How Can We Use Goal Setting With Our Students?

Response From Laura Robb

Laura Robb, teacher and coach, has written more than 20 books on literacy. She is the author ofVocabulary Is Comprehension: Getting to the Root of Complex Texts (Corwin, 2014) and published two books in 2016: The Intervention Toolkit for Shell and for Corwin, Read Talk Write:35 Lessons That Teach Students to Analyze Fiction and Nonfiction:

Make Reaching Goals a Reality! 

It’s New Year’s—time to make resolutions! Our goals are often ambitious: For example, to lose weight, we walk several miles a day, work out four to five times a week, and/or dramatically curtail our calorie intake.  Several weeks into the new year, however, most of our goals have been placed on a back burner. Soon they’re totally forgotten.

At school, we often ask students to set learning goals in order to reach a benchmarks in reading, writing, or a content subject. However, like our own goals, students’ goals frequently go up in a puff of smoke and vanish. Though we set resolutions and goals with a strong resolve to meet each one, many fall by the wayside, never to be attained. 

Why does this happen? Often because we set goals without negotiating them with students and designing a plan that outlines how to reach them, along with a schedule for monitoring progress.

Make Negotiation Part of Goal Setting

When you negotiate goals with students, you involve them in the process and give them ownership. Here’s how I negotiated focusing an independent reading goal with Rosa, a fifth grade student.

Rosa was working on increasing her reading stamina. When I asked her to set a goal, she was able to concentrate on a self-selected book for 10 to 12 minutes. “I’m going to read and focus for 30 minutes, ” she said.

“Your goal shows a lot of enthusiasm for reading, and that pleases me. Can you aim for 30 minutes but start with more reachable times?” I asked.

Rosa remained silent for a couple of minutes and then said,

“I want to get to thirty, but maybe 15 and then 20 minutes is better.”

I nodded. “You’ll move from 15 to 20 minutes quickly because you can concentrate now for 10 minutes.  Then you can aim for and meet the 30 minute goal.”

Notice that instead of handing Rosa a goal, I posed a question to provoke her thinking. I wanted her to reflect and make the decision. Our next step would be to discuss the five steps for setting goals, so Rosa could develop a plan that she’ll revisit and update until she meets her goal.

Five Steps to Setting Goals

Having students set goals creates a desire to attain the goal, but desire, alone, won’t sustain their efforts. Students need to follow the five steps below to plan and achieve a goal.

  1. Set the goal and write it in your reader’s notebook.
  2. Determine what needs to be done to reach the goal. Record your thoughts underneath the goal.
  3. Assess the amount of time needed and how to monitor progress.
  4. Work to meet the goal.
  5. Revisit the goal, update and adjust your plan, and note progress.

Completing these five steps can make the difference between meeting and abandoning a goal. A good example of this is the story of Luke, a sixth grade student.

Luke Invests in Meeting His Goal

Every year, Luke wanted to improve his punctuation and usage, but struggled. However, once Luke used the five steps, he became invested in reaching his goal because he had a supporting plan that included bi-weekly reviews of his progress.

Luke’s paragraphs, essays, and journal writing had excellent content. However, they consistently contained run-on sentences and missing words, commas, and end-of-sentence punctuation. At a recent conference, I asked Luke to review the writing in his folder and set a goal. “I need to proof better,” he said. “Got lots of run-ons and punctuation mistakes–need to fix those.”

“Excellent goal,” I said. “Think for a moment. What you need to do? And how much time do you think you’ll need to reach your goal?”

Luke felt he needed to read his writing out loud and listen for missing words and places to put commas and periods. He was able to explain how to identify run-on sentences, and said, “I just need to rewrite them.”  Luke wrote his plan in his reader’s notebook, reviewed it, and figured he needed three weeks to revise and edit two paragraphs and a recently completed essay.

Twice a week, Luke revisited his goal and reflected on his progress. He successfully revised and edited both paragraphs in two weeks. Halfway thought the third week he re-negotiated an extra week for the essay; I happily gave it to him because Luke recognized that the longer piece required more time to reach his goal.  Using and internalizing the five steps moved Luke to meeting the learning goals he negotiated with me because he had a concrete plan to follow, review, and adjust.

Luke’s Plan

Read writing out loud.

Listen and look for missing words.

See where end punctuation goes—commas, too.

Find run-ons—rewrite them.

Read out loud again. Fix more.

Check progress on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Monitor and Celebrate!

Stay involved and monitor students’ work as they strive to meet a goal. Encourage them to negotiate more time to work and for one-on-one support if they need it, as well as to adjust their plans and schedules as necessary. Ask students to point out what worked well and what didn’t, and to express their feelings about meeting the goal. Join them in celebrating their successes, because positive feelings toward learning boost self-confidence and self-efficacy. By doing all this, you’ll create a community of learners who take responsibility for their goals and work hard to meet them.

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