Perspectives on Goals
April 2001 Community College Journalist
Published: Tuesday, February 20, 2001
AN EXPLORATORY STUDY OF STUDENT INTERNS
"Many (college students) still believe the perfect job will materialize if they get good grades and show leadership potential" (Rowland, 1996). In point of fact, within many communication fields, an internship is considered a prerequisite to getting a job. Neva Rountree, president of the Atlanta-based Rountree Group public relations firm, is quoted as saying, "I can't imagine hiring an entry-level person who hasn't had an internship" (Anthony, 1993, p. 16-A). From the academic side, Dolan (1996) indicated that if a communication department has as part of its mission to educate students so that they can enter the work force, then the internship program must be part of that goal.
While internships are important, not all are equal or appropriate for just any student. One professional (Redeker, 1992, p. 20) wrote, "Employers look to see which job candidates have had internships, where they worked, and what they did." This indicates that students must be concerned not only with just securing an internship, but ensuring the experience will be a productive one. Then, too, some research has suggested that the more time spent interning (which may mean more than one internship) and working for campus media, the less time it takes to secure a job (Horowitz, 1996).
As more students complete internships as part of their academic careers, concerns arise as to how to make these internships more effective, more productive. Implications are that academic and career planning must be an active rather than a passive process. Students wanting the top jobs must begin early in their academic careers looking and applying for the top internships. Students are advised to set goals, do their research and start early (Rowland, 1996). Obviously, setting goals as a way to begin charting career paths is a useful starting point for examining how to make internships more productive. This paper reflects first on goal setting and then goal setting in the communication-based internship. Based on this research, a focus group interview with student interns provided insight into what the students think about goals and goal setting.
Ames (1992, p. 261) describes goals as "an integrated pattern of beliefs, attributions and affects that produces the intentions of behavior...represented by different ways of approaching, engaging in, and responding to achievement-type activities." When goals are established by the individual a particular "way of seeing the world" is set in motion. Particular goals will direct the individualís interpretations of choices to be made in pursuit of goal fulfillment. For example, if a student in a public speaking class is goal oriented toward competence in controlling communication apprehension, that goal choice focuses the student toward that end, a much different focus when compared to the student focused on organizational skills as a driving goal.
The process of establishing goals has long been heralded by educators, coaches, and business executives as a positive strategy in motivating people to accomplish tasks. Research has suggested that the external imposition of goals does improve performance (Elliot & Harackiewicz, 1994; Locke & Latham, 1990). The manager who communicates effectively and precisely the goals of the division to subordinates can expect that these goals will help motivate workers in improving their performance.
Research is still inconclusive as to how effective the imposition of external goals is on intrinsic (enjoyment of or interest in the activity for its own sake) motivation. The basic conclusion emerging from study is that externally imposed goals often undermine the interest in or at best maintain the enjoyment of the specified activities (Elliot & Harackiewicz, 1994). Goals that are personally established seem to be somewhat more motivating than those imposed by others. Overall, however, goals have the ability to provoke, challenge and promote task involvement.
The importance of self-reflection and analysis is evident in Walker and Brokaw's (1992) "Criteria for Goal Setting." The first necessary criteria stated are "your goals must be your own," followed by "the goal must not be in conflict with one's personal value system." Walker and Brokaw note in their guidelines that personally established goals are most motivating and conducive to successful fulfillment. Walker and Brokaw also list the following criteria for goal setting: goals need to be specific and written down, goals need to be short-range, goals must be realistic and attainable, and goals should contain specific time deadlines.
Zimmerman (1994) has noted the significance of goal setting behavior in students involved in self-regulated learning. "Self-regulated learning refers to the processes by which students exercise control over their thinking, affect, and behavior as they acquire knowledge and skills" (p. 28). A self-regulated learner, according to Zimmerman, is easy for an instructor to identify in that the student exhibits self-starting behavior such as initiating homework, test preparation and continuing effort aimed at accomplishing tasks. A high level of self-awareness is also evident in self-regulated learning, exhibited in such behavior as students having a fairly accurate idea of how they performed on tests, speeches, etc. before receiving feedback from instructors. Students who participate in self-regulated learning have been found to be intrinsically or self motivated and to have an understanding of establishing self-goals. The imposition of externally imposed goals prevents students from self-regulating their learning. Lodico, Ghatala, Levin, Pressley and Bell (1983) found that self-regulated learners were more motivated when given a choice between strategies to use in the accomplishment of tasks.
