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Strategies to Support Student Goal Setting in the Classroom

Jeffrey shares best practices for supporting students to set goals in your classroom. He provides advice on how to monitor students’ progress and recognize their hard work and dedication. He reminds us of the importance of rewarding effort over achievement.

Educators all have high hopes for their students, and want to help them grow toward their dreams. Goal setting is an important part of short and long term achievement for students in life and academics. However, teacher training and professional development has not traditionally provided guidance on how to help students set goals or monitor their progress.

Teacher assisting student

Goals are part of motivation theory. This theory tells us that people are motivated to accomplish things by strong intrinsic forces and extrinsic recognitions or benefits. Most of all, people set goals based on internal interests, feelings of competence, autonomy, and relevance. With that in mind, it is easy to see that goal setting has to be centered on the student and related to their own personal dreams. Additionally, goals have to be challenging but attainable, and allow the student to feel that they have mastered some important chunk of academic content. All this sounds overwhelming, but it can easily be achieved by following a few goal-setting tips and principles.

Find the time

Goal setting can be enhanced when you find the time to meet and talk to each individual student one on one. Teachers can set aside five minutes each day during independent practice time when they pull one student aside and talk about their goals and dreams. Particularly in an elementary classroom, this adds up to a lot of time for each student to discuss their ambitions with the teacher. This strategy also strengthens teacher-student relationships.

Start with the dream

Smaller goals often fall flat without a link to students dreams and passions. It is important to allow and encourage students to dream big, but with correct guidance. For example, many elementary students will state that their dream is to be an NFL football player or a famous musician. Teachers routinely either validate these ideas as a likely outcome for the student, or conversely, squash the dream as attainable only by a small percentage of people - neither of which is effective, accurate, or motivating.

A better approach is to help students reframe the dream into something that they have control over. The same passion for football can be restated as “My dream is to learn to be the best football player I can and to learn everything I can about all areas of playing, coaching, and managing a football team." The student then can connect shorter term goals in all areas to this dream - they may learn mathematics and close reading to negotiate contracts as a general manager, public speaking to give a press conference as a coach, or technology to make highlight tapes.

"...goals have to be challenging but attainable, and allow the student to feel that they have mastered some important chunk of academic content."

Show students how to be SMART

SMART goals have been used for many years in business, and the framework is valuable for students, too. The acronym means that goals will be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. SMART goals work best for the short and medium term academic goals that many teachers work on with students. You may create a SMART chart for students to fill in at regular intervals such as monthly or weekly. Experiment with a variety or combination of skill mastery goals, achievement goals, and behavior goals, as each student will respond slightly differently. 

Value growth and progress monitoring

The end achievement is important, but growth and progress monitoring along the way is possible even more of a key to students learning how to set and attain goals. More and more teachers are realizing the value of a growth mindset, where the value is not the current level of performance or how “smart” one is - but in setting attainable goals and working hard toward them. Help students by setting up progress monitoring charts. Bar graphs work great as they help students visualize an upward slope of progress toward an academic goal.

Recognize - don’t reward

Educators love to celebrate successes of their students. Recognizing achievement related to an academic or personal goal is an important reinforcement and motivator. Keep in mind, however, that the different concept of rewards are not effective in helping students learn to determine and work toward goals. In fact, rewards are counterproductive in the long term. This concept relates to intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. A small recognition such as a tiny sticker with “well done!” on top of a paper is a way to recognize someone reached an academic goal. If the teacher gives out a giant box of candy to anyone who participates in class or enters everyone into a drawing for a prize if they had good behavior, then they have entered into extrinsic rewards.

The difference is that the students working toward the reward do not recognize the goal as meaningful, other than to get a prize. Small recognitions simply reinforce the work they did because it was an important goal internally to the student. Use as specific phrasing as possible with what you want to reinforce. “Great job! You achieved your best score on a science test all year by participating more in small groups and completing all your homework!” is much better than “Great job! You scored an A on the test!” There are many small ways to show recognition for accomplishment - but what is the best recognition? I have found time and time again that a small note or phone call to the parent, simply stating “I think you will be really proud, your child reached B grade on their fractions test by studying twice a week, and achieved their goal”.

Here are additional resources for supporting students to set goals: Setting SMART Goals Graphic Organizer, An Interactive Lesson Plan For Setting SMART Goals, Achieving A Goal Lesson Plan, and My Personal Goals Worksheet.

How do you support your students' goals? Share with us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Google+.

Author Bio

Jeffrey Christo, Ed.D. is an educational administrator, curriculum specialist, and academic writer from New Jersey. His areas of research and expertise include student-centered learning, program evaluation, systems, and leadership.

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