Why Goals Are Important
Helping to set personal learning goals for students is an important responsibility for educators. When students have a specific learning destination in sight, whether short-term or long-term, they are more motivated to take the steps necessary to arrive at their goal. They can figuratively see the finish line in the distance and can imagine the reward of crossing it.
We all have goals in life, both personal and professional. Sometimes, these can be fun challenges we set for ourselves: “I’m going to take a pottery class and make gifts for my family” or “I’m going to check out one book from the library every month and read it.” As educators, we also set professional development goals, such as committing to bringing more of the science of reading into our classroom by incorporating sound walls. As adults, we may have learned to be self-motivated in setting goals—but often, we still need guidance and encouragement from experts, colleagues, and friends!
“As students learn to be independent learners, it is important for them to know where they’re going and how they’re going to get there,” says Jami Walden, a first-grade teacher at Waynesboro Primary School in Waynesboro, Georgia. “Meaningful learning isn’t learning to please a criteria, but to have ownership and purpose in your interactions with learning. To accomplish this learning, students’ goals are vital.”
From Goals to Learning Goals
When we guide students to set personal learning goals for themselves, we can be both mentors and models—making our own goals visible to students. The importance of adults participating in the goal-setting practice themselves is particularly key for Dr. Michael Vea, a former classroom teacher and now an education systems-level leader at San Diego Unified School District.
“I think that the piece that moves the needle the most, if we want to create a culture of goal-setting, is to be open about our own process of goal-setting,” he says. “It creates a healthy culture around growth and trust. The more that teachers engage in the practice with students, the more they are likely to get the results that we all want.”
“When we engage in practices or tasks alongside students, it’s an exercise in empathy,” he adds. “I’m a big fan of doing work ‘with’ and not handing work ‘to.’ If I’m open and willing to share with students about how I set goals for myself, I can also demonstrate that sometimes goals go in the direction we want them to, and sometimes they don’t. This makes the work behind goal-setting visible to our students rather than invisible. Rather than being a static process, it’s dynamic.”
“Goal setting within the classroom is a routine that increases student agency and growth,” says Autumn Dvorak, a third-grade teacher at ASU Preparatory Academy in Arizona and Teacher’s Corner contributor. “Students are aware of their needs and establish patterns and supports to help them reach their goals. Through goal making/setting, students have a compass to guide their education journey. They strive to reach their goals and in turn are able to progress through learning skills more quickly.”
What Is a Student Learning Goal?
How do we define personal learning goals for students? Setting personal learning goals is a student-centered approach that gives learners the power and responsibility to determine their own learning outcomes. The educator offers guidance and support, but the student is the one who drives toward the intended result. Student learning goals can be components of a larger, more comprehensive personal learning plan.
Ideally, student learning goals should be personalized rather than using a “one-size-fits-all” approach. Students should have their own unique goals, depending on a number of factors. Those might include where they are academically, socially, and emotionally.
Goals may be aligned to national, state, or district standards in specific subject areas and, as such, may include requirements that students are expected to meet (depending on their level). You may also set goals for your classroom as a whole—for example, asking for 100% participation in a local volunteer project or asking that every student meets the goal of arriving to class on time.
Educators often use the acronym SMART to set expectations clearly and to help students define and set their own goals. Following the SMART guidelines also helps the teacher evaluate outcomes more accurately. Did the students meet their goals? Did they encounter any pitfalls? How can we best set them up for success the next time?
Establishing SMART Goals
Specific: Goals should be focused.
Measurable: Goals should be in small, concrete steps so that it’s clear when the student is making progress.
Achievable: Goals must be manageable and progress oriented.
Relevant: Goals should relate to the assignment and the curriculum. Students will most likely need guidance from teachers to set goals that are relevant.
Time-Bound: Just like goals must be measurable, they must also share a set timeframe so that students can track their progress.
Student Learning Goals Examples
Student learning goals can involve short-term outcomes, such as students earning a gold star on a reading bulletin board for every book that they read during a certain time period. Or students may set longer-term goals, such as completing a complex engineering project over the course of a semester. Goals can include non-academic skills too, for example remaining quiet during class or turning homework in on time.
Here are three ways in which educators can help set student learning goals in their classrooms:
1. Data and Incentives
Third-grade teacher Autumn Dvorak uses data to help her students set and track goals. “I give each student a data tracker binder at the start of the year,” she says. “We call this system the ‘Key to Our Growth.’ I introduce my kids to the definition of SMART goals. Then students identify two personal academic goals, one behavioral goal, and one classroom goal. Within their data folders, students track any assessment data, as well as behavioral gains, over the course of each quarter. Once our goals are established, I meet with my students biweekly to do data check-ins. The binders become extremely helpful during parent conferences and IEP meetings.”
