Setting Goals to Improve Learning

Once you’re past the very first stages of learning something and have created a practice routine, how do you keep motivated?

Setting goals is a form of commitment device. But it’s also a lot more than that.

How Goals Work

In game design, goals are objectives which us game designers use to get the player to play for just a little bit longer. They create this unfulfilled sense of being “almost there!” Well-created goals make you feel like things are unresolved. They nag at the back of your mind, letting you know that you’re not done yet.

When you achieve a goal, you know that you have made progress towards the ultimate objective of learning something new. They serve as milestones along the road to learning. Each time you pass one, you receive a little rush of good feelings with the knowledge that you’re a little closer to learning.

Mini Goals

We all use mini goals every single day.

Any time you say to yourself “if I just do X, then I can Y” you’re using a mini goal. If you just make it through the meeting, you can have lunch. If you just study for 30 minutes, you can go hang out with friends. Goals do not necessarily require rewards, but linking goals with rewards can improve their effectiveness.

Having a goal for a practice session is one important aspect of deliberate practice. Each time your practice, you should have a mini goal which allows you to gauge your progress along the way.

Mini goals should be reasonable tasks to accomplish in a single practice session. Usually they’re not about getting to a specific target, but about seeing improvement. Each time I use Rocksmith, for example, I aim to increase my score on whatever song I am practicing (not to hit some specific score target).

Unresolved Goals

Just because you set a mini goal for a practice session doesn’t mean you need to hit it.

Research suggests that unresolved goals are very powerful. Whenever you end a practice session without accomplishing your mini goal, you’ll find that you’re eager to practice again. The goal nags at you. If you’re tracking your progress, using these goals as milestones, then it suddenly feels like you need to do another practice session so that you make progress for the day.

I have experienced this phenomenon many times. Trying to set down the Duolingo foreign language learning game without beating a single level feels just plain… wrong. Suddenly, I find myself creating excuses to extend the practice session.

That’s not to say that mini goals should linger, though. If you go more than a couple of practice sessions without accomplishing a mini goal, then the goal is too hard.

There’s a place for big, huge, over-the-horizon goals…

The White Whale

The idea of a “white whale” is synonymous with a life-long obsessive quest (thanks to the novel “Moby Dick.”)

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While little goals are important, a big goal helps pull it all together. A mini goal is about improvement while a white whale is about accomplishment. It’s something you can show to your friends and be proud of.

Contrary to the novel, though, a white whale (“big goal”) should not take your whole life to capture…

A mini goal should take 1-3 practice sessions

A big goal should take 1-6 months

Just how hard your big goal is depends on your personality. If you’re the sort to obsess and shoot for the clouds, then set something that will take a long time. If you need the reinforcement of achieving a goal, then focus on a shorter goal.

Moving the Goalposts

In video game design, as soon as you accomplish some goal we take a moment to celebrate… and then dangle a new goal in front of you.

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In learning, you do the same. As soon as you accomplish any goal, take a moment to be proud. Enjoy it. It’s a great thing.

But then set a new goal.

It was never about the goal.

It was about making progress.

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