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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: Student Goal-Setting in the Classroom

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 14, 2017 14 min read
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(This is the first post in a multi-part series)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

How can we use goal-setting with our students?

Research, and the practical experience of many educators, suggest that encouraging students to set their own goals can assist academic achievement and student engagement. As one student said to me last year, “When you set a goal, it just makes you want to work harder to make it.”

This series will explore ways to apply this kind of goal-setting in the classroom.

Today, Dr. Sanée Bell, Kevin Parr, Rita Platt, Dr. Jennifer Davis Bowman and Matt Renwick share their ideas. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Sanée, Rita and Kevin on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

I’ve used many different types of goal-setting lessons in my own classroom, and you can read about them at The Best Posts On Students Setting Goals. Many student hand-outs, along with links to extensive research, are included.

Response From Dr. Sanée Bell

Sanée Bell, Ed.D. is a middle school principal and adjunct professor who resides in Houston, Texas. Dr. Bell recognizes her impact as a leader and uses her role to inspire, motivate, and empower others. Sanée shares her thoughts on leadership on her blog saneebell.com and via Twitter @SaneeBell:

The purpose of using goal setting with students is to help understand their role during the learning process. To frame this discussion, I want to use the letters in the word G.O.A.L. to define the importance of establishing goals with our students.

Growth. Without setting how goals, how will students know when they are learning and improving? We certainly cannot rely on grades to be a measure of growth. In fact, grades measure compliance more than student growth. Grades are teacher directed and involve no collaboration. On the other hand, goals should be collaborative decisions made by the teacher and the student and include various measurements of progress along the way.

Ownership. Through goal setting, students become owners of their learning. They are not able to be passive participants who await for the teacher to determine if they have mastered the learning objectives. When students own their learning, they understand the standards that have been set, and through scaffolding and support from the teacher, they have a clear path on how to improve. Standards should be written in student-friendly language so that students can articulate exactly what is expected of them. Students should be given exemplars for self-evaluation and reflection, as well as a place to collect evidence that demonstrates their progress toward the learning standards. Lastly, when students are able to facilitate a student-centered conference about their progress, it gives them the opportunity to share their learning with their parents and teachers.

Awareness. Typically, student awareness toward progress occurs during progress or report card time. On most occasions when students receive graded work, they often look at the grade without little thought about the learning that occurred. Goal setting helps students to be more aware of the learning that they are expected to experience. This awareness helps students to be engaged in the learning process. Mastery-oriented goals give students the opportunity to focus on learning standards and their own growth. Without goals, student motivation and engagement decreases because students are not aware of what they should be learning and have no idea about their role in the learning process.

Learning. Learning cannot occur in the absence of feedback. Goal-setting with students must be accompanied with individualized, targeted feedback. Goals without feedback will not increase student achievement. Choosing a limited number of goals will help teachers focus on the most important needs of the student, and will help students focus on the most critical areas of their learning. Goals should be individualized for each student, and an entry point that is challenging but attainable for the student is a great starting place when it comes to setting goals. When students experience success, they are motivated to continue to push themselves.

Setting goals with students informs teacher practice, engages and motivates students during the learning process, and creates a partnership between the teacher, student, and parents.

Response From Kevin Parr

Kevin Parr is a fourth grade teacher in Wenatchee, Washington and a 2014 ASCD Emerging Leader:

As educators, our task is to empower students and help them grow into lifelong learners. The purpose for goal-setting with students should be no different. Here are a few ways teachers can use goal-setting to empower students to become lifelong learners:

Expand the options: Many teachers limit student’s goals to current class topics or important grade-level benchmarks. While this is a well intentioned strategy, if we are serious about empowering students we should allow them to set their own goals. When we allow them to do this their goals become personal and they are invested in accomplishing them. We can help them create goals that are important to them by expanding the options. When setting goals with students I ask them to not only think about academics but also behavior, character traits, a sport or hobby of interest or even something at home.

