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Motivation is the main reason for studying behavior in the workplace. Motivation can be intrinsic or extrinsic, and these terms describe in which way someone is motivated. Incorporating arousal, direction, intensity and persistence creates a complete understanding of motivation, and goal setting affects performance through these mechanisms (Locke, 1968). Objectives that one has not yet achieved can motivate a person to engage in behaviors that will meet the unfulfilled goal (Lesson 1: Introduction to Work Motivation, 2013). Goal-Setting Theory is the most researched and most useful theory of all work attitudes and motivation theories. It is the simplest work motivation theory to understand and explain because it examines something that most people constantly do: set and try to accomplish goals. The theory states that motivation is theorized through the desire and intention to attain a goal (Lesson 6: Goal Setting Theory, 2013). Goal-Setting Theory was developed primarily by Edwin Locke and is one of the most useful and well-established theories of work motivation in the field of Industrial Organizational Psychology. Goal Setting determines the specific level of performance for individuals to achieve. People have internal objectives and goal setting focuses on the direction of this behavior. People direct their goals towards a specific outcome through developing effective strategies of implementing intensity and continuing persistence. One can set an individual goal, or in a work setting, company wide goals can be implemented. Also managers can set particular goals for employees through management by objectives. This involves goal setting as a joint process with managers and employees working together, and this enables managers to directly assess performance of the cooperatively structured goal. This includes employee involvement in goal setting and mutual participation in the goal achieving process. Managers can introduce strategies of task commitment, give feedback, and focus on effective strategies to reach a particular goal, and employees can feel energized to complete the goal with task persistence. It is widely accepted by organizations today and used as a source of motivation, project completion, and compensation determination. (Lesson 6: Goal Setting Theory, 2013). In the case presented below, a goal is set by an individual and examined using ideas and concepts from researchers who study Goal-Setting Theory. By using this theory, concepts can be directly applied to this specific example.

Goal Setting Theory

Case Description:

John is an online student at Penn State World Campus. He is currently taking classes in the Fall 2013 semester and has 30 credits left after this semester to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in Organizational Leadership. His current overall college grade point average is 3.5. His goal is to graduate by August 2014 with an overall grade point average of 3.6 and to take the remaining 30 credits in the next two semesters (Spring 2014, and Summer 2014). He needs to achieve at least a 3.91 grade point average to meet his goal of graduating with a 3.6 grade point average.

Applying Goal-Setting Theory:

When recalling the definition of motivation, it includes direction, intensity, and persistence, and these mechanisms can be used to explain Goal-Setting Theory (Locke, 1968). Goals direct attention to behaviors that will achieve the goal. When goals are uncertain or unclear and become vey specific, this directs one’s attention toward achieving a goal. John directed his attention toward this goal by making a very specific goal. His goal could have been unclear and broad, such as planning to graduate in a few semesters. Instead he made his goal extremely specific so he could best direct his attention towards it. John’s goal is also energizing. John has created a goal that will mobilize his effort and make him try harder as required by the theory (Lesson 6: Goal Setting Theory, 2013). John is going to exhaust more effort and increase his intensity more than if this was an easier goal, such as graduating in a year with a lower grade point average. This goal also helps John maintain task persistence. He has set a goal and a deadline and this will lead to a greater amount of time spent on behaviors directed toward goal attainment.

This goal has motivated John for developing and finding effective strategies to complete this goal more effectively (Lesson 6: Goal Setting Theory, 2013). John has considered how he is going to reach the goal, and developed specific strategies to do so. He has figured how many credits he needs to take each semester and what classes he needs to take. He has developed strategies of making sure he does not take too many difficult classes in one semester, and he also made sure he has enough time to do well in the courses.

Locke developed the acronym of S.M.A.R.T to explain goal conditions and the many factors that are essential for goal setting to successfully lead to improved performance (Locke, 1968). This acronym stands for specific, measurable, assignable, realistic, and time-related. John is committed to this goal because he plans to take LSAT classes during the fall to prepare for taking the LSAT and applying to law schools, and per the academic plan he has created with his counselor, he needs to finish school in August 2014 to begin studying for law school. This goal is specific because John knows exactly how many classes and what classes he needs to take in order to graduate. John knows how many semesters he needs to take, and how many classes he needs to take each semester. John even knows the exact grade point average to attain in order to reach his goal as a measurable outcome. John is going to take 5 classes, or 15 credits during the Spring 2014 semester, and 5 classes or 15 credits during the Summer 2014 semester. He needs to get at least a 3.91 grade point average to meet his goal of an overall 3.6 grade point average. John’s academic plan is included below for reference. The goal is measurable because John knows when he is going to achieve the goal (Summer 2014), and he knows what grades he needs to get to reach his goal.

John’s goal is assignable because he has assigned the goal to himself and has created an academic plan that will satisfy all the requirements for him to graduate. John’s academic advisor has also been in constant contact with John making sure he meets all the requirements and helping John assign all the aspects of the goal to himself.

This goal is challenging, but also realistic. John works 30 hours a week, so he knows he is going to be working hard to complete 5 classes a semester. This is a lot of credits for someone to take in two semesters with work involved, but John has consistently taken full-time credits while working and has succeeded. John is going to be challenged to get a 3.91 grade point average, but he has a relatively high average grade point average of 3.5, so he knows how to academically succeed. Previously, John worked 40 hours a week and took full-time classes while getting an average grade point average of 3.5, but now with working 10 less hours a week, John feels his goal of achieving a 3.91 grade point average is realistic. Research has found a positive relationship in that more difficult goals produce higher levels of effort and performance (Lesson 6: Goal Setting Theory, 2013).

John will have access to his grades for each course. These grades will provide the feedback so he knows how he is doing or where he needs improvement to meet his goal. For instance, he would see what his grade point average is, and what grades he needs to get to maintain a 3.91 and have an overall of a 3.6.

John’s goal is time related because his goal is to get his college degree in two semesters. Without a time line it would be possible for John to procrastinate and prolong the completion of college.  His timeline is very clear and precise and he knows the exact dates in which he begins and starts each semester, and the exact date in which he will finish school.

Goal-Setting Theory - Home Wiki Page


Goal-Setting theory will provide the motivation needed for John to take on his ambitious goal of completing his college education in the next two semesters by taking 15 credits each semester and maintaining a grade point average of 3.91. John’s educational goal is very specific, measurable, assignable, realistic, and time-related, and most of all, John is extremely motivated to achieve this goal.


John’s Plan to Graduate by August 2014:

Spring 2014 (January 13th-May 9th)

Summer 2014 (May 19th-August 13th)

ENGL 215 (3)

PSYCH 485 (3)

PHIL 103W (3)

LER 434 (3)

SOC 404 (3)

Total Credits: 15

CRIMJ 100 (3)

CRIM 113 (3)

CAS 404 (3)

SOC 455 (3)

HIST 020 (3)

Total Credits: 15

Total Credits: 124

All Required Areas are met and reviewed by counselor


Lesson 1: Introduction to Work Motivation (2013). Psychology 484: Work Attitudes and Motivation, Pennsylvania State University, Retrieved from

Lesson 6: Goal Setting Theory. (2013). Psychology 484: Work Attitudes and Motivation, Pennsylvania State University, Retrieved from

Locke, E. A. (1968). Toward a theory of task motivation and incentive. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 3, 157-189.

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