How Setting Goals Jump-Starts Student Achievement

Student faces smiling- Goal achievement
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School has been back in session for about a week, and students are settling back into the normal routine. Now that students are back in their seats and focused on learning, why not capitalize on the “new year, new me” motivation to help your students learn the importance of goal setting in both their personal and academic lives.

Much research has been done studying the link between goal setting and achievement, and some of this research specifically focuses on how setting goals in the classroom can help boost student achievement.

A 2018 report titled “Student Goal Setting: An Evidence-Based Practice” written by the Midwest Comprehensive Center at American Institutes for Research reached the following conclusion: “Goal setting in isolation cannot be assumed to produce positive outcomes for students. Like most instructional practices and interventions, the outcomes associated with student goal setting will vary depending on how educators design and implement their goal-setting strategies.”

So, what does the research say and how can educators most effectively implement goal-setting in the classroom to produce better results? These ten tips show you how.

1. Help students set their own goals:

A 2007 study found that students who are not intrinsically motivated (those who most need the help goal-setting can provide) cannot set their own goals but “if they are helped to set their own goals, they may be able to establish motivation and boost their achievement”, according to a 2012 paper titled Can Goals Motivate Students? from the Center on Policy Education (CEP). This means that students need an adult to help them set goals. Once this is done, students can often achieve the goal, even if they couldn’t conceive of it in the first place.

2. Develop “mastery,” not “performance” goals:

Mastery goals focus on developing new skills and increased content knowledge, whereas performance goals focus on achieving specific scores or outperforming peers. Mastery goals are most desirable as “researchers have consistently found that students who have a mastery goal mindset exhibit deeper cognitive processes, strategize more effectively, and are more adaptable to challenges” whereas “performance-oriented students show more adverse reactions to failure,” according to the CEP paper.

3. Set goals at challenge, not frustration level

For years researchers have found that goals that are too difficult are demoralizing, and goals that are too easy are meaningless. A teacher’s job is to help students strike that Goldilocks balance when setting goals: not too hot, not too cold, but just right.

4. Help students establish a clear path for attaining their goal

Goals should be concrete so that at the end of a given period of time, students can stop and ask themselves, “Did I accomplish my goal?” The answer should be a clear yes or no. Students also need help figuring out how to get from point A to point B. Part of the goal-setting process should be a conference with the teacher in which the steps toward goal achievement are made explicit – and written down.

5. Goals should be desirable and education-dependent

Teachers know students need to feel ownership over their education (hence the age-old “why does this matter?” question students love to ask). In order for goals to be effective, students must play a role in setting their own goals – they must agree that their goal is a good goal, worthy of attainment. Students must self-commit to their own goals.

6. Use the SMART goal format

Teachers have been writing SMART goals for years. These are goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. Students can write their own SMART goals too by determining what they will accomplish, in what time frame and why this matters to their own education and growth.

7. Consider character-based goals

Students might develop one or two school-related goals and one or two character-based growth goals. This is an idea espoused by author Dara Feldman in her book The Heart of Education. Students, in accordance with a growth-mindset, are taught to recognize the importance of growing as a person – growing to be happier, healthier and more caring. Character goals, just like academic goals, should be measurable, specific and attainable to be most effective.

8. Track progress and reflect periodically

In a study for the Dominican University of California, Dr. Gail Matthews looked at the importance of writing down goals. Matthews found that people who wrote down their goals were 33 percent more successful in achieving them, compared with those who just formed their goals in their minds. The same is true for communicating goals with a friend. Students who write down their goals, talk about them and regularly revisit them are more likely to successfully achieve them.

9. Community support of goal

Students are much more likely to work toward goals that are supported by their parents, guardians, peers and other important role models. Teachers can work together with a student’s team of advocates to best support the students as they shoot for the stars.

10. Celebrate!

As milestones are achieved along the way, stop and celebrate! There is nothing quite like achieving a goal to make your students feel like they can take on the world.

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