Leverage parent support: If we want students (especially our youngest ones) to set goals that have any personal meaning, those goals need to be transferrable from school to home. In this sense, parents are a key player. One easy idea is to have students draft multiple goals and then review them with parents to identify those in which the parents can support from home. For me, these conversations have led to parents verifying goals they could support from home, excluding those they could not and adding some they felt were important to them. Goals that are meaningful for both students and parents are key in fostering long-term growth.

Track and evaluate progress: For any goal, tracking and evaluating progress is key, Far too often, however, teachers dictate how students should track their progress and even set benchmarks to tell students if they are on track to accomplish their goals. If we really want students to be accountable, however, we need them to not only create their own goals but also to design ways to track their progress. Students need to consider how they will evaluate their progress, how often, who their evaluator will be, and ultimately, and if they have met their goal. In addition, students also need to reflect on if they should keep working on a goal, modify it or create a new one.

Goal-setting does not only have to be a way for teachers to get students to meet an academic standard. By allowing students to set their own goals, including their parents, and developing ways to track and evaluate them, goal-setting can also help teachers achieve their higher purpose: fostering lifelong learning.

Response From Rita Platt

Rita Platt (@ritaplatt) is a Nationally Board Certified teacher and a proud #EduDork!. Her experience includes teaching learners of all levels from kindergarten to graduate student. She currently is a Library Media Specialist for the St. Croix Falls SD in Wisconsin, teaches graduate courses for the Professional Development Institute, consults with local school districts, and writes for We Teach We Learn:

Teaching students to set and meet goals is a skill that they will be able to use for the rest of their lives. I teach students to set goals in reading beginning in 2nd grade. This year, greater than 90% of students met their personal goals and enjoyed the pride and excitement that comes from knowing that they can work hard and achieve! Below, I will share my lesson sequence for goal-setting.

Growth Mindset

Introduce students to the concept that they can “grow their brains.” Researcher, Carol Dweck, compares the brain to a muscle and reminds students that they can grow their brains. To drive this home with students, I have them read and discuss the short article, You Can Grow Your Intelligence!


Teach students about goals and why goal-setting is important. I start by offering a student-friendly definition of the word goal. A goal is something that you work hard to be able to do. I then teach students that if goals are to be successful, they must be SMART. SMART is an acronym for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. Students must be taught to set goals that are smart.

Try It!

Once they get the concept, I show students examples of simple SMART goals in reading.

  • I will read 5 picture books at my “just-right-level” before April 20th..
  • I will increase my oral reading rate from 70 WPM to 85 WPM by the end of the 2nd quarter.
  • I will read four books from the mystery genre by the end of the 1st quarter.
  • I will finish the second Harry Potter book by winter break.
  • I will earn 25 Accelerated Reader (AR)* points in the 3rd quarter.

Then, I ask students to think about the types of goals they would like to set. I always have students set a minimum of two per quarter. One for number of books read (or AR points) and the other for whatever they would like to work on. I share the following suggestions. Each is linked to the tools I use to help students keep track of and meet their goals.

Goal-Focused Work

Students set their own goals and write down a plan to meet them. I frequently remind students to check their progress. If kids (or adults!) are to meet their goals, they must be front and center. I often pair students with “accountability partners” to check in with each day. I have students “tap out” to show me their progress at the end of class. I hold students accountable to their goals. When we meet to confer, goals are at the heart of our conversations, when I talk to parents, I share goal progress, and when the goal-period is up, we assess. If goals were not met, we problem-solve together for next time. I remind students that a goal is a promise they make to themselves and my job it to help them keep it.


When students meet their goals, it’s time to CELEBRATE! How?

  • Pull out your cell phone and have students call home and share the good news!
  • Take students to see the principal or last year’s teacher!
  • Give the student a hug, high-five, or fist-bump.
  • Give meaningful praise: WOW! You worked hard to meet that goal! You must be so proud! Or, Good for you! What did you do that allowed you to meet your goal?