She also provides students with opportunities to receive extra support in meeting their goals, as well as incentives for reaching goal milestones. “Fridays are our assessment/flex days, when students can sign up for extra WINN time with me,” she says, referring to the flexible support system she calls WINN, or ‘What I Need Now.’
When goals are expressed clearly through data, it also facilitates creating incentives for students, along with clear metrics for how to earn them. “As students reach their goals,” says Dvorak, “they get ‘Cactus Cash’ to spend in our classroom Cactus Cash store.”
Find a SMART goals template within Dvorak’s “Student ELA Data Folder” below; additionally, use the “Conferring and Goal Setting Planning Guide” to support students in setting goals and tracking their progress.
2. The Power of Yet
The research behind having a growth mindset provides a powerful way to turn stumbling blocks and even failures into goals. When a student says that they can’t do something or is unable to reach a milestone, clarify to them that they just can’t do it “yet.” Turn “yet” into a new, actionable goal.
As a sample “Not Yet” activity, start by having the class brainstorm a list of things they cannot do…at least “not yet!” Ask, “how can we turn ‘not yet’ into ‘now?’ How can we get there?” Then work with them to break down a sample “not yet” into a series of steps or strategies to try. For example, a student may have difficulty solving a word problem such as “Naomi has three bags of marbles, each with the same amount of marbles in them, totaling 12 marbles. Winston has three bags, each with the same amount of marbles in them, totaling 18 marbles. How many more marbles than Naomi does Winston have in each of his bags?”
The student might try breaking the problem into a series of steps, first figuring out how many marbles Naomi has in each of her bags before moving on to the next piece of the problem. They could try reading the problem out loud, using actual bags of marbles or small manipulatives, or drawing the bags of marbles on paper to better visualize the problem.
Carol Dweck, author of the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, writes about how educators can support students with feedback that “recognizes and shows interest in their effort and choices.” We can help bolster their growth mindset and applaud their steps to mastery, even if they haven’t reached their goals “yet.”
Dweck shares these examples:
- “I like that you took on that challenging project for your science class. It will take a lot of work—doing the research, designing the apparatus, buying the parts, and building it. Boy, you’re going to learn a lot of great things.”
- “I liked the effort you put in, but let’s work together some more and figure out what it is you don’t understand.”
- “Everyone learns in a different way. Let’s keep trying to find the way that works for you.”
The latter example may be “especially important for children with learning disabilities,” Dweck notes. “Often for them, it is not sheer effort that works but finding the right strategy.”
3. Create Rubrics to Help Set Goals
Rubrics can provide helpful guidance for students as they strive to meet their personal learning goals. They can take many forms, depending on students’ individual goals and the subject matter at hand. A useful rubric will clearly lay out the specific criteria for various levels of achievement and mastery, often on a scale of one to four (with four representing the highest level of achievement).
For example, a self-assessment rubric for a young student might include four levels such as:
- I can’t complete this by myself yet. I don’t fully understand this yet.
- I sometimes need help, but I’m beginning to understand.
- I still make some mistakes, but I can usually do this by myself.
- I can do it all by myself, and I can even help others!
A rubric for an ELA class on writing might include criteria such as:
- The essay does not have a clear beginning, middle, and end.
- The essay has a beginning, middle, or an end—but not all three.
- The essay has a clear beginning, middle, and end.
- The essay has a clear beginning, middle, and end, and transitions between sentences and paragraphs are smooth and flow together.
For some free rubric samples from HMH, see:
Teachers can also benefit from rubrics in setting their own professional development goals, such as in this teacher evaluation model from Washington state. So, for example, a level four or “distinguished” level indicates that the teacher “adapts or creates new strategies to meet the specific needs of students for whom the typical application of strategies does not produce the desired effect.”
It can help us to ask ourselves why we want our students to attain their goals. Of course, student learning goals are ultimately about them. But asking “what’s in it for us?” as educators can actually help us sustain our passion for teaching.
“It feels more real when we make it personal and applicable to ourselves,” says Michael Vea. “Rather than approaching personal learning goals for students from a technical standpoint, we can go much deeper.”
So, what do we want to achieve ourselves in the process of guiding students toward their own goals? Picture the joy on the face of a student who finally “gets it”—the feeling of accomplishment and the intrinsic satisfaction of mastering a skill. That’s our reward. This is something that gives back to us as educators.
"It's so important for my first graders to set their own personal goals so they can see the huge gains they are making throughout the year, even when they may not be able to tell," says Renae Kuhn, a first-grade teacher at Greenwood Mill Elementary in Winchester, Virginia. "But when they look back at their first goals to their last goals, they have the biggest smiles on their faces and they're like 'Wow, I've come such a long way since then.'"
For more on personalized learning goals in schools, explore how Waggle personalizes practice in math and ELA to help Grades K–8 students thrive. Request a self-guided demo.
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Program Consultant, Into Reading and Into Literature
Dr. Suzanne Jimenez
Director of Academic Planning and Data Analytics at HMH