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May 14, 2020
Vol. 15
No. 17

Developing Strong Goal-Setters and Goal-Getters

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Instructional StrategiesSocial-emotional learning
It's no secret that students learn best when they are actively engaged in their own learning—in other words, when they set learning goals for themselves and use evidence of their progress to get them there. The online learning necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic has put student goal-setting at risk. It may seem that the quickest and easiest way to move learning online is to develop a sort of "correspondence course," where the learning goal becomes simply the completion of assignments. When this becomes the default strategy, we do students a huge disservice.
If there was ever a time when students can and should be the owners of their own learning, it is now, as they work from their homes. The question for us is how to best facilitate that, even in this time of disruption, and help students develop a strong growth mindset for teachers, who in turn help students become self-regulated goal-setters and goal-getters.

The Power of a Growth Mindset for Teachers

Designing student learning experiences outside normal classroom routines can be stressful for all involved—teachers, students, parents, and other home helpers. Adopting a growth mindset for teaching is a powerful way to meet the challenge. Professional abilities and instructional effectiveness are not fixed and can develop in response to current challenges. Here are three growth mindset tips:
  1. Practice inquiry-based professional learning. Question how to best meet students' learning needs rather than how to maintain comfortable instructional practices. Actions that increase student understanding lie outside technology and within the thinking processes embedded in the learning experiences teachers design.
  2. Resist the urge to tell students to simply "try their best." It's not just time-on-task that promotes understanding. Rather, it is the quality of the tasks students spend their time on that matters more. Communicate your belief that students are capable learners who can face their challenges by monitoring and improving their own understanding and work. After all, struggling with concepts and making and learning from mistakes are how humans learn best.
  3. Encourage risk-taking—in your students and yourself. Your team can function at high levels outside your brick-and-mortar classroom as you face something new—and difficult—together. Setting specific learning goals that keep learning success in sight not only promotes growth mindsets but also increases motivation to learn for you and your students.

Student Goal-Setting

Being able to set a "just-right" goal in terms of challenge, timing, and specificity is a skill most students lack. Teaching them this skill increases their motivation to learn.
First, introduce each lesson with a shared learning target that describes exactly what students will learn during the lesson (Today I am learning to choose adjectives that create a clear word picture for a noun by describing specific characteristics and details) rather than giving directions (Complete each sentence with the best adjective). Intentionally aiming for a target kicks off the goal-setting process. Without it, students tend to set ambiguous (do my best) or long-term (become a better writer) goals.
Second, explain how the daily learning target fits in to a learning trajectory for a series of lessons that will increase student understanding. Explain how today's learning target builds on what students learned yesterday, will help them meet the challenges in today's lesson, and prepares them for increased learning challenges tomorrow.
Third, design a performance of understanding for each lesson that brings the daily learning target to life. The activity should teach students the content needed to hit the learning target and provide evidence students can use to self-assess and self-regulate. What you ask students to do, say, make, or write should deepen their understanding and help them figure out where they are in their learning. (Select adjectives to describe the nouns in this sentence—When the man entered the door to the house, he saw a mirror, a dog, and a chair—to create two different sentences: scary and magical.)
Fourth, communicate lesson-level, descriptive success criteria that match the learning target. This way, students can compare what they did during the performance of understanding to descriptions of how well they are expected to do to hit the target and select strategies to get there. Applying success criteria develops students' capacity to control their own learning energies, monitor their learning progress, and select actions with the greatest potential to deepen their understanding and improve the quality of their work. Success criteria make the attributes of a good performance visible to promote specific student goals. (The adjectives I chose a) add extra details and descriptions and b) change the word.) Notice how the specific criteria move students from choosing the "best" adjective to looking for the characteristics of effective adjectives in their work.

Student Goal-Getting

Monitoring and adjusting understanding during learning is especially important as students are doing more work on their own, at home, or in non-traditional contexts. Because the teacher may not be observing student work in real time, students need a way to see where they are so that they have some sense of control and accomplishment—two big motivators—even when their teacher isn't right there. Many students we know call this "seeing if I'm on the right track." That intuitive "track" is the road to goal-getting.
Success criteria are also important for teachers' work. They provide a clear way for at-distance teachers to connect with student work, give feedback, and decide on next instructional moves. When teachers and students are not together, it is even more important that the work speaks for the student and that the teacher has a targeted response. If students have been using known and named success criteria, and the teacher's feedback addresses how the work compares with those criteria (An adjective like "nice" doesn't really add much detail or description), you can minimize guesswork and trial-and-error learning strategies.
An appraisal against criteria also gives teachers information for future lessons decisions and assignments that the student needs to move all the way toward the learning goal. (In our example, this task might be adding adjectives to similar sentences for additional practice if warranted or moving on to incorporate adjective-rich sentences to establish setting in narrative writing.)
In addition, students working at home sometimes need or want the help of parents or older siblings. A parent may think, "Of all of the things I could tell my child about this work, what would be best?" Clear success criteria, communicated at the same time as the assignment, can focus the at-home helpers on the aspects of learning that are most relevant for this lesson, this unit, and this work.
In this time of enforced at-distance learning, teachers have an opportunity to both help students energize their own learning and grow as professionals. Teaching students to set just-right goals will stretch them as learners, help them aim for exactly what they intend to achieve during the lesson, and help them choose powerful strategies with growth mindsets to improve their learning and their work.
More on This Topic: Passion Projects Fuel Student-Driven Learning

Connie Moss is an associate professor and program director in the Department of Educational Foundations and Leadership in the School of Education at Duquesne University.

An invited speaker in over 700 school districts, 100 universities, educational associations, and organizations across the United States, Moss partners with them to advance evidence-based improvement and professional learning. Her research engages educators at the nexus of classroom assessment, educational leadership, evidence-based decision making, and social justice.

Prior to joining the Duquesne faculty, she spent 25 years as a K–12 public school educator. She has received numerous awards for her teaching, including the Duquesne University Presidential Award for Excellence in Teaching.

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