are likely to set a goal and benefit from it. Learn more about our feedback loop methods and the resulting impact here.

Interested in applying data science to education? Coursera is hiring!

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