The use of goals is related to an individual's self-efficacy, or one's belief in his or her capabilities to perform a particular task (Bandura, 1986). Self-efficacy impacts the choice of activities and the persistence with which an individual will pursue any such goal. If an individual does not perceive a high level of self-efficacy for a given assignment, it will have an impact on the amount of effort and persistence that individual will exhibit when faced with difficulties. Students develop a sense of self-efficacy from past experiences and substantiate such based on their perceived progress in accomplishing the goals they have established (Lock & Latham, 1990). Feedback on goal progress becomes a paramount part of this process since feedback suggests that as the individual is capable of accomplishing the task, increased levels of self-efficacy occur (Schunk & Swartz, 1993).
The goals that students establish for themselves have a dramatic effect on performance; however, this becomes problematic when the goals established by the students are irrational. Brydon and Scott (1994) discuss some of the common irrational personal goals established by college students. One such goal is that they must be competent and successful in all situations. The establishment of such a goal is unrealistic and may set the student up for failure. A second common unrealistic goal is that everyone must approve and like them. The third common irrational goal is that being anything less than perfect is not good enough. The establishment of such unrealistic goals, while perhaps indicative of our culture, creates unrealistic pressure for the performance of the student. The pressure caused by trying to accomplish such irrational goals would cause more anxiety and stress, jeopardizing any real incentive to master content.
Robert Mayer (1994, p. 33), in Goal Analysis, defines a goal as "a statement describing a broad or abstract intent, state, or condition" (p. 33). Mayer argues that goals are often stated in such abstraction that goal accomplishment is impossible. For example, if a student established the goal of "I want to write a good article," how will that student know if this goal has been accomplished? Goal writing, according to Mayer, should describe an intended outcome rather than a process. Goals should address ends rather than means of attaining those ends. An example to illustrate the point is as follows: instead of stating "develop an understanding for using quotes in articles" the goal should state "understand the use of quotes in news stories."
Goal analysis is necessary when goals exist that are difficult to achieve because the intent describes an abstraction (Mayer, 1984). For goals to be successfully accomplished it is necessary to reduce the abstraction into a performance. A specific performance allows the student to develop a stronger sense of self-monitoring and self-feedback to assess whether or not goals have been successfully accomplished. If a student has established the goal of "understand the use of supporting material" he or she can look specifically at his or her performances or outlines to see if evidence exists that he or she has accomplished this understanding. If goals are too abstract, such as "to become a good reporter," specific behaviors or performances are not in place to provide the student with the necessary feedback pertaining to the accomplishment of that particular goal. Through the establishment of specific performances as the root of goal development, students can receive more self-feedback, which is necessary for establishing successful learning strategies and increasing self-efficacy.
Goal setting in the communication internship process has not been discussed at length in the literature. Brightman (1989) recommended that the public relations internship sites set goals before establishing relationships with colleges and universities. Similar broad-based goals have been addressed in the line of general academic goals of maintaining internship programs (Fulmer, 1993; Page, Riggio & Kubiak, 1992). Fitch-Hauser and Padgett (1991, p. 70) go a step further in offering examples of intrinsic and extrinsic goals as they apply to the college offering the internship with the former relating to internship management and the latter apply to the college in general such as in terms of image.
Outside of general academic goals relative to internship programs, goal setting has also been identified as an important element for the student intern. Dolan (1996) identified goals as one of several variables in an internship program's structure. She recommends that goals be written out prior to the internship experience and revisited at the end.
Fitch-Hauser and Padgett (1991) forward that the student and the faculty and site supervisors all have clear goals in maintaining an internship relationship. They recommended that the faculty supervisor advise the student to work with the site supervisor to establish goals so that the student and site are both able to meet their own goals. "By getting the agency, department and student involved in the formulation of the internship goals, there is a greater chance of the intern supervisor having a more realistic understanding of the capabilities of the student intern" (p. 70).
Studies that could be considered related to internship goal setting include an analogical analysis of the relationship between public relations internships and student teaching. While this study focused on a broader academic program, it did consider academic missions and goals of such programs (Bourland, Graham & Fulmer, 1994). Another study entailed a network analysis of benefit appeals in letters of site requests for interns (Maynard, 1996). The benefits, while directed to the academic supervisors, could still provide information to students relative to whether the site might be able to meet the students' goals. The study, however, focused on differences between appeals used by paid and unpaid sites. In effect, Maynard (1996) determined that paid internship site letters tended to focus slightly more on skills, employing expected competencies whereas the unpaid internship site letters tended to use more benefit words.
In another study, the implications of the research more than the purpose of the survey emphasized goals and the internship. Basow and Byrne (1993) surveyed students at pre- and post-internship phases and included graduates, to determine the impact of the internship on the students' attitudes. Students were asked to respond to questions about self-esteem, educational preparedness, career insights and internship value. Results were mixed. For example, students in paid internships agreed more with educational preparedness statements, but less with self-esteem statements (the authors suggested more attention and mentoring may occur at unpaid sites). Changes in attitudes also indicated a need to address expectations.
