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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Response: Students ‘Take Ownership of Their Learning’ Through Goal-Setting

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 23, 2017 12 min read
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(This is the final post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here; Part Two here and Part Three here.)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

How can we use goal-setting with our students?

In Part One, 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.

In Part Two, Regie Routman, Laura Robb, Dr. Lynell Powell, John Spencer, and Jeffrey Benson contributed their commentaries.

In Part Three, Cindi Rigsbee, Lisa Westman, Jenny Edwards, and Margaret Searle offered their thoughts.

In today’s final post in the series, Kathy Dyer, Dr. Donna Wilson, Marcus Conyers, Kirke Olson, Barbara Blackburn and readers provide additional strategies.

Response From Kathy Dyer

Kathy Dyer is a Sr. Professional Development Content Specialist for Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA). She is a regular contributing blogger for Teach. Learn. Grow. and has written for the ASCD Express newsletter. You can connect with her on Twitter @KDyer13:

When I was teaching leadership to middle schools, we talked about goal setting. We looked at the differences between short-, mid- and long-term goals. We talked about the difference between talking about them and writing them, monitoring progress and adjusting along the way. We discussed what a “quick win” might be and why that might be important to the process. As the culminating assignment, students wrote short term and long term goals for themselves., sealed them in self-addressed envelopes and I mailed them at the end of the school year and at the end of their sophomore year in high school. This activity provide opportunity for reflection, adjustment, and new goals.

Students make decisions and set goals about their learning all the time, whether we are supporting them in the process or not. How might things be different if we provide deliberate support for their goal setting process? When students set their own goals, they take responsibility and ownership of their learning. The act of goal setting empowers students and increases their personal sense of agency, which also increases their motivation.

How might we start this process in our classroom? Setting classroom or group goals might be a way to model the process and thinking involved. To provide a simple structure and get students thinking about goal setting, we might pose four questions:

- Why do we want it? - the challenge

- What do we want? - the goal

- How will we get it? - the action (theirs and yours)

- When do we want it? - the timeline

Then when we start goal setting with students, we might change the “we” in these questions to “I.” We might also ask our students to consider what they need to invest to meet either the class goal or their personal goals. The next step would be to work with them to determine how they will measure their progress towards meeting their goals. Are they giving it their best effort? Are they taking responsibility for the learning necessary? How well are they doing on completing their actions steps? How are they helping peers? This last piece is about them acting as instructional resources for one another, a key component of a formative assessment practice.

In establishing this habit of goal setting, consider the language that is used to talk about the goals. What language will foster growth for your learners? It might include terms like catch, keep up and move up goals. Or perhaps safe, stretch, or challenge goals better suit your learners’ needs. And by all means, use the idea of “quick wins” so learners can see and celebrate their progress towards their learning goals.

Benefits for teachers and learners abound when goal setting is part of the culture of learning in a classroom. The process serves as a support structure for fostering a growth mindset. Academic performance improves. Learner self-confidence and motivation grow. Students begin to identify obstacles and challenges to their learning. They support themselves and their peers in the learning process so that personal and class goals are achieved.

In thinking about the connection to helping our learners grow, a quote from Nancy Barile seems to fit well - “Aim for progress - not perfection.” Using goal setting with our students teaches them habits that benefit them throughout their lives.

Response From Dr. Donna Wilson & Marcus Conyers

Dr. Donna Wilson is an author and psychologist who conducts professional development internationally for teachers, administrators, and policymakers. Donna’s blog can be found here and she can be contacted directly at Donna@brainsmart.org. Marcus Conyers is a doctoral researcher at the University of Westminster and founder of BrainSMART, Inc. Donna and Marcus are the developers of the Drive Your Brain® program and their latest book is Teaching Students to Drive Their Brains: Metacognitive Strategies, Activities, and Lesson Ideas, published by ASCD:

Most all students who walk through the school door are endowed with the potential to live a joyful, successful life as each of them defines it. Teachers can guide students to set and reach important learning goals for themselves. Learning to do so can be a rewarding experience that motivates students to achieve higher levels of school achievement, thus putting them on the road for lifelong success in endeavors across academics, work, and other life pursuits.

Setting and achieving goals may set up a positive feedback loop that activates the brain’s “reward circuit.” This circuit is part of a pathway that stimulates the production of the neurotransmitter dopamine in response to rewarding experiences, such as the pleasure of success students feel on completing goals they set out to accomplish! Dopamine is involved in many brain functions and is known for its role in important aspects of learning, including motivation, memory, and attention.

We developed the PEAK model to teach students a practical approach to achieve their goals. First, students must establish their clear intent by formulating a positive, motivating goal that is ambitious and achievable. Guide students to be specific in describing the positive outcome they want to achieve. For example, Ryan, a student who has struggled to complete learning projects on time in the past, sets this goal: “I will finish my research paper on time, and it will be good enough to earn an A!”

