From Intentions to Actions: The Effect of Planning Prompts

Jacqueline Wong

Achieving one’s goals requires the translation of one’s intentions into actionable steps. However, intentions are often lost in translation when one forgets or procrastinates. An example is the wide gap between enrolment and completion rates in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Students often sign up for courses with intentions to complete. Yet, very few students are able to follow through and finish the courses. To support students in their learning endeavors, Yeomans and Reich (2017) conducted two experiments to examine whether planning enhances course completion.

In the first experiment, students were assigned to one of the two conditions: a planning condition or a control condition. In the planning condition, two text boxes were provided in the pre-course survey for students to describe any particular learning plans they have for the course. This planning condition was modified in the second experiment where the instructions were made more explicit. Students were encouraged to specify when, where, what specific steps, and how they will respond to obstacles. In the second experiment, another planning condition ‘the planning-plus condition’ was introduced. The planning-plus condition had two more features than the planning condition. The first feature is that the students were informed of the usefulness of planning as a learning strategy and the second feature is that the students’ plans were shown to them as a list on the following page of the survey.

There were no significant differences in length of plans, time spent writing plans, completion rates, and certificate verification rates between the planning and planning-plus conditions. Therefore, the analyses combined both conditions into one planning condition.  In both experiments, the results showed that students who were prompted to write their plans followed through the courses more than students who were not prompted to write their plans. There was a 29% overall increase in course completion by the planning conditions than the control condition. Moreover, a concurrent enrolment in a conventional school setting significantly moderated the effect of planning on course completion. The results suggested that planning prompts were more effective when students were supported by a structured learning environment. Using natural language processing algorithms, the results showed that students who planned and completed the course used more words related to how they will engage with the course whereas students who planned and did not complete the course used more words related to when and where they will engage with the course.

The results taken together suggest that planning prompts are effective in enhancing completion rates in MOOCs. Given that MOOCs do not stipulate when, where, and how students should learn, students who are less self-regulated may find it challenging to follow-through and complete the courses even if they enrolled in the courses with strong intentions to complete. Therefore, planning while the intentions are strong can aid one’s effort in overcoming obstacles to learn such as forgetfulness and procrastination.


M. Yeomans and J. Reich. (2017). Planning prompts increase and forecast course completion in massive open online courses. In Proceedings of the Seventh International Learning Analytics & Knowledge Conference, LAK '17, 464-473.

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