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June 1, 2020
Vol. 62
No. 6

Developing Strong Goal Setters and Goal Getters

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For remote learning to be more than a series of tasks to check off, student ownership is essential.

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Instructional StrategiesClassroom Management
It's no secret that students learn best when they are actively engaged in their own learning—that is, when they set learning goals for themselves and use evidence of their progress to get 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, however, we do students a huge disservice.
Students can and should own their learning, especially when they are working from home. The question is how to best facilitate ownership, even in times of disruption. As students develop a strong growth mindset, teachers can, in turn, help them become self-regulated goal setters and goal getters.

Goals Support a Growth Mindset

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 and learning is a powerful way to meet the challenge and reframe what school looks like under unprecedented conditions. Instead of asking students to try their best to get through as many tasks as possible, you can build in opportunities for students to reflect on their learning and make adjustments. 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 mistakes and learning from them are how humans learn best.
Actions that increase student understanding lie outside technology and within the thinking processes embedded in the learning experiences teachers design. Setting specific learning goals that keep learning success in sight not only promotes a growth mindset but also increases motivation to learn for you and your students.

Steps to Support Student Goal Setting

Being able to set a "just right" goal in terms of challenge, timing, and specificity is a skill most students lack. Self-regulation research shows that teaching them this skill increases their motivation to learn. These four steps will help students succeed at setting goals.

Step 1: Introduce the target.

Start 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 of what they should do (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.

Step 2: Contextualize the learning.

Explain how the daily learning target fits in with a series of lessons that will increase student understanding. Explain how today's learning target will build on what students learned yesterday, help them meet the challenges in today's lesson, and prepare them for increased challenges tomorrow.

Step 3: Practice to deepen understanding.

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. (Create two types of sentences, scary and magical, by selecting 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.")

Step 4: Communicate success criteria.

Communicate lesson-level, descriptive success criteria that match the learning target. This allows students to compare what they did during the performance of understanding to expectations and then select strategies to get themselves to that target. 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 are a game changer. They make the attributes of a good performance visible to promote specific student goals. (The adjectives I chose add extra details and descriptions and 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.

A Sense of Control and Accomplishment

Monitoring understanding during learning is especially important because students are doing more work on their own, at home, or in nontraditional contexts. The teacher may not be observing student work in real time, at least not all the time. More than ever, 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. These criteria provide a clear way for at-distance teachers to connect with student work, give feedback, and decide on next instructional moves.
Teachers and students being separated makes it even more important that the work speaks for the student, and the teacher's response needs to be targeted and on point. Success criteria enable that. 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 deciding on the future lessons and assignments that the student needs to move all the way to the learning goal. In our example, if additional practice is warranted, students can add adjectives to similar sentences; if not, move students on to incorporate adjective-rich sentences that 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 at-home helpers on the most relevant aspects of learning.

Energize At-Home Learning

Teaching students to set just-right goals stretches them as learners. They can see and aim for exactly what they intend to achieve during a lesson and choose powerful strategies to improve their learning and work toward a target. Goal-driven learning provides a pathway for motivated at-home learning and reminds students and teachers of our abilities to grow and thrive, even under difficult conditions.

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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