For most researchers I know, there is an unrelenting drive to figure stuff out, to find the new piece of data that will describe or explain something in a new way. I get that feeling. Call me odd, but I get a powerful endorphin rush every time I feel like I’ve learned something about how learning works that can unlock new possibilities for kids.
Student goal setting—a set of effective practices for motivating and empowering students—is one of those under-described parts of the secret sauce of great teaching. But it was only through my work with NWEA partners that the power and potential of goal setting became obvious to me.
Goal setting starts with good data and flourishes with formative assessment
If you know MAP® Growth™, you know the emphasis it places on helping students set meaningful and realistic goals, exemplified by tools like the Growth Goal Explorer and Student Profile Report. But when I joined NWEA and started talking with educators and attending events like Fusion, our annual conference for partner schools and districts, I was struck by how many MAP Growth users had taken that emphasis even further. In addition to setting goals using MAP Growth, they were using formative assessment information to set goals for students on a weekly or monthly basis that were preparing students for the successful growth they showed when they took the assessment three times a year.
In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Research on effective instruction—particularly the work of education scholars like John Hattie and Robert Marzano—has shown goal setting has a statistically significant, positive impact on student learning. What our partners showed me was why it worked: goals have tapped into a set of broader changes that have revolutionized what we’ve done in classrooms over the last 30 years, uniting formative assessment practice with a focus on student agency and motivation. While goals aren’t the only way to get there, they provide a convenient and accessible language—not to mention a set of instructional practices that don’t require buying a new, expensive program.
[G]oals have tapped into a set of broader changes that have revolutionized what we’ve done in classrooms […] uniting formative assessment practice with a focus on student agency and motivation.
To try to tell that story properly, I wrote a book: Step into Student Goal Setting: A Path to Growth, Motivation, and Agency. It brings the stories of nine educators together with published scholarship to provide concrete guidance on how to design goal-setting practices tailored to your specific students and your teaching style. It is not meant to be a rigid approach with a set of scripts you must follow or worksheets you must use. Instead, the book offers several examples for each principle to demonstrate how effective educators make goal setting work for them.
In the excerpt below, I describe the changes in schooling and research about schooling that goal setting taps into and enables. My hope is that this brief overview can get you excited about what goals can bring to your classroom.
“In our relentless drive toward improving learning for students, it’s easy to forget just how far schools have come in the last few decades. Someone who hasn’t been part of these changes would likely be surprised when walking into an average school. The neat rows of desks that screamed ‘classroom’ thirty years ago aren’t nearly as ubiquitous as they used to be. In schools with means, a single computer lab has been replaced by mobile devices or even a laptop assigned to each student. Students are exposed to a much wider literature canon and asked to wrestle with deep problems at earlier ages.
“Despite all that progress, we know that there’s still much to do in order to bring these types of innovations to every school that needs them. Few schools have the resources, the flexibility, or the expertise to apply every educational best practice with perfect fidelity. After conducting all the research and understanding what it means comes the often much more difficult task of understanding how to bring effective practices to all kinds of schools and adapt them to meet individual student needs. But the progress in education to date serves as an ideal point of reflection on how our ideas about students—and our systems for educating them—have changed.
[Goal setting] is first and foremost a creative and individualized practice, focusing on meeting our individual students where they are and providing for their needs in the moment.
“Unlike past generations, we encourage our children to be both seen and heard. We ask teachers to mold them into active, critical, and happy individuals instead of simply compliant members of our community. Our students have their own heroes, their own dreams, and their own senses of right and wrong—and they’re not afraid to tell us when their sense conflicts with ours.
“Goal setting […] is about taking the spirit in which we educate and translating it into concrete instructional moves that can motivate students to learn more, express more confidence in themselves and their learning, and achieve their short- and long-term aspirations. It is first and foremost a creative and individualized practice, focusing on meeting our individual students where they are and providing for their needs in the moment. And it serves as a link to some of the most important and innovative tools of effective instruction: formative assessment, student ownership, and social-emotional learning.
“Both the history of educational progress and the research that has accompanied that history demonstrate why goal setting works in classrooms with all types of students. […] [W]hat sticks out most are the ties researchers consistently find between students’ academic learning and their social-emotional well-being. When schools serve students as people—and not as interchangeable widgets—they are both providing for students’ emotional needs and delivering more effective instruction.”
Don’t wait to begin
Just like with any new teaching practice, the best way to start with goals is small. Any new learning topic can be the source of a goal, and you can set them with any group of students and at any time of year. It’s never too late to begin thinking about students’ short-term goals!
To learn more about how you can leverage goals in your classroom, you can read my book, check out “3 tips for student goal setting this winter,” listen to my recent appearance on the NWEA podcast, The Continuing Educator, or watch my webinar “Goals mean growth: Using student goal setting to jumpstart student motivation and success” on demand.