Focus on the Path, Not Just the Outcomes

Women walking in the woods

My friend John, who was a guest on one of the first episodes of the Better Me Podcast, teaches at Virginia Tech. For awhile he taught a class called “World Regions” (think geography meets political studies meets history) of about 3,000 students, in a very large classroom. He gave the students lots of choices as to how to earn points in the course to get the grades they wanted at the end. There were the usual quizzes and exams and such, but also an option for a Twitter assignment, film summaries (which students completed by having film watching parties), and other non-traditional types of ways to earn those points.

Students could easily track their progress toward the grade they wanted in the course. John said that every year the same thing would happen. Students who had reached their goal with time still left in the term, even if that goal was to earn an A, asked if they could keep doing more assignments. The grades stopped being their reason for doing the work. The enjoyment of the process, the path, carried them beyond a letter or percentage.

In education, instructors should start with the outcomes they want students to achieve. After that, they figure out how they’ll measure that (the assessments). Finally, after those are settled on, the strategies to get students from the starting line to reaching the outcomes are chosen / developed. There’s a lot of emphasis put on the outcomes and the assessments, but, ideally it’s the strategies that end up being the most important part for students. We want them to care about the learning more than their grades (although we still put most of the emphasis on the grades, which is a problem given what we want the students to focus on). We talk about trying to make them lifelong learners, not lifelong grade seekers.

We do the same things throughout our lives. We make goals for very aspects of our lives including work, money, property and the stuff we want to put in it, family, etc. We put the emphasis on the outcomes / goals and measuring ourselves against those outcomes, and the outcomes of others. We’re chasing grades instead of focusing on the process.

John’s a pretty engaging guy and has some very creative ways of teaching. He also gives his students choices as to the path they’re going to take to their goals, creating opportunities for them to learn, improve, and contribute in ways that align with what motivates them and what they enjoy doing.

Setting a goal that you want to lose 10 pounds and that to do that you’ll take up running, which you’ve always hated, is a recipe for failure. Even if you keep it up long enough to lose those pounds, you’ll likely put them back on when you stop doing the thing you still hate doing. If you enjoy playing basketball or dancing or just walking,  you’re more likely to reach your goal, because you’re enjoying the process, and you’re more likely to keep doing that activity beyond reaching your goal. 

When you want to create new habits for yourself, don’t pick ones that you’ll hate consistently doing.  If you set a habit that you want to get up earlier in the morning because some influencer said that’s key to meeting your goals,  but your spouse’s work means they don’t get home until eight, you’re probably not going to stick with this habit. You have an incentive to stay up later, meaning you need to sleep in more to stay healthy and sharp, which you definitely need to do to meet your goals. The process needs to work for you so that you’ll keep it up. You’ll want to keep it up.

Setting goals isn’t a bad thing, but they aren’t the only thing. Knowing the destination you’re trying to get to helps you determine what the best way to travel will be for you (and it may be different for others). You need to figure out the process that will get you going (a clear picture of your values and what you want out of life) and keep you going (a process that aligns with those values and is somewhat enjoyable).

And like good teachers and students know, sometimes you’ll fail, you’ll pick the wrong strategy or path or habit, but that’s part of the learning. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *