As we make our way toward the home stretch, keeping students engaged becomes increasingly challenging. The rise in temperatures is accompanied by a rise in distractions and daydreams. On top of that, end-of-year performances, Advanced Placement exams, final summatives, and graduation all contribute to increased stress levels for our students. Especially in a self-paced class like mine, with no uniform due dates, it’s easy for students to lose motivation.
I put a tremendous amount of trust in my students to know themselves and to be responsible. If they tell me that they’re having a bad day, are overwhelmed with work, or didn’t sleep the night before, I give them the opportunity to do work for another class or put their head down for a few minutes. Such instances become more frequent this time of year.
My students themselves recognize when they have begun taking advantage of this trust. I recently polled the class, and they actually requested more structure. I asked, “How can we hold each other accountable for learning without my needing to implement firm deadlines or sacrifice my faith in your decision-making?”
Together we devised a game-changing solution: working with students to set weekly goals for themselves. Students hold themselves accountable and learn important executive functioning skills, like preemptively planning for a day when they might need to catch up in another class.
The strategies below are applicable in self-paced classes like mine and in traditional classes that already have firmer deadlines. In the latter case, use goal setting to help students catch up on late or missing work, devise study plans for finals, or create checkpoints for themselves on final projects.
Facilitating Goal Setting
1. Schedule students for two-to-five-minute meetings. Have a few at the beginning of each class period or right after your opening activity. Keep the schedule of meetings visible so that students know which day they will meet with you.
2. Before the meeting, ask students to prepare. They should be ready to answer these questions:
- Where are you? What did you just finish, and what do you need to do next?
- Did you meet your goals last week? How might you adjust the volume each day moving forward?
- What obstacles do you see coming up this week that might get in the way of having an effective workday? Do you need to plan in a day to work for another class? Are you traveling for a game? How’s your mental health?
3. During the meeting, print out a schedule for the week or month ahead. Ask the students to talk about their answers to the questions above and begin setting goals for the upcoming week. Remind them of anything they may have missed, and help them reflect on the previous week. Students can either set daily goals or set a larger goal that will be due by the next meeting.
4. After the meeting, encourage students to check off their progress on their goal calendars each day. They should also make notes about how things might need to shift the following week.
What It Looks Like
For the last month, I have been using this procedure effectively in two very different classes: my self-paced calculus class and my project-based statistics class.
Calculus students typically set daily goals like “Watch the video on concavity, take notes, and start the practice problems.” They look at the length of each assignment to predict whether they’ll be able to finish it in one class period or two.
The first week, one student set a single goal: “I want to finish all of module 12 by next week.” Each day, he procrastinated. I observed, gently reminding him how many class periods remained before he needed to achieve his goal. During our next meeting, he reflected that he probably needed to set daily goals for himself instead. The next week was far more productive.
Another student who had struggled with motivation all year chose to take work with him outside of class so that he wouldn’t fall behind on his goals. I never require students to take work with them, and this was the first time that he did so.
In statistics, the students typically set larger goals that serve as project benchmarks. Their goals are often things like “Have a clear and workable data set” or “Produce five linear regressions from my data.” These short goal-setting meetings have helped me keep track of their progress on the project and redirect them if they are headed down an unproductive rabbit hole.
My students have learned self-monitoring strategies such as tracking their progress, understanding their own capabilities and limitations, and anticipating their emotional needs. They’ve also learned valuable executive functioning skills like budgeting time and looking ahead to plan for schedule blips. Through this process, they have held themselves accountable for their learning, despite all of the distractions that come with springtime.
All the while, I’ve been able to continue trusting my students to know what’s best for themselves. This process also frees my time to support them in ways that go beyond striving for uniform compliance. Together, this goal-setting structure will get my students and me past the finish line.