Why doing your best is not good enough

Excelling in academic exams requires a more sophisticated approach than trying hard 

It took me 25 years to work out how to learn. Years that comprised school exams, and multiple University and professional qualifications.

For much of that time I no doubt held a mindset that is common to students; exam success is about working hard. It was a simple formula – the greater the effort, the better the grade. And effort is about motivation, persistence and self-control.

There is of course some truth to this, yet the correlation between intensity of effort and exam success does not go in a straight line. What’s more, a sole focus on ‘working hard’ will only get you so far. Indeed, it could paradoxically lower your motivation. To understand, consider the following analogy.

I play golf. Badly. I often observe golfers at my local driving range hitting hundreds of golf balls in an attempt to improve. They are highly motivated. Yet they don’t progress because they do not know what they should be doing in order to hit the ball straight. Consequently, their effort leads to perfecting bad golf shots. Eventually, a combination of little improvement, with enormous frustration, is likely to lead to giving up in the belief that this is a lost cause.

Working hard is necessary, but insufficient in any learning environment. You also need to know how to learn, and developing the skill of goal setting will help enormously to that end.

Goal setting

This brief primer gives you some key points to know about a simple, yet commonly misapplied, concept essential for learning a skill.

What is goal setting?

It is creating for yourself something you wish to achieve. It could, for example, be passing an exam, losing weight, or getting a job.

How does setting goals help me achieve them?

When we are clear about what we are trying to achieve, we become more motivated and focused, in turn directing our behaviour and attention towards achieving the goal. We are likely to be more persistent and increase our effort when faced with difficulties.

However, in order to achieve certain goals we need more than effort, we need to learn how to make progress. This is where the type of goal you set is important.

Set the correct type of goals

In an academic context, setting a goal of passing an exam is an example of an outcome goal. These goals are not directly within our control, but they help focus and motivate us. But they do not help us understand how we will achieve a goal.

If you are a student, you need to set yourself learning goals. These focus on helping you increase knowledge and ability. This requires trying new ideas, seeking feedback, and reflecting on your learning process. Failing to get things ‘right’ is only of concern for those setting learning goals in that it provides information as to how you must change your strategies to get something ‘right’ next time.

Related to learning goals are process goals. These goals are in your control and help you focus on how you will achieve your outcome. They involve planning what you have to do, specifically, to get to where you want to be.

Have goals for different times in the future. You may have an outcome goal of passing an exam in three months time. You then need to set short and medium term goals stating what you must achieve by what date in order to achieve your desired outcome. Know exactly what you need to do on a weekly basis, although maintain flexibility in your planning.

Be in control

Ensure that you have control over the ability to achieve a goal. Striving for something that other people have control over will erode your motivation. You can’t control being top in your class. You can control your effort, and what you need to do to apply your knowledge to the best of your ability.

Goal setting in action

A useful process if you are setting yourself a goal is to ask yourself the following questions;

1.   Have I defined a specific goal that I have control over and can realistically achieve?

2.   What must I do by different time deadlines achieve this goal? Be very specific here.

3.   How can I measure improvement and how often must I do this?

4.   Who can help me achieve this and in what way?

5.   What excuses will I make to explain not achieving this and what can I do now to minimize the chance of these things happening?

If you would like to understand goal setting in more detail, please feel free to contact Paul at paul@humanperformancescience.co.uk