Inclass Experiments #1 : Goal Setting Theory

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Inclass Experiments #1 : Goal Setting TheoryOne of the best ways for students to learn about social psychology and management is to experience things first hand. In my “Introduction to Management” undergraduate course I ran several famous social psychology and management in-class experiments that demonstrate the material we studied in class.


[UPDATE September 2018: All teaching materials now shared on the teaching page]


As a first example, we did an inclass experiment in goal setting. I used the suggested “Goal Setting Theory Exercise” from the SIOP WIKI which included the following intro:

Time: 15 minutes

Task is from: Schweitzer, M.E., Ordonez,L., & Douma, B. 2004. Goal setting as a motivator of unethical behavior. Academy of Management Journal, 47:422-432.

Students have to create words based on a series of letters given to them. Some of the students are given specific, difficult goals (in terms of how many words to create in the time limit), while others are told to “do their best.” They compute their totals and then you display the aggregated results.

I have done it three times and those with the specific, difficult goal always outperform those with the “do your best” goal. You do run a risk, however, that it may not turn out right (especially with a small sample size). You could also modify the exercise to include a pay-for-performance angle.

The experimental material is posted on the WIKI page, but you can also view it with the results below.

I created the following goals : “Do your best”, 5 words, 9 words, and 16 words.

Following is a summary presentation of the manipulation and the results as explained to the students :


Want more details? this is the document I sent them by LMES to explain what we did in more detail…


Larry Farh has another interesting inclass goal-setting activity linking to creativity with “Understanding Goal Setting: an in-Class Experiment” :

Materials for the experimental task were adapted from a creativity test developed by Locke (1966). Operating within three one-minute time frames, the experimental task involves three trials in which subjects list objects or things that can be described by a given adjective (e.g., “thin”). This task is especially suited for classroom use since: (a) accumulated research and teaching have shown that it is highly susceptible to goal influence, (b) it is relatively brief, taking some 30 minutes to complete, (c) it requires virtually no advanced preparation, and (d) students find it both interesting and challenging.


Students did find it interesting and I received very positive feedback from them afterwards. Makes goal-setting seems far more real and practical.

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