Tuesday / June 18

Goals: The Secret Weapon for Getting Students Into the Learning Game 

In our February 2018 blog post, we wrote about the power of assessment-capable visible learners. This work is derived from John Hattie’s seminal research on what matters for student learning. Those of you that have been following Hattie’s work know that he has created a list of 250 influences on student learning. His work on Visible Learning has changed the way classrooms and schools around the globe operate. In visible learning classrooms, students take an active role in their learning. A significant number of those influences come from within the student. Yet too often we only focus on what the teacher is doing. Meanwhile, we fail to factor in what our students can do, if only we would let them. Without them, it’s like being in a fight with one hand tied behind your back.  

The Hallmarks of an Assessment-Capable Visible Learner 

Assessment-capable learners don’t have to rely only on their teacher to tell them when they have learned something. They know when they have learned something. And when they aren’t progressing, they recognize it and know what to do about it.  With John Hattie, we have developed a definition of assessment-capable visible learners. Can you recognize them in your classroom?  

  • They know their current level of understanding.  
  • They know where they’re going and are confident to take on the challenge. 
  • They select tools to guide their learning. 
  • They seek feedback and recognize that errors are opportunities to learn. 
  • They monitor their progress and adjust their learning. 
  • They recognize their learning and teach others. 

But assessment-capable visible learners don’t simply arrive at our classroom doors. The conditions that make learning visible to students are created with intention by assessment-capable teachers. These classrooms are noticeably different from others because of the presence of a crucial factor: Goal setting. This is your secret weapon for getting your students in the learning game.  

Goal Setting Environment 

Goals drive much of what we do every day, from morning routines to housekeeping tasks to completing work assignments. But students too often rely on us to determine goals for them. Yet the evidence is that goal setting has a strong influence on learning, at a 0.50 effect size (Hattie, 2012). Goals for learning might be daily, weekly, or at the unit level. They have less to do about grades (“I want to get an A in Spanish”), and more about the learning (“I want to learn Spanish.”). And consider what they need to know to set useful goals for themselves—an understanding of their present level of performance, and a clear vision of the destination. Drench your classroom in goal setting by discussing success criteria, then asking them how they will know they are successful. Their answers are the start of the goal setting process.  

Personal Records (PRs) 

That said, personal records (PRs) can be great goals, and have the bonus of being motivating, too. Invite your students to set a new PR on a fluency assessment or arithmetic drill. Challenge them to reach a new personal best in the number of pages they read in a week.  Propose a new number of words per minute students write in timed power writing exercises. Then encourage them to track their own progress so they can see the gains they are making. Meet with students individually to look together at their progress toward larger goals, and discuss with them what it will take for them to reach it.  

Disrupt Dependency  

Students who set goals and monitor their progress take the lead in their own learning. They become less dependent on us to tell them when they have learned something, because the proof is right there in front of them. Assessment-capable visible learners are independent learners. Not because they don’t need us. But rather, because they are fully in the learning game.  


Written by

Douglas Fisher, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University and a teacher leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College. He is the recipient of an IRA Celebrate Literacy Award, NCTE’s Farmer Award for Excellence in Writing, as well as a Christa McAuliffe Award for Excellence in Teacher Education. Nancy Frey, Ph.D., is Professor of Literacy in the Department of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University. The recipient of the 2008 Early Career Achievement Award from the National Reading Conference, she is also a teacher-leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College and a credentialed special educator, reading specialist, and administrator in California.

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