The Little Engine That Would: Mini Goals and the PRS Method
In the last post, we discussed that challenges one encounters while learning Torah can be demoralizing. This is often because difficulties in Torah study can undermine your self-efficacy – the belief that you can accomplish what you set out to accomplish. If you hit roadblocks, your mind often generalizes those hurdles and weakens your self-efficacy. When you find understanding a part of Torah to be an uphill battle, your mind sometimes extends that to ineptitude in Torah study altogether. Even someone who has had years of successful Torah study can find his mind caustically generalizing from a single obstacle and casting aspersions on his skill set in learning.
You can counter this mental erosion is by consciously cultivating your self-efficacy in Talmud Torah (Torah study). You can foster your efficacy by choosing a goal that you want to accomplish in Torah – whether it is to understand a few lines of Talmud or mastering the opinion of a particular Rishon (medieval commentary) – and then setting specific mini goals along the way. When you reach a mini goal, your mind gets automatic feedback that you are able to accomplish part of the task. When your brain recognizes that, it develops self-efficacy about that part of the task, then generalizes efficacy to the whole undertaking. In turn, that creates a desire in your brain for you to accomplish the task, which propels you further toward your goal. The nature of mini goals might change for novices or sophisticated scholars, but the concept can be helpful for both of them. Some experienced Torah learners knowingly generate mini goals. Many others do it organically; it has become the way their mind automatically processes Torah study and its accomplishments and frustrations.
The PRS Method
Research suggests that the mini goals you set need to have certain characteristics to help you cultivate self-efficacy. I call that model of developing mini goals “The PRS Method.” In order to provide self- efficacy, mini goals need to be: Proximate, Reasonably difficult, and Specific. The method is modified from research published by Dr. Dale H. Schunk (2016, 2012).
Proximity means that each mini goal should be attainable in the near future. One of the benefits of mini goals is that you are fostering your self-efficacy and ability by enjoying bits of progress. Therefore, you need to be able to accomplish your mini goals frequently. For example, if you are learning a Tosafos (prominent medieval commentary, whose authors are called the Baalei HaTosafos), setting a goal such as understanding the question of the Baalei HaTosafos (really understanding it, for an advanced student) might be an empowering mini goal. It’s close so it can give you feedback quickly. The next goal might be to understand one answer in the Tosafos. Mini goals that are near in time are short, and then become sweet when they are met.
Your mind realizes when a mini goal you set and then reached was tough to accomplish or when it was easier. Make sure that your goal is challenging enough for your aptitude and abilities. If you succeed at a mini goal that was hard to do, it is a strong indicator of your capabilities. On the other hand, mini goals that are too hard or too easy don’t accomplish anything. Superficially, you might enjoy setting goals that feel overly ambitious or reaching mini goals that are handed to you on a silver platter, but true feelings of accomplishment will stem from your achieving challenging goals that demand and demonstrate your real abilities.
Specific and concrete mini goals raise efficacy and motivation more than general goals do. For example, it is better for you to set a goal for jogging 2 miles or writing the first paragraph of an essay than saying, “I will do my best” or “I will see how much I can do in an hour.” Dr. Schunk’s research found that a general goal such as “Do Your Best!” or “Shoot for the Stars!” had no significant impact on motivation or efficacy at all. Quotes like those might be fun to read on motivational stickers or magnets, but they do not usually accomplish much.
Consequently, when you are learning, it is more advantageous to set a goal to accomplish a certain amount of Torah. That does not undermine the importance of kvias itim – setting aside time sacrosanct for studying Torah. Rather, consider making mini goals of what specific material to learn and how much to accomplish while you are learning, too.
The PRS Method of creating mini goals can be valuable in all aspects of life, with many different responsibilities. One of the major reasons that people are “lazy” or “not in the mood” of accomplishing a specific task is that they believe that they are not able to do the task, or to do it well enough. If you set mini goals that meet the criteria of the PRS method, you can build and increase your self-efficacy and accomplish more in many physical, emotional, and intellectual pursuits. Climb life’s mountains with mini goals and the PRS method. Be Your Best – With PRS!
Schunk, D. H., & DiBenedetto, M. K. (2016). Self-efficacy theory in education. Handbook of Motivation at School, 34. https://books.google.com/books?id=MmyaCwAAQBAJ&lpg=PA34&ots=Z6aIu4mqu3&dq=schunk%20dale%20goals&lr&pg=PA34#v=onepage&q&f=false
Schunk, D. H. (2012). Social cognitive theory. In Harris, Karen R. (Ed); Graham, Steve (Ed); Urdan, Tim (Ed); McCormick, Christine B. (Ed); Sinatra, Gale M. (Ed); Sweller, John (Ed), (2012). APA educational psychology handbook, Vol 1: Theories, constructs, and critical issues. , (pp. 101-123). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association, xxx, 621 http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/13273-005