Will college students who set goals for themselves work harder and achieve better outcomes? In
theory, setting goals can help present-biased students to mitigate their self-control problem. In
practice, there is little credible evidence on the causal effects of goal setting for college students.
We report the results of two field experiments that involved almost four thousand college
students in total. One experiment asked treated students to set goals for performance in the
course; the other asked treated students to set goals for a particular task (completing online
practice exams). Task-based goals had large and robust positive effects on the level of task
completion, and task-based goals also increased course performance. Further analysis indicates
that the increase in task completion induced by setting task-based goals caused the increase in
course performance. We also find that performance-based goals had positive but small effects on
course performance. We use theory that builds on present bias and loss aversion to interpret our
results. Since task-based goal setting is low-cost, scaleable and logistically simple, we conclude
that our findings have important implications for educational practice and future research.