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November 1, 2022
Vol. 80
No. 3
Show & Tell: A Video Column

Setting Goals That Work

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Forming specific and incremental goals for themselves helps students focus on achieving mastery in their learning—and stay engaged.

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EngagementInstructional StrategiesSocial-emotional learning
November 2022 Fisher Frey header image
Credit: TOMERTU / SHUTTERSTOCK
Those of us with fitness trackers on our wrist or finger know how often they can spark conversations. Technologies allow us to track the number of steps we take each day, our heart rate and oxygen levels, and even the quality of our sleep. These biometric data report how you are doing compared to averages of other users, but also compared to your own past performance—marking progress that many people want to share. When Nancy hit a new personal record of 22,427 steps in a single day, she made sure everyone knew about it (now you do, too).
Athletes refer to their PR (personal record) in competitions and use past performance markers to set new goals. Even outside of direct competition, many of us talk about our "personal best" professionally or otherwise. The competition is with ourselves. Once we achieve a new PR, we create a new objective. Nancy's new goal is 25,000 steps.
Academic personal best goals have received growing attention in the last decade as a means for fostering a self-directed learning mindset. These kinds of personal best goals meet three conditions: (1) they are specific; (2) they are challenging; and (3) they are competitively self-referenced, meaning that a student's performance is compared to their own past performance, as opposed to the performance of their peers.

Goal Setting in Learning

Academic goal setting is a crucial dimension of a student's ability to cognitively self-regulate. Goal setting is also a constructive academic behavior, along with perseverance, motivation, and planning, that impacts learning. A student who can focus their attention, concentrate, and activate mental processes to connect concepts they are learning is far more likely to succeed in the classroom. Cognitive self-regulation encompasses many observable academic skills, such as taking notes, completing a task, and persisting when faced with challenges. Goals can improve students' ability to delay gratification and reduce impulsive behaviors, allowing them to focus on the learning at hand.
The source of goals is important. Mastery goals focus on learning content ("I want to learn how to calculate slope"). In contrast, many students only focus on performance goals, such as "Getting an A in Algebra I." That objective is also quite distant, because the student isn't going to know whether they achieved it or not until the end of the year. Incremental goals help students break down long-term objectives into manageable pieces, allowing them to monitor their progress. Initial and mid-unit assessments give students interval data to gauge how they're doing.
Academic mastery goals are more powerful when they are incremental, and when students actively participate in their development. In doing so, the goals often shift from an exclusive focus on performance to more of an emphasis on mastery. In other words, moving from "I want to get an A in Algebra" to "I want to learn how to calculate slope" shortens the time needed to achieve the goal while also focusing on necessary learning instead of looking narrowly at academic achievement. But how else might we ramp up goal setting that emphasizes growth, not just achievement?

Frame Personal Best Goals

When we set goals for ourselves, we typically don't start with the most ambitious outcomes we can think of. Chances are good that Nancy's walking goal is not on par with a professional athlete's. But it's her goal and it spurs her forward. Students who are not yet making expected progress may struggle in setting goals, especially if they are focused on perfection. Their past performance may be evidence to them that they can never reach high-level performance, a self-defeating attitude that further hinders their learning.
Conversations about one's personal best, which is self-referenced, can be useful in building self-efficacy, the belief that one can achieve their goals. Begin the discussion by exploring an academic or school-related goal students have for themselves. Ask them some questions to learn more about their goal. Possible questions include:
  • Why is this something you value?
  • What has your past performance been like? What has been your personal best so far?
  • How will achieving this goal benefit you?
  • How will you know you have been successful?
  • What might get in the way of you meeting this goal?
  • What do you need to achieve the goal?

Academic goal setting is a crucial dimension of a student's ability to cognitively self-regulate.

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To illustrate, the video that accompanies this column (see below) shows intervention paraprofessional Cynthia Ramirez meeting with Cesar, a multilingual learner receiving intervention supports. Every month, she works with him to identify intermediate language-development goals, such as increasing the complexity of books he is reading, that move him closer to his longer-term aim to read on grade level.

Identify Resources and Steps

Academic goals can seem overwhelming to some students, and they may need reminders about what resources they can draw upon. A student whose goal is to advance to the next Lexile level in reading comprehension, for example, may struggle coming up with a plan to achieve this. It's good to discuss available resources, asking things like:
  • What resources can you draw on inside yourself? (I met my last goal, so I have some confidence; the next topic we're studying is interesting to me)
  • What school resources can you use? (My teacher is good at finding books I like; I can work with classmates; I can record my reading and listen to it so I know where I am making mistakes)
  • What resources can your family offer? (My grandma asks to read with me; They are proud of me)
Once students have identified their resources, help them break their goal into incremental action steps they can more easily follow. The student with the goal of reaching the next Lexile level might identify these steps:
  1. Meet with the reading teacher to talk about new personal best goal and ask for help achieving it.
  2. Read for 15 minutes every night with my grandma.
  3. Record myself reading every Friday and listen to it with my teacher.

Maintain Forward Momentum

Change the narrative of schooling by encouraging students at all achievement levels to identify personal best goals. When it comes to learning, the goal isn't about outperforming everyone else, but rather about understanding current performance and using that information to move to the next level.
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Show & Tell / The Power of Goals

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End Notes

1 Martin, A. J., & Elliot, A. J. (2016). The role of personal best (PB) goal setting in students' academic achievement gains. Learning & Individual Differences45, 222–227.

Nancy Frey is a professor of literacy in educational leadership at San Diego State University where she focuses on policies and practices in literacy and school leadership. Staying true to her belief that it is critical to remain deeply embedded in the life of a school, she also teaches at Health Sciences High and Middle College, an award-winning open-enrollment public school in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego, which she cofounded with Ian Pumpian and Doug Fisher.

For over two decades, her work has been dedicated to the knowledge and skills of caring teachers and school leaders needed to help students attain their goals and aspirations. Frey’s interests include instructional design, curriculum development, and professional learning. She is a recipient of the Christa McAuliffe Award for Excellence in Teacher Education from the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and the Early Career Award from the Literacy Research Association.

Frey has published many articles and books on literacy, instructional design, curriculum development, and professional learning, including Student Learning Communities: A Springboard for Academic and Social-Emotional Developments.

 

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