How teachers can help their students set challenging learning goals

Uncategorized Feb 07, 2021
In my last article I wrote about the power of raising teacher and student expectations, in line with John Hattie's assertion that 'self-reported grades' are one of the biggest effect sizes when it comes to improving student outcomes. You can read the article here.
In this article I'm going to talk through some practical strategies that teachers can use in the classroom to do this, primarily by helping your students to set challenging learning goals, along with developing a growth mindset.
By the way, goal-setting and growth mindset is something that we focus on in the Transformational Teachers Academy. Not a member yet? You can join us here.
Note that when we are talking about learning goals, this is very different to learning intentions. Learning intentions are necessary to provide teacher clarity, so that students are aware of what they are learning and where they are heading. Learning goals on the other hand, are the specific, unique goals that individual students set for themselves, in order to improve their results and increase their skills.
Learning goals can be set and revised at many different stages of the learning process, such at the beginning and end of the year, at the beginning and end of a new unit of work, as well as before and after formative and summative assessments.
So let's say you are beginning a new year with a new group of students. How could you help them set challenging learning goals from the outset? Well, this is very much a mindset game, and you as the teacher are going to have to give constant pep talks to make sure that their head is in the game and that they believe in themselves. You are going to have to become a great motivational speaker here.
First of all, you need to convince your students of the importance of setting goals. You could use a sporting analogy here if you like - how are you supposed to score any goals if you don't know what the goals look like or where they are? Or you could use gaming analogy - you can't level up unless you know how to score points and what the ultimate aim of the game is.
Then, you need to set your expectations - make sure your students know that you are expecting great things from them - and even more importantly, let them know that you firmly believe that they are capable of this. They need to believe that you see their potential and that you believe in them. It can be so powerful and motivating to know that there is someone in your corner who genuinely believes you are capable of achieving something that you might not have previously thought was possible for you. I'm sure you can think of instances in your life where this has been the case.
What next? Well, it's one thing for you to believe in them, but this doesn't necessarily mean that they believe in themselves yet. For some students, they will have very strong limiting beliefs holding them back, and they might have a very fixed mindset about their level of ability. This is where you need to work on instilling a growth mindset in your students, which is very much an ongoing process.
How to do this? Here are some ideas:
  • Teach them about the power of a growth mindset: be very explicit on what the difference is between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset, and strategies that they can use to develop more of a growth mindset.
  • Give them real-life inspirational examples of where a growth mindset has helped someone overcome adversity, such as Bethany Hamilton, Turia Pitt or Jim Kwik.
  • Harness the power of 'yet' - if students are becoming frustrated or dismayed about not being able to do something, say 'ok, you can't do it YET - but you WILL be able to if you keep working at it - I firmly believe this'. Encourage your students to use this kind of self-talk as well.
  • Teach them that failure is often a necessary part of the process, as long as you are learning from it (FAIL = First Attempt In Learning), and that you rarely get to your goal in a straight line, but it's often more of a zig-zag - persistence is key.
  • Tell them stories of people that never gave up, such as JK Rowling whose book Harry Potter was rejected dozens of times before finally getting published.
  • Praise their effort or the process, rather than the result.
  • Be a role model for a growth mindset - show your students how you learn from your mistakes, tell them stories about how you persevered at something, demonstrate how you are a life-long learner who is always trying to improve.
  • Teach them that with unwavering faith and extraordinary effort, anything is possible.
Alright, let's get to the actual goal-setting process now. Before doing this, it's worth talking to your students about what a challenging goal looks like. Make sure that they know that whilst the goal is meant to stretch them, it still needs to be realistic and achievable. For example, if a student is currently sitting on a D grade, then it's not very realistic to set a goal for an A grade straight away. Similarly, if a student is only managing to write 2 pages in an in-class essay, then setting a goal to write 5 pages next time might be unrealistic also.
Here are some questions and prompts that you could use to help your students set challenging goals:
  • What result did you achieve in this subject last year? Were you happy with it?
  • What were the reasons for this result?
  • What do you think you could do to improve this result?
  • What result would you like to aim for this term/ semester/ year?
  • What skills do you believe you need to work on the most? (you may like to give them some choices here relevant to your subject area).
  • What daily/ weekly/ monthly actions will you take to improve these skills?
  • What is your timeline for achieving these goals?
  • What resources or support do you need to help you achieve these goals? (again maybe offer some suggestions here).
It may be useful to do some class brainstorming or some modelling for some of these questions so that they have more of an idea of what kind of an answer you are expecting. 
Once they have set their goals, make sure they keep them somewhere visible - maybe even make multiple copies - they could keep a copy in their diary/ planner, and a copy on the wall at their study desk at home for example. They also need to share their goals - not only with you, but ideally with a parent or another supportive person in their life. This will help them keep more accountable to it.
Then, you need to get them in the habit of constantly revisiting their goals. For example, you could begin every week by doing a goals refresher and have them commit to some daily or weekly actions that will help them to move toward their goal. Or, you could do a weekly review on a Friday where they can assess if they completed their actions for the week.
Another good time to revisit goals is before both formative and summative assessments (perhaps a week or so in advance). Students could consult their goals, and then create a specific goal that they want to achieve in the assessment, and then decide what actions they will take to achieve it. Then after the assessment they could reflect on their result and revise their goals for the next assessment. They will likely need some structure and scaffolding to support them through this process. If they are experiencing any disappointment with their progress, it's again important to help them develop a growth mindset about it. 
Teaching your students the skill of goal-setting is so important and can actually be life-changing. It is one of the best ways of increasing your impact in the classroom and making a real difference in your students' lives. 
If increasing your impact and making a difference in your students' lives is important to you, then you might like to check out my online membership, the Transformational Teachers Academy. Inside you will get access to professional development and ongoing coaching and support to help you achieve your goals and lead a fulfilling, inspirational teaching career. 

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