The Role of Feedback and Goal-Setting on Performing Tasks

By: Inas Essa


Setting goals is such an important factor in tasks accomplishment and getting work done; yet, is it the sole factor in performing tasks? Or is there another important factor that keeps the performer more engaged and focused on the task and increases the attention span—the amount of time an individual spends concentrating on a task before becoming distracted?

A new study from The University of Texas has highlighted that, besides the goal-setting importance in sustaining individuals' attention on a task over a long period, receiving feedback produces a much stronger effect.



Matthew Robison, UT Arlington assistant professor of psychology and the first author of the study says: "Sustaining one's attention is notoriously difficult. The longer an individual performs a task, the worse their performance tends to be". He adds: "If you want to encourage people to maintain focus on a task, whether it be learning or job-related, or if you are designing something that you want people to engage with, giving feedback about their performance is a very powerful motivator".



Evaluating Human Ability to Perform Tasks Over Time

Across four experiments, researchers examined the effects of goal-setting, feedback, and incentivizing manipulations on sustained attention by giving individuals a simple but attentionally demanding task. They asked participants to perform the task for 30 minutes and measured the effectiveness of goal-setting, feedback, and incentive manipulations on participants' ability to sustain their attention. The researchers also provided participants commentary about their levels of motivation and alertness, and disclosed the status of their attention as on-task, wandering, or absent.

In the first experiment, the researchers compared two specific goal conditions, one is difficult and the other is easy, with a standard set of instructions. The results of this experiment indicated that setting a specific goal improved sustained attention but did not impact task engagement (higher motivation and fewer task-unrelated thoughts).

In the second experiment, they split the performance time into blocks and provided feedback at the end of each. The data offered strong evidence that combining a specific goal with feedback had strong effects on both task performance and task engagement. Additionally, feedback, on its own, increased task engagement and acted as an impressive regulator regardless of whether or not it was paired with a specific goal.

In the third experiment, the researchers examined the effect of pairing goals with a reward. The participants in the time-based incentive condition reported higher motivation but did not show better task performance. Thus, the results indicated little proof that incentives increased task engagement, compared to the effects of goals and/or feedback.

Finally, in all experiments, the researchers witnessed a decline in performance over time, with participants reporting that they felt less motivated and their minds started wandering.



Pushing the Human Brain Beyond its Limits

"Even in conditions when people report feeling motivated and engaged, it is difficult to maintain optimal performance, especially if the task is attentionally demanding," said the first author of the study.

These findings shed light on the importance of knowing the limitations of the human cognitive system to perform monotonous tasks over long periods. These tasks may push an individual's attention beyond its limits, especially as the human attention span has dropped to 8 seconds, according to a study by Microsoft.

"We need to be cognizant of the level of difficulty involved in sustaining attention when we ask others to perform tasks where they must be attentive for long periods of time," Robison said. He concluded: "It is possible that we put ourselves in harm's way by relying too much on the human attentional system to accomplish feats that may not be achievable."