Student goal setting: Success begets success

This thought leadership session from NWEA focused on the value of goal setting for students and explained an effective process to achieve success.

Brooke Mabry, strategic content design coordinator for NWEA, presented a thought leadership session on Wednesday at FETC titled “Student Driven and Student Owned – setting goals to make a difference.”

The session focused on how to engage students in a supportive process to set their own goals and empower them to regularly monitor their progress.

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Mabry said that educators will know that they have accomplished this goal when they can identify the following criteria:

  • I am able to identify the benefits of student goal setting and monitoring progress
  • I am able to describe a concrete process to support student development and monitoring of goals
  • I empower students to set and monitor their own goals through my lesson design and cognitive coaching

Dr. Chase Nordengren, a research scientist at NWEA, said that the purpose of assessment is twofold. First, understanding what a student knows and can do, and second, how we communicate that information to the student and others. The communication part is arguably the more important, he said.

Nordengren explained that assessment should be focused around learning, not the implications of how one is achieving goal targets.

Dr. Chase Nordengren, a research scientist at NWEA.
Dr. Chase Nordengren, a research scientist at NWEA.

He broke down the difference between mastery goals and performance goals. Performance goals are the kind we set when we want to meet a certain benchmark or achieve something. “Mastery goals are instead about getting better at something. They’re about learning for its own sake, learning to do something better, learning to grow. The research has pretty consistently shown that mastery goals, rather than performance goals, are the ones that naturally lead students to success.”

He explained that mastery goals allow space for anyone to set a goal. “Even the best student in class can set a mastery goal because they can always get better at doing something.”

Mastery goals also help lessen the anxiety, as you’re competing with yourself, rather than competing with others. It creates a more comfortable environment. Finally, he said that mastery goals are most effective because they lend themselves naturally to the content itself.

“When you’re engaged in the process of thinking about how to get better at something, you’re naturally thinking about that thing. And so mastery goals provide the benefit of the meta-cognition, the thinking about thinking, that we know is really integral to learning anything with high degree of success,” Nordengren said.

School culture and goal setting

Aside from parents and other adults in their lives, Nordengren said, “The role models they have for what adulthood looks like are their educators… so by creating a culture in which you’re engaged actively in the process of setting goals as an adult, you’re projecting to students how that matters, and why that matters.”

Students need to buy in to the goal setting process. They can see through when it’s just an activity without any tangible impact on their future lives. By seeing educators actively involved in a serious goal setting process, students are more likely to accept and adopt it themselves, he said.

Nordengren said kids are very good at ferreting out hypocrisy. Being able to authentically speak to your own goals sets an example for students that gives you an opportunity to make a connection, but also gives them a real concrete instance of what you’re engaged in goal setting for and how they’ll be able to use it later in life.

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Meaningful but attainable goals

Nordengren used the example of a first-grade teacher whose student’s goal was to read Harry Potter. Clearly, this is not realistic, but the teacher can keep that goal firmly on the horizon and provide steps the student can take to lead them toward success by pulling in grade-level texts that focus on fantasy or magic. That leads a student into a journey where they’re not going to feel defeated because they can’t make it through the first page of Harry Potter, but that goal continues to be a source of motivation.

Having long term goals on the horizon can be very motivating, he said, can help to make concrete this idea of why we’re learning this in the first place and can hopefully serve as a motivating or driving factor when you’re “in the weeds of the academic content.”

Goal setting process

Mabry then pivoted to how we tap into students’ thinking to help them with goal setting.

Adults aren’t so great at it. A recent Gallup poll she cited found that only 20 percent of American adults set goals, and only 5 percent write them down on paper. Further, only 30 percent actually achieve the goals that they set. So why does that gap exist?

She spelled out a process that she has used in the classroom. It starts with the question “X to Y by ?” or “where am I now, where do I want to be, and when do I want to get there?”

Mabry used a goal-setting conversation with a student to illustrate the process.

We need to address a few things with students in this process: We need to proactively help students see the obstacles and barriers they face. Then we can have them brainstorm solutions and strategies to overcome them. Next comes people and resources – who and what they will use in pursuit of the goals.

Then comes the skills, habits and attitudes that the students will need. After those proactive pieces, it’s time to set up the action plan. The plan of action must be monitored, students need to identify how they’ll hold themselves accountable, and finally, how will the student motivate themselves?

In a counseling demonstration with a student, Mabry suggests using a Kanban board to track assignment backlogs, to-do items, what’s in progress, and what is complete as part of the monitoring process. This visual representation also taps into accountability and motivation.

Why put this into place in your classroom?

Mabry cites research that shows that when students have control over their goals they are three times more motivated to engage in the tasks and activities to accomplish them. Relevance of the goal is also critically important.

“The greatest predictor of future success is past success,” she said. “The more success those students experience the more they’ll want the success, the more effort they’ll put in to achieve the success.” This iterative cycle, she says, produces even bigger gains each time a student gets a little bit of success.

The full session can be viewed on-demand, and downloadable NWEA student goal setting templates can found until Feb. 28 at this link.


Eric Weiss
Eric Weiss
Eric is the executive editor of District Administration magazine. He has worked as a journalist at newspapers and in television since 1993.

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