Learning goals are often confused with learning activities and assessments. As a result, many lessons are taught with these terms being used interchangeably rather than being clearly defined for students as they should be.
Learning goals are what the students will learn in a course. They are the course objectives and are typically phrased in statements beginning with “Students will….”The activities and assessments are how they acquire this knowledge. i.e. Activities and assessments are a means to help students achieve their learning goals, but they are not the goals themselves.
Identifying Student Learning Goals
Students are naturally more engaged in their learning material when they see its relevance and impact in their lives. Basically, if your students have personal goals in regard to the learning material, they’ll be more involved in learning the material. This is why it’s beneficial to work with students at the start of the year/semester to create personal learning goals within the curriculum.
For some students, identifying personal learning goals will come easily. For others, you will need to provide more guidance. For example, in a language class focusing on literary analysis, some students may be interested in learning more about the life and times of the writers they study in order to better understand the work of the writers. Others may be curious about lesser known writers from the style genre studied in class.
To guide students in identifying their personal learning goals, ask them what they’re interested in at that moment in relation to the topic being covered. Allow yours students to be creative in how they relate their interests and learning goals to the overall goals of the curriculum.
Encourage your students to write their learning goals in the same style you use in planning lessons: i.e. By the end of ___________, I will ______________. You’ll also need to provide them with guidelines and opportunities to monitor and record their progress as they work towards their established goals.
Remember: the more personal their goals, the more invested they’ll be in learning. Achieving their personal learning goals will also prove that much more motivating and beneficial to students than simply achieving your (the teacher’s) learning goals for them. It’s a win-win situation.
Helping Students to Establish Learning Goals
Most of us probably know about setting SMART goals. These are goals that are:
S = Specific
M = Measurable
A = Attainable
R = Relevant, Realistic and Results Focused
T = Timely and Traceable
To help students to create SMART goals, we need to provide structured guidance. For example, students will need to learn how to phrase their learning goals in order to make them active and prompt them to work towards the objectives they set. One of the most effective ways to do so is to model the structure of verb-noun phrases.
Encourage students to phrase their goals as “Read two nonfiction books per month” or “Seek additional support with math lessons” rather than “Read more”. These active phrases will encourage students to keep moving forward in pursuing their goals and are extremely effective when used in setting assignments or projects.
While you need to help your students keep the bigger picture in mind, it’s important that they learn to set smaller goals that lead to that bigger picture. For example, a student who is terrified of speaking in public may set a personal goal to overcome that fear. This is a SMART goal.
However, if this student immediately signs up for a high-stakes speaking contest in an attempt to achieve this goal, the goal becomes less measureable, attainable and traceable—not to mention unrealistic—which increases the potential for failure. Additional pieces are necessary to make this speaking contest part of a SMART goal plan. It’s important to encourage students to write down the many steps they’ll be taking to achieve their goal in the bigger picture. They should also list potential obstacles and measures to overcome these.
Timelines and Redefining Goals
Just as we do when identifying our learning goals for lessons, students need to establish clear timelines in which to achieve their goals. For some students, there may be many milestones as they work towards an ongoing goal such as an internship for their future career. For others, the goals may be more immediate. Regardless of the nature of their goals, they need to decide how much time they think they’ll need in order to achieve them.
Also, provide students with the opportunity to reassess their goals throughout the year. This should be done monthly or at least every other month. Circumstances change as can goals. It’s essential that students be reminded that this is okay and part of life. Goals should never be so rigid that they do not allow for the complexities and interferences of life and personal situations. Moreover, reassessing their goals regularly provides students with a form of self-monitoring and tracking, which helps them to be more successful in achieving their goals.
While students should be encouraged to achieve their goals, both students and teachers need to remember that progress is far more valuable than perfection. Sure, it’s frustrating when goals take longer than anticipated to achieve, but that does not mean that we’ve failed—provided we can see progress of some sort. This is what keeps students motivated and, ultimately, makes them more successful. It’s also an essential life skill!
Finally, let’s encourage students to set personal and fun goals for themselves, too. Academics are important, but they’re not the only goals our students have in life. So, encourage them to learn the dance to “Gangnam Style” if that’s what they really want to achieve—just remind them to be SMART in planning how they’ll work towards achieving that.