In sum, the authors (Basow & Byrne, 1993) offered five recommendations to intern supervisors, all of which directly or indirectly related to goals. First, supervisors should help prospective interns write out the learning goals. For example, the authors explained (p. 54), "Students working without pay to earn academic credit must realize they are making an investment and should expect a return. This helps them realize what they have to contribute and what they would like to learn in return."
Similar to goals is the second recommendation, which indicates that supervisors should ensure that the intern applicants have clear and realistic expectations for the site. Obviously, without some understanding of the work of the site, students would be hard pressed to know whether site and student goals would mesh. The third is that the supervisor should address student initiative. This can be accomplished in part with specific goals and clear expectations. As indicated earlier, goals written by the students serve as sources of motivation.
The last two recommendations are that the faculty supervisor should encourage students to find additional internships and should ensure that the internship is a "springboard for further learning" (Basow & Byrnes, 1993, p. 54). Both of these relate to goals as they place the internship as one means of fulfilling broader academic and professional career goals. In other words, a goal does not exist in and of itself; instead goals build on each other and must fit within other contexts. Two or three internships can enable a student to build on prior experience and classes, and set goals for future experiences and coursework.
This review of goals and goal setting in the internship demonstrates the importance of goal setting and the implications for more successful academic internship experiences. While goal setting is an obvious recommendation, faculty and site supervisors need to know about the students' perceptions of and experience with goals. The following description of research was designed to be a starting point for addressing goal setting in the internship. The questions guiding the study were: how do students define and qualify goals, how do they evaluate goal attainment, and how do they set goals for their internships.
A focus group interview was selected as the method needed to address very basic questions and to obtain qualitative data, or a better sense of students' orientation to goals. Focus group interview participants were interns representing communication and public relations programs of study. Both of these "majors" were offered within one department at a medium-sized university in the southeast. Students interning in the local community were asked to attend the interview session. While neither researcher was involved in intern supervision, the students were assured that their views had no impact on their grades and that their participation was completely voluntary. In exchange, the professors offered to help students in goal setting.
Out of the students called, six commitments were obtained and four students actually attended. The group make-up was two public relations and two communication interns, with one being female and three, male. The communication interns were part of a program that allowed students more latitude in creating a degree to fit their own professional interests. The public relations majors had taken courses in public relations as well as speech communication, journalism and broadcasting. All senior-level students, they received class credit for their internships, worked full time, and were at unpaid sites.
The authors developed a general line of questioning to be used as a guide for discussion. A brief pre-session questionnaire (Wimmer & Dominick, 1994) was used to encourage participation by giving students some time to consider their individual goals. The interview was subsequently transcribed, and each author independently reviewed the material to elicit critical themes emerging from the discussion.
While the theme areas paralleled to some extent the question guides, the ideas or subtopics extracted reflected the students' "sense" of goals. Key themes also highlighted the research questions in terms of determining student definitions and evaluations of goals, and the processes of goal setting. Other areas emerging were motivations and rewards, and student concerns.
In the first theme of defining goals, students highlighted several variables including their orientation and their specificity. While the interns were asked to define goals, the definitions were very nebulous and abstract. The most common idea appeared to be that goals varied from person to person. One student indicated that he felt that goals were perceived by some as a gimmick -- like the "motivational tapes."
The goals set by students tended to be more personal; i.e., they focused more on improvement. As such, the students indicated they were harder to define until the student had been at the internship and could thus determine the site-appropriate outlets for such improvement. Moreover, examples the students used tended to focus on materialistic goal attainment -- "like having a new car."
If their goal definitions tended to be nebulous, the same could be said for the specificity of the students' goals. Students who were public relations majors tended to have slightly more specific goals, and consequently, more specific ways of determining whether their goals had been achieved. Intern goals, which despite the fact they were not set until after they arrived at their internships, were not particularly site specific (with the exception of one student who worked with survey returns).
Students were also not specific in terms of deadlines, although their goal definitions appeared slightly more deadline oriented during their internship when compared to goals established while taking classes. Prior to the internship, students reflected that they operated more from a daily to-do list. (Faculty-imposed goals from classes were seen as the students' to-do lists.) Students defined internship learning outcomes in terms of "by the end of the term" or even as "an on-going process." One student said, "I don't think any of my goals ... have deadlines. The ending of my internship does not mean these goals are no longer obtainable if I didn't do them during my internship."
These definitions and qualifications of goals indicated that students were not particularly aware of the process of goal setting. Students specifically indicated the need for help in defining what comes in between the goal setting and goal realization. One intern said, "(With) a research paper there are certain steps you have to take; where sometimes goals, it's not an exact step to there ...." Another student, however, also described this process as "analyzing the hell out of it" which was also "demotivating." This was likened to the fact of thinking about it rather than just doing it.
