How to use goal setting to carve a new path for student growth this fall

Like seemingly everyone these days, I am working from home full-time. It’s the first time in my career, and I’ve discovered it requires remaining productive and connected differently than I’m used to. As in many other places around the country, most of us in the Portland area still don’t know when we’ll return to normal office life, and with all sorts of proposals on the table, much depends on the success of our county and state governments in combatting the COVID-19 pandemic.

Students have been working from home these days, too, and face similar uncertainties about what their return to daily life will look like. States and districts from Florida to New York have introduced a variety of school reopening strategies, with some teachers and parents pushing for more caution and others pushing for political will to reopen sooner. It’s hard to know for sure what patterns of learning will look like for most students moving forward. Whatever a district’s best-laid plans are today, they may change as the pandemic evolves.

Support your students with goal setting

As it does with adults, this moment of uncertainty and unusual circumstances places students in charge of managing the work of their learning more than ever before. Students will have to decide for themselves how they’ll engage with remote learning, many without a parent or other adult over their shoulder. If school returns in a hybrid form, students will be the only consistent element tying their in-school experiences to their at-home ones. In times when learning may be interrupted in a variety of ways, we must rely on each student’s persistence to help them focus on learning—and we must do what we can to support that persistence.

Despite current challenges, academic growth can still happen. For many students, helping them connect to their growth can build engagement and determination at times precisely like these. One strategy for connecting to growth is student goal setting: a set of practices for helping individual students understand their academic performance, identify concrete goals for future performance, and collaborate with their teacher on the behaviors and practices that will get them there. Engaging students in goal setting may be a key practice in helping them prepare for whatever comes next.

Here are some questions to ask yourself as you get started with this work:

Questions for teachers 

  • How will you set goals with your students this school year?
  • How will you involve students in the goal-setting process and ensure they are self-monitoring their progress toward their goals?
  • What kinds of visuals connected to goal setting can or will you make?

Questions for leaders

  • How can you set and or track goals school wide?
  • How can you ensure there is a goal setting culture in your school?
  • What are some ways teachers can be supported in setting goals with students?

What goal setting looks like 

When students return to school, it doesn’t make sense to pick up where their instruction left off or to start a new school year completely ignoring the content students may have missed. The tricky task awaiting educators is finding ways to synthesize essential missed content with a student’s new grade-level needs to ensure they can keep up with peers without missing foundational knowledge that leads to true comprehension.

Knowing what to expect—and having a role in crafting that expectation—makes us all feel empowered. In this way, goal setting connects supporting students as learners with supporting students as people.

The return of students to school is an opportunity to provide them new paths for learning, focusing on the many and diverse sources of knowledge they bring back to the classroom as well as their unique learning needs. Formative and interim assessments kick off that process by zeroing in on what students know and are ready to learn next. With that data in hand, student goal-setting practices can help students connect with their growth and make tangible next steps to improve that trajectory in the future. Through building goals with their teacher, students examine their past learning, set short-term targets for additional learning, and plan the specific academic and social-emotional steps needed to get there.

Bringing goal setting into the classroom does not require strict adherence to a set approach—and it can be done in both a physical and virtual environment. My research with partners who use goal setting effectively finds that many strategies work well depending on the students and the context. What effective strategies share are five key ideas:

  1. Start early: As early as kindergarten, students can begin setting individual behavioral or academic goals. This allows students to get used to the process of setting goals and make it part of their educational culture. Set goals as early as you can every school year.
  2. Do it often: Individual goals should be short-term, often around four to six weeks. Successful educators use regular weekly check-ins with students to evaluate progress toward goals, make adjustments as necessary, and prevent students from feeling discouraged.
  3. Make it visual: Effective goal-setting techniques involve tools like anchor charts, data walls, personalized learning plans, data notebooks, and other student-accessible resources. These ask students to directly identify their goal, describe the steps they should take to get there, and ultimately provide evidence the goal has been reached.
  4. Create personal relevance: The best goal-setting processes begin in conversation with students about what matters to them. Teachers can use students’ personal aspirations, areas of interest, or experiences as jumping-off points to discuss why setting a goal matters.
  5. Center student choice: Regardless of process, students should feel they are in charge of what and how they learn. Centering their choices provides opportunities for self-reflection and agency that are critical for empowering learners.

If you’re an NWEA partner, I encourage you to use our new MAP® Growth™ Goal Explorer Tool. It can help you use MAP Growth data to set meaningful and realistic goals for your students.

Start on the right foot

As I note in Step into Goal Setting: A Path to Growth, Motivation, and Agency, available from Corwin, “the questions [the pandemic] has raised point to areas where schooling in general needs to evolve. What does it mean to be in fifth grade, if every student experienced fourth grade differently? Are the grading systems that many thought were unfair and unreasonable during a pandemic fair and reasonable the rest of the time? How can the relationships among teachers, students, and learning change so that students can keep growing even if they are taught from a distance for weeks, months, or a year at a time? The next major disruption to learning—whether it comes in the form of a pandemic, a severe environmental event, economic migration, or something else we can’t imagine yet—requires us to have better answers to those questions.”

Every student deserves the opportunity to feel successful during this moment. For some students, returning to grade-level proficiency may not be realistic this year. Students above grade level must also continue to find opportunities to learn and grow. Goal setting is a key strategy for reaching all students by finding opportunities for challenge and success at every level of current proficiency. With academic targets that are short-term, relevant, and independent, they can recognize the fruits of their labor in ways that keep them motivated to learn more.

Teachers will, understandably, want to spend their first days with students addressing their social-emotional needs. Goal setting can be a way to begin to do that. In a March survey conducted by Phi Delta Kappan, students revealed what they most want to help support those needs is structure. Knowing what to expect—and having a role in crafting that expectation—makes us all feel empowered. In this way, goal setting connects supporting students as learners with supporting students as people.

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