Then apply the PEAK model:

Plan: Develop a detailed plan to guide positive progress. Continuing the example, Ryan draws up a daily schedule to conduct the research, write an outline for the paper, consult with the teacher, write a first draft, revise, and then submit the final draft.

Execute: Follow through on each action step.

Assess: Assess, monitor, and adjust your thoughts and actions as you execute your plan and after you complete each action step. Ryan needs to adjust the schedule to make time for other assignments and also recognizes the need to do another round of research to collect additional information while working on his first draft.

Keep making progress (and improving the process). Aim for steady gains in a positive direction and be on the lookout for ways to improve the process. Ryan earns his A and also shares with his teacher some ideas he has to make the research and writing process more effective for future assignments.

As Ryan’s example demonstrates, PEAK describes an iterative process in which students can realize steady gains by regularly revisiting their clear intent and action plan to evaluate their progress and take corrective action when necessary. As a result of consciously setting and more effectively working toward learning goals, students will be much more likely to achieve or even exceed their intentions.

Response From Kirke Olson

Kirke Olson, Psy.D. is a Nationally Certified School Psychologist and a Licensed Clinical Psychologist. He has taught and been working in public and private schools for nearly 40 years from the preschool through the high school levels using research on human relationships, neuroscience, and mindfulness to educate even the most complex students. He is author of The Invisible Classroom: Relationships, Neuroscience, and Mindfulness in Schools:

I have found that goal-setting with students has been helpful, but setting goals for students has not. Successful goal setting is done within a positive, trusting relationship with the student. As an example, I teach a class for high school students with special needs that helps them discover and develop their strengths and plan for their future after graduation. In the course of teaching the class I have noticed that many students need to be intentionally taught goal setting even though they have long been involved with goal setting within the IEP process. If I don’t teach it directly, their attempts at setting goals beyond high school graduation usually involve vague unrealistic goals like “become a millionaire,” “travel the world,” or sometimes a challenging “I don’t know and I don’t care.”

We begin with students choosing a simple goal that is important to them, for example a weekend activity such as seeing a movie with friends. On a large sheet of unlined paper they write everything to do with the movie as it comes to mind in no particular order and circle each item (I tell them I expect them to have a messy paper.): for example: which movie? my parents won’t let me go; who will I invite?; I’m afraid to invite anyone; how will I get there; etc. etc. every thing positive and negative goes on the sheet so it is in all in one place. I then pass out the simplest of forms to make a map - in the upper right corner there is a box in the lower left a large X. In the box they write the goal (in this case the movie). The X in the lower left is where they are now (in my class). They copy the circles from the sheet and write them in chronological order from here in my class to the movie goal.

The negative ones (e.g., my parents won’t let me go,) become obstacles to overcome and may lead to other steps on map (e.g., chores to do around the house to convince my parents to let me go). We devote the most detailed thought to what to do as soon as they leave class, or even what they can do in class. The point is for them to see an immediate small step toward their goal. They leave with the map and we check in after the weekend to see how they did, when we make changes to our map or celebrate each successful step toward the goal. Once this is successfully competed then I use the same process for goal setting for after high school. When goal setting is taught in the context of the teacher working with the student to reach his or her own goal it becomes an enjoyable learning experience for the student and a fulfilling teaching experience as well.

Response From Barbara Blackburn

Barbara Blackburn is an educational consultant and author of 13 books, including the best-selling Rigor is NOT a Four-Letter Word and her latest, Rigor for Students with Special Needs. She writes a blog and can be reached through her website:

Goal-setting is important because it builds ownership in learning. There are a variety of standard ways for students to set goals, but I like a creative alternative. On the first day of school, ask students to imagine it’s the last day of school, and it was the best year ever. What happened? What did you do? How did you learn? What did the teacher do to help you learn? It’s amazing what you will find out about the students’ goals for the year, as well as how you can help the achieve the goals.

Responses From Readers

Becky Shiring:

Student goals used to be required for every class in my former school. Students had to set 2 short term goals for the semester and one long term goal that they were working towards.

In my classroom we created weekly “micro” goals that helped us work towards our short and long term goals. I used to do a weekly check-in with my students. We would write out our weekly goals and post them on a “goal board” in the classroom. Each week, we would take time to do a goal check-in. Students would talk in small groups about how they were feeling about their progress, what they’ve achieved and/or what they could do better. Students were able to adjust weekly goals or create new weekly goals that helped them make progress towards the larger goals. Each week I would allow a few students to share with the whole class any particular successes, setbacks or insights. This practice helped to create a strong and supportive classroom community. Additionally, by making the goals visible, there was a sense of accountability and ownership that generally wouldn’t have existed if the goal was just a private conversation between student and teacher.

Thanks to Kathy, Donna, Marcus, Kirke and Barbara, and to readers, for their contributions!

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