George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

Guiding Students to Set Academic Goals

Encouraging students to set goals for themselves—the first phase of self-regulated learning—helps them develop a growth mindset.

October 12, 2021
Illustration of child walking on sun ray.
Richard Mia / The iSpot

“Setting goals is the first step in turning the invisible into the visible.” —Tony Robbins

Many students may not necessarily have the tools to set academic goals and lack strategies to enact change and work toward those goals. Teachers can provide structure to help students set academic goals that are realistic and appropriate as well as achievable. It is important to note that goal setting is not just an activity for the beginning of the school year, but an ongoing process.

Setting academic goals is the first phase of self-regulated learning. Irrespective of the model proposed by leading researchers such as Barry Zimmerman, self-regulated learning always begins with a goal-planning phase. Goal setting is an essential component for growth and development in our students for several reasons:

  • It personalizes the learning process based on their needs.
  • It creates intention and motivation that empowers students.
  • It establishes accountability to shift responsibility to students.
  • It provides a foundation for students to advocate for their needs.

Goal setting can be done at any age—as long as it is age appropriate. Teaching the skill of goal setting coupled with reflecting and revising goals can give students the self-regulated learning tools for a growth mindset toward academic development.

With students as young as kindergarten, more scaffolding is needed. At the beginning of each day, students can select an emoji or picture that represents some action from a predetermined list of possible options. If teaching virtually, students can do this at the beginning of the session. If teaching in person, students can perhaps tape their goal to their desk or table area or perhaps a chart displayed in the classroom. The class can spend a few moments discussing goals and what actions they can do to achieve those goals. Teachers can invite other students to make suggestions for their peers. At the end of the day, allow students to rate themselves with stars and to think about how they could do things differently for the next day.

Upper Elementary and Middle School

For students who are slightly older and able to write, an excellent way to develop the habit of creating, planning, and reflecting on goals can be done through the use of short-term daily goals using sticky notes. At the beginning of the day, students take a few minutes to imagine some task, behavior, or skill they want to focus their intentions on for that specific day. Let the students keep the notes somewhere visible, so they can refer back to the goal throughout the day. Include class conversations with either a partner, a small group, or the whole class at the beginning and end of the day. Focus on the achievement of the goal, but suggest growth mindset strategies to focus on the wins as well as necessary changes for further improvement.

Once students have more advanced writing skills, it may be useful for them to keep a chart or table of their goals in a logbook. Students record in the morning, not only the goals but an action plan, and then reflect on strategies for improvement at the end of the day. At the end of each week, allow students time to reflect on their goals for the next week with structured prompts such as the following:

  • What do you think about the choices in goals for the week? (Were they realistic and appropriate? Were they the most needed for growth at this time?)
  • How did you progress toward your goals? (Did you have clear, actionable steps?)
  • What were some of the wins for the week?
  • What are some ways you can continue to improve on your development of these goals?

While a logbook is functional, it can be a more motivating experience to allow students to engage in creativity and personalization. Allow them to have fun with the process and create a goal journey map. They identify a goal, which is the end of the map. They also identify different benchmarks or steps to complete along the path or journey toward that goal. Students then have a visual representation of the progress of their journey.

High School

For high school students, l use a reflection sheet after each unit or chapter to create a regular habit of revisiting goals. Ask students the following questions:

What were the wins for this chapter or unit? In other words, what things did you do well or what areas did you improve?

  • What are some areas that you can improve upon? What are some areas that need more attention or focus? What could you do differently?
  • What specific and concrete actions can you do?
  • How can you advocate for yourself? In other words, how can your teacher, your peers, or others guide you toward your goal?

I always begin new units with an independent work day or two. During this time, the students are working on their reading skills, while I conference with their classmates independently.

Goal setting can help with classroom management and academic performance. It allows students to become more aware of expectations and concrete methods to achieve an outcome. It scaffolds the process, making it more manageable. With goal setting that is reflective and iterative, students establish a growth mindset as they engage in monitoring of their progress and reflecting on it as outlined by Zimmerman and Dale Schunk.

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  • Student Engagement
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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