How to Help Your Students Set Goals

One of the most fundamental theories of motivation, ‘goal-setting’ is useful for establishing intent, honing focus and creating drive.

However, goals can often backfire. In some cases, goals can actually do more harm if they are poorly designed and overlook the basic principle of ‘cause and effect’.

For example, Kelly was an above average student who wanted to achieve a 95% average. Kelly distributed ‘post-it’ notes with 95% written on them throughout her house, trying to ‘channel the forces of attraction’ (a tip she heard on YouTube). She also made the commitment to simply ‘work harder’. However, Kelly’s marks were consistently falling well short of this goal, and she was left feeling demotivated and dejected.

At first glance, the obvious undoing of Kelly was perhaps that her goal was unrealistic. However, perhaps an equally powerful and undermining factor is representative of a common problem – too much fixation on the desired results and not enough on the system!

So how can we help students set more appropriate goals?

There are four major considerations teachers can share with their students.

1) Separate the ‘results’ from the ‘system’ – Perhaps the most important aspect of goal setting regards the distinction between the ‘desired results’ (i.e. the goal) and the ‘system’ (i.e. the process needed to get there). In Kelly’s case, she was totally fixated on the desired results. Besides her commitment to work harder, Kelly overlooked ‘how’ she was going to improve her study ‘system’.

System should revolve around two basic considerations;

  1. ‘Know how’ – In Kelly’s case, the specific proven techniques (study related) she could use to learn more and work ‘smarter’.
  2. ‘Effort’ – The specific actions Kelly could take to work ‘harder’.


2) Encourage students to set ‘improvement-based’ goals – Nobody can actually predict the future! However, that’s precisely what we’re doing when we set specific ‘result-based’ goals! It’s mostly an arbitrary exercise that’s more or less just a ‘stab in the dark’. In reality, it’s very difficult to predict individual learning & improvement curves. We only truly know how appropriate or achievable our goals are after we have had substantial time and a good crack at them!

Students need to stop thinking about goals in terms of desired quantitative results such as with aiming to achieve test scores of 70%, 80% or 95%. It’s often very difficult to objectively determine what’s actually possible!

Instead, when it comes to school performance, perhaps it’s more appropriate to seek to set continuous improvement goals (perhaps even number-free based targets) for the reasons highlighted below;

  • Continuous improvement is achievable for everyone
  • It does not place ceilings on performance
  • It prevents against ‘dejection’ from not achieving some ‘arbitrarily set’ outcome related goal
  • It provides more regular and positive feedback than compared with a single outcome goal, and
  • It encourages students to feel more positive and be more resilient

In the case of Kelly, perhaps her goal could have been to simply improve as much as possible with every assessment she completed.

3) Celebrate small wins

One of the biggest problems with setting ‘result’ related goals is that it’s very hard to stay motivated unless it’s achievable in the short-term. Thus it’s often difficult to see how ‘day to day’ grind & effort is paying off. It can be de-motivating when we feel that our constant effort is not being rewarded.

Therefore, celebrating small improvements – both in relation to ‘system’ and ‘results’- is very important. For example, Kelly actually improved her marks from 80% to 85%, this would be worthy of celebration – despite being well short of her end goal.

As for ‘system’ based improvement, Kelly could be encouraged to acknowledge her level of improvement based on the increased quantity & quality of hours spent on study per week (which would provide evidence of improved ‘effort’), or the improvement with proficiency in applying new or refined study techniques (providing evidence of improved ‘know-how’).

Celebrating small ‘result’ and ‘system’ wins will ultimately help students feel happier and stay motivated. After all, success – no matter how big or small – is the ultimate motivator!

4) Anticipate obstacles and roadblocks– research from Angela Duckworth on developing ‘Grit’ describes a useful strategy for helping students develop perseverance and ‘staying power’. She suggests that students compile a list of the possible roadblocks they may encounter, and devise strategies for overcoming these obstacles as part of their goal setting strategy.

I’ve provided some examples that could be relevant for Kelly:

  • Roadblock: Little improvement despite working hard. Solution: Commit to exploring different study techniques.
  • Roadblock: Distracted when studying in bedroom. Solution: Try studying in a different area free from obvious distractions.
  • Roadblock: Struggling to concentrate in class. Solution: Seek to more actively involve self in class by asking questions and checking understanding.

By no means an exhaustive list, the success of this approach lies in helping students become better prepared for obstacles ahead of time.

In summary, goal setting can easily backfire, particularly if too much emphasis is placed on achieving arbitrarily set ‘result’ related goals. Teachers should encourage their students to set ‘improvement related’ goals, with less emphasis on ‘number-defined’ targets. Additionally, there should be a focus on; the ‘system’ (i.e. ‘effort’ and ‘know-how’), celebrating small wins, and anticipating roadblocks with presented solutions.

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