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Refining Goal Setting

It’s Important, But So Is The Way It Takes Shape.

Teachers know when students set goals for themselves their school performance improves. Experts say, however, that despite the understanding about how important goal setting is, too often students don’t learn the skills and educators don’t understand the correct ways for them to acquire them.

New studies on the topic back other key research by the American Institute of Research suggesting that improving goal-setting skills also improves student “self-efficacy and intrinsic motivation to further their learning”. It says they can “use goals to direct their actions, assess their progress, and drive their own learning over time”.

The research also indicates that in the short term having goals helps students stay focused on the work at hand, but long term it teaches those skills and helps them become resilient and pay attention to the path they might need to take to be successful.

Aleidine Moeller, a professor at the University of Nebraska and the author of a five year study of the subject, says educators should recognize that there are two distinct types of goals: mastery goals and performance goals.

Mastery goals, which are also called “learning” or “task-involved” goals, help students develop a “motivational pattern associated with a deeper level of engagement that secures and maintains achievement behavior”, Moeller says. They connect the effort to the achievement and can help students make the process a habit.

Performance goals “focus on one’s ability and sense of self-worth” she says, where “achievement is measured by doing better than others and, more importantly, the recognition that results from such superior achievement”. Learning is viewed only as a way to achieve a desired goal, she says, and it is all tied to self-worth.

Lindsay Barrett, a former teacher who now works as a literacy consultant and writes about goal setting and student organizational skills, says that getting students to use mastery goal setting can help motivate students long term, even as they consider and plan for colleges and careers. And it gives them skills they can use throughout their lives.

One  major study described the key elements of goal setting this way, based on years of research: “It is important…that goals mobilize effort, increase persistence, lead to task-appropriate study strategies and influence personal efficacy through the commitment and subsequent effort they generate.

The acronym SMART is often used to help guide student goal setting. It stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timely. 

Specific. Goals should be focused so that they have a specific desired outcome. So rather than “I want to get better at math”, a student should say “I would like to learn fractions really well so I can get and A.”

Measurable. There has to be a way to measure the outcome so a student and the instructor can tell when progress is made and the goal is reached. Students should be asking: “How much do I need to do?”  or “How do I know when I’ve reached my goal?”

Achievable. This means students must feel challenged, but the goal must remain possible. See if the student has the right resources available to them and carefully consider whether the goal seems within their reach. Sometimes, too, goals must be adjusted if, as the student begins work, they find that it is expects too much.
Relevant. The goal should be personal and relevant to the student: if it matters to them they will be more likely to accomplish it.

Timely. Goals need a deadline – a start and finish date. And there can be markers along the way or micro-goals. So, finishing a chapter may be a goal in itself, although the ultimate goal is finishing the book.

Written by Jim Paterson, Education World Contributing Writer

Jim Paterson is a writer, contributing to a variety of national publications, most recently specializing in education. During a break from writing for a period, he was the head of a school counseling department. (

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