*Food for though on AR: AR Killed My Dog and Now It’s Coming for YOU! A Defense of Accelerated Reader and a Plea for Less Drama

Response From Dr. Jennifer Davis Bowman

Jennifer envisions classrooms filled with thinking caps-because uniforms are uninspiring as well as students with plastic utensils-because every student deserves a seat at the learning table. As an educator with a terminal degree in Special Education and a License in School Counseling, she’s written about her classroom and higher education experiences in Teaching Tolerance, ASCD, and Teach Thought. For education research and resources follow her on twitter: @DrJDavisBowman:

“But my students see goals as just something else they have to do!”

The other night I overheard my husband and son talking. My son was asking for another cell phone (his screen was cracked). I knew how this conversation would end. My husband would explain how he could reach the goal. The ways would include mopping floors, working in the yard, scrubbing blah, blah, blah...Then, my son would complain-feeling forced to do the chores in order to reach his goal.

But, I was wrong.

The lecture changed into a challenge. My husband challenged my son to fix the broken screen. Struck with intrigue, my son took the bait. Immediately, he fired question after question: “How long does it take?” “Where do I get the repair stuff?” “Really?...you’re saying I can figure it out myself?”

The take-away here, for educators, is that without the challenge element, a goal is just something else we expect the learner to do. It’s just another rung on a ladder or an additional landmark on the curriculum map. But, a challenge furnishes learners with the motivation to pursue the goal.

Reflecting on the phone incident, I’m reminded how learning principles illustrate the power of a challenge. For my son, the challenge fueled a series of questions that demonstrated genuine interest in learning (inquiry based learning). Also, because a challenge yields mental tension between if you are able vs. if you will attempt something, my son worked to relieve this. And ultimately, he took the psychological dare. Finally, a challenge builds confidence. For my son, it only took moments to realize dad believed in his potential and thus he began to believe in his own ability too (growth mindset).

Unfortunately, we’re satisfied with identifying goals and overlook the opportunity to incorporate a challenge. For our students, we naively believe, if we build it, they will come. Or worse, we assume if the goal is specific and measured over and over (a consequence of both the SMART goal and the standardized testing movement) students will magically meet our academic expectations.

Instead of going gently into the good night (a nod to poet Dylan Thomas), pledge to incorporate challenges with student goals. But...how? Maybe directly telling students, I challenge you to... Or asking students, “What if you push yourself a little harder and try____?” My favorite is attaching the word “challenge” to the assignment title. For instance if the assignment lasts a few weeks, it becomes “The 30 Day _____ Challenge.”

How have you faced the challenge of embedding challenges within your classroom goals?

Response From Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is an elementary school principal in Mineral Point, Wisconsin and author of multiple books, including 5 Myths About Classroom Technology: How do we integrate digital tools to truly enhance learning? (ASCD, 2015). Learn more about Matt on his website, mattrenwick.com, and by following him on Twitter @ReadByExample:

Used smartly and with intent, goal setting can be a game changer in engaging our students in their own learning process. Writing down goals makes them concrete. Sharing goals with peers, teachers, and family members puts more accountability on oneself. Including others in setting the goals provides a support system to help achieve them. Others become invested in their success. When students finally do achieve what they set out to accomplish, everyone celebrates.

So how can we use goal setting with our students? I believe the first step in this process is asking students what they are interested in as well as their needs. In one 2nd grade classroom, one teacher I know (my wife) asked her students questions regarding their interests and needs. One student, who in previous years had significant behavior issues, said he wanted to “build more because I like to tinker”. This information translated into co-developed goals between teacher and student around creativity and the importance of choice in learning. Over the course of the school year, both his behavior and academics improved dramatically. Both the process (choice) and the product (building things) were a part of this example of student-involved goal setting.

Including students in the goal setting process also benefits from making the learning process and eventual outcomes visible. By visible, this means documenting student learning as it is happening and sharing their work for a wide audience. Digital portfolios are an effective way for facilitating this approach. Going back to the previous example, my wife used FreshGrade to capture images and video of her students building during Genius Hour. Families could observe the idea generation, collaboration, prototyping, and collaboration that led to an exciting product as it was happening. By making visible a student’s pathway toward goal achievement, it takes the mystery out of the learning process and celebrates their work.

Thanks to Sanée, Rita, Kevin Jennifer and Matt for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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