Getting Gritty: Focus on Getting Better

Over the years, I’ve taught my share of study skills courses. One of the first assignments required students to list their goals. Typical were the following:

  • make all A’s
  • get a degree
  • be a good mother
  • make a lot of money

But, very occasionally, there would be something like this:

  • learn to play the piano well enough to write some songs for my band
  • improve my baking so that I can make specialty birthday cakes for my son’s parties

The first group’s items were surely desirable but seemed to focus on the end rather than the process. The second group took into account the learning that would take place and why that learning was important to them. 

According to psychologists, the first set of goals consisted of ‘being good’ goals: I will be rich. I will be a college graduate. I will be an ‘A’ student.

The second set consisted of “getting better” goals: I’ll get better at the piano, so I can write songs. I’ll improve my baking.

Studies have shown that both types of goals are good, but when difficulties emerge, the getting better goals more highly correlate with persistence. Why?  According to psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson, there are two important advantages: 

  1. When problems arise, people with get-better goals don’t get discouraged. Their goal was always trying to get better; they never expected things to be easy. 
  2. Even when doubts about success crept in, get-better goal setters were still more likely to persevere. Learning and improvement were still possible.

Let’s face it: many students need to reframe their goals. Too many are looking at the grade as the basis for accomplishment, instead of the learning. Many of my colleagues and I have been bewildered by students who have A’s in Comp I classes but come to Comp II not knowing basic structural or grammatical skills. I’m sure professors in all fields have similar stories.

But the fault is deeper than that. Our society praises high grade point averages and test scores without looking for the learning that should be going along with them. And as much as we complain about current education, test scores ruled when I was a kid, and probably will still long after I’ve gone to meet my ancestors.

Therefore, it is up to students themselves to set the types of goals that provide both success and perseverance. And those are ‘get better’ goals.


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