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Student Engagement

6 Activities That Inspire A Goal-Setting Mindset In Students

From daily sticky notes to multi-week hopes and dreams conferences, here are six activities to help foster a goal-setting (and goal-achieving) mentality in students.

March 25, 2022

When researchers from the University of Scranton tracked 200 people who had made New Year’s resolutions, they found that close to 80 percent kept their pledges for one week—but just 19 percent managed to stick to them for a period of two years.

There are plenty of reasons resolutions fall flat. We tend to set “unattainable goals—ones that are too difficult for us to meet because we don’t have the energy, skills, or resources required to bring them to fruition,” writes Haiyang Yang, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University, for the Harvard Business Review. Often, our goals are too vague, or we neglect to plan for unanticipated “external forces,” Yang and his co-authors assert.

Framing goals so they’re realistic, achievable, and even motivating—and then developing the habits to monitor progress and stick with them over the long haul—are critical components of successful goal setting, research shows, but these aren’t skills we’re born with, they tend to require planning and practice.

For students, learning to set and meet goals is an important competency that, over time, places the responsibility of meeting academic objectives squarely in their hands. But to be effective, teaching them these skills should start small. “Too often, we ask students to tackle their areas of greatest deficit prematurely,” writes Maurice J. Elias, a professor of psychology at Rutgers University. “First, we need to have them build skills and confidence in an area that is genuinely important to them, and then they need to have a success experience. From small successes, larger successes can be built.”

Carving out the time to teach kids these highly transferable skills—across grade levels and subject areas—is worth the effort and can lead students to “feel in control of their learning,” writes NWEA research scientist Chase Nordengren for Phi Delta Kappan. “Effective goal-setting practices help students focus on specific outcomes, encourage them to seek academic challenges, and make clear the connection between immediate tasks and future accomplishments.”

Here are six activities to help scaffold the process of goal setting, providing students with a deeper understanding of how to recognize when they need to set a goal, how to think about their own progress, and how to move forward when they encounter hurdles along the way:

1. Start Early and Take Your Time: As early as kindergarten, kids can begin visualizing and articulating personal and academic goals, says Alissa Alteri Shea, a first-grade teacher in Western Massachusetts. To get her students started, Shea asks them to reflect on their hopes and dreams for the school year ahead. Structured reflection prompts like “Why do we come to school?” get kids thinking and talking about what they would like to accomplish.

Shea facilitates these conversations over the course of several days—to illustrate that “setting learning goals takes time and requires thoughtfulness”—recording each student's answer into a class list. Some goals emerge slowly, she notes, as students acclimate to day-to-day classroom and school routines. After a week has passed, each child selects a goal from the co-created list. With paper, markers, crayons, or watercolors, students illustrate their goals and share them with the class.

2. Keep it Simple: To help upper elementary and middle school students develop the habit of creating, planning, and reflecting on goals, educational consultant Stephanie Toro suggests starting small. For a few minutes each morning, ask students to imagine and select a new task or skill they’d like to develop, then write it down on a sticky note. Each goal should be something simple that demonstrates a clear behavior, like “Try to share more of my ideas in class” or “Listen to others more,” says Toro. Because the note itself acts as a quick visual reminder, students can place it on the corner of their desk or anywhere prominent where they will see it throughout the day.

As the week comes to a close, students spend some time reflecting on their goals and why they chose them, as well as what choices helped or hindered their progress. Questions can range from “How did you progress toward your goals?” to “What were some of the wins for the week?”

3. Tap Into Dreams: At the beginning of each school year, eighth-grade English teacher Cathleen Beachboard schedules a check-in with each one of her students to ask them a series of questions about their interests, goals, and what they feel they excel at. It’s both a get-to-know-you exercise for Beachboard and an intro to teaching her students the complex work of goal-setting.

One student planned to travel to Spain, attend college, and eventually become CEO of a company, Beachboard recalls. Together, they broke down the goals into smaller steps and plotted the points for achieving these lofty goals: a beginner Spanish class to start, earning top grades in math, taking accounting in high school, and learning to read at a lexile level of 1,340.

To keep her students motivated and accountable, Beachboard paired them up with goal buddies  and asked them to track their progress in a spreadsheet over the course of nine weeks.

4. Make Goal-Setting Visual: Challenging students to regularly visualize and communicate what they care about and want to work toward builds motivation and confidence, writes educational consultant Catlin Tucker for her blog. One way to do this is by having them create vision boards. “In the day-to-day craziness of life, it’s easy to move from one task to another without stopping to take inventory of where we currently are, and where we hope to be one day. The same is true for our students,” Tucker writes. “I want them to reflect on and articulate what they care about and want to work toward.”

While students can choose from a variety of materials and mediums—creating a collage of clippings from old magazines, for example, or using digital tools like Canva or Google Slides—Tucker says the process should begin with space and time to “reflect on what is important to them personally and academically.” Try asking questions like, “What motivates you?” or “What are you hoping to accomplish or achieve this year?”

5. Set stretch goals: As a way to challenge her students to set and exceed their own expectations, Beachboard carves out time each week for them to set or revise goals for themselves that are connected to the curriculum and their own learning.

During the course of a lesson, students practice a number of skills and learn new concepts. Toward the end of each class, students pair up with a classmate to give and receive feedback: a glow—something the student did well in the lesson—and a grow—something the student can work on. Students use the feedback as well as their own view of their performance to set what Beachboard calls a weekly stretch goal, a goal that requires a higher amount of effort for students to achieve, recording their progress on a Feedback Tracking Form.

“Students start to see trends in the areas that they need to grow in,” Beachboard explains. “‘I’m doing well with describing sentences but need to use more adjectives. I can be more descriptive.’ Being more descriptive then becomes a goal which they work toward.”

6. Imagine the goal and the hurdles: The successful pursuit of a goal requires students to avoid indulging in the fantasy of a desired outcome and its benefits, keeping both feet firmly planted on the ground.

When psychologist Angela Duckworth and a team of researchers taught middle school students the metacognitive skills that combine “mental elaboration of a desired future and the present reality standing in the way,”—an exercise called mental contrasting–they found that the intervention “significantly improved” the students’ report card grades, their attendance, and behavior. This process results in “a strong mental association between future and reality” that motivates students to work toward overcoming any obstacles in order to achieve their desired outcome.

Students start by imagining an objective or target, as well as the positive and negative consequences that may come from achieving the goal. For example, a student might imagine practicing her soccer skills over the summer, and how she might make the team this year if she works hard. She realizes she’ll have less time for homework and friends after school, but decides that the positive outcome outweighs the negative.

Next, she identifies obstacles that stand in her way—time, resources, or knowledge, for example—and plots a strategy for overcoming them. Taking private soccer lessons with a coach, for example, could help her understand the skills she’ll need to focus on to achieve her goal. 

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
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