The motivations and rewards students perceived were mixed, but also highlighted their perceptions of the purpose of goals. In general motivations for goal setting tended to be more short term. Students also emphasized results rather than the process of setting goals: "Goals don't motivate me. What's going to happen when I reach my goals or as a result of those goals is what motivates me." Yet another said, "If you don't have a good attitude about reaching those goals, you won't do it." Similarly, some reward is inherent in goal setting motivation:
"I don't think anybody sets any goal unless it has a reward. What would be the point?"
Relevant feedback was one of the rewards the students indicated from goal setting, yet they recognized that there would be less feedback on the job than in class as with grades: "... because when you get in the real world, no one might say 'oh great,' 'super,' ... and I know we have to wean ourselves out of that. And I guess this is kind of the process where there is no grade; there is nothing saying I'm done."
Students also seemed aware that there might be differences in feedback based on whether the student received remuneration for the internship work. According to one intern, "It's hard for them to correct a lot of our stuff that we're making mistakes on, too, because we are the intern and most of us are not getting paid. They want to help us, but they don't want us to get discouraged...."
When the students were asked to respond to their evaluations of goal achievement, they were able to provide several examples, although these came after continued questioning by the discussion leaders. Means by which students evaluated goal achievement included determining improvement numerically (specifically, the proportion of survey returns), reviewing portfolio items, the publication of stories (editor review), knowledge of clients and their preferences, a general feeling of satisfaction, and self-evaluation. Students also commented on improvement determined by fewer editorial notes from supervisors: "... if the red marks get farther and farther down the page, ... you know this is better than just the 75 or the 100 or whatever on your paper." Of note, the communication interns found it more difficult to specify goal achievement (they relied on the feeling of satisfaction); this would relate directly to their individual goals not being as specific at the outset.
Finally, the discussion elucidated student concerns, particularly what appears to be a fear of failure. The goal discussion by students seemed to lead to either long-term (such as a general goal of learning, which may never be reached) or very short-term goals (the means, or the to-do lists that allow students to reach objectives). A possible interpretation is that students currently possess or rely on only one critical means for determining goal achievement -- the grade in class versus what was learned or what the student can now do as a result of completing the class.
Possibly linked to the fear of failure is that students continually emphasized that goals should be realistic and obtainable (with the exception of the goal related to continued learning). One student said,
Another thing I think is when I've been growing up ..., I've heard a lot of other people's goals that were unrealistic like things they wanted to do. And I don't know of many people who actually accomplished what they had set -- their goals kind of lose part of their meaning almost because you set a goal to accomplish it. And I think a lot of people set goals for the wrong reason. They're not setting realistic ones. They're not accomplishing them. ... they're setting so many goals that are unrealistic and unobtainable that ... they think it doesn't mean much.
The results of the focus group interview indicate that instruction in goal setting had been missing in the students' educational experience, or if it had been addressed, students lacked sufficient understanding or experience to be able to apply goal setting from class to more personal contexts. They generally understood the purpose of goals and they understood that goals should be realistic and obtainable, yet they were not able to implement this by providing specific goals. Of course, another related factor may be that students find it difficult to establish work goals related to their internship when they have such a lack of understanding of the world of work.
Judging from their definitions, students do need help in setting goals, but in particular in breaking goals down into more specific objectives, complete with time frames and strategies or means by which to accomplish them. This counseling, furthermore, should lead the students into considering how they can evaluate goal progress. With such guidance, students can enter the work force even more prepared after completing more successful internships which meet their expectations.
These findings are consistent with research on another form of experiential learning -- service learning. In a review of service learning literature, Shumer and Belbas (1996) highlighted research results including that the site supervisor was critical to students developing work/learning-related plans, that schools needed to implement plans as well to ensure students engaged in reflective thinking, and that service learning worked best if site supervisors were actively involved in developing student service learning curriculum.
The implication is that while goals and the internship experience belong to the student, academic supervisors are critical components in the successful internship program. Further research should continue to investigate not only goal setting, but also the role of mentors -- whether academic or site supervisors.
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Dr. Beverly L. Graham is an Associate Profession of Speech Communication at Georgia Southern University. Courses she teaches include: Interpersonal Communication, Communication and Gender and Communication Theory. Current research projects include an investigation of the perceived social support for rural HIV+/Aids individuals.
Dr. Beverly L. Graham
Dr. Pamela G. Bourland-Davis, Associate Professor of Public Relations, served as the PR Internship Coordinator at Georgia Southern University for 10 years. She is currently the PR Division Chair for AEJMC.
Dr. Pamela G. Bourland-Davis