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Using Goal Setting to Connect Students with Their Passions

Goal setting is a vital part of amplifying student learning and motivation.


What kind of education do our students deserve now? Alongside all the other things students have been asked to give up during the pandemic—their time with friends, their learning environment, their activities—we’ve also asked students to give up their right to a full and complete education. Teachers are now faced with the challenge of teaching students who may feel disengaged, distracted, or disconnected from learning.  As we return to this new normal, students will now be rebuilding and rediscovering what learning in school means for them.  Learning is no longer only about how effective a lesson is; it’s also about the relevance of that lesson and how it helps students make meaning out of their lives.

While student goal setting has long been a tool in the pocket of the effective educator, connecting with students on what their learning means is now a necessary part of restarting their engagement.  My new book Step into Student Goal Setting shows several examples of educators who have seen substantial improvements in students’ academic growth, motivation, and ownership of learning by implementing a goal setting practice. Step into Student Goal Setting also highlights research from authors like John Hattie and Robert J. Marzano, who have shown how various goal setting practices have significant impact on student outcomes. Goals help students cultivate their interest in learning, alter their self-perceptions, and clarify the link between learning and outcomes. Importantly, goal setting also opens the door to a deeper form of ownership, one where students feel connected with and make meaningful choices about their learning.

Often, we think about goals as students leave secondary school, but the conversation can and should start earlier. Imagine a student named Carlos. Carlos is in first grade and loves frogs. Every day, he brings a new fact to class about his favorite amphibians. Because of what he knows, Carlos is tired of reading first-grade-level texts about frogs—he already knows everything that’s in those books. His teacher sees this as an opportunity, and connects his ambition to read more complex books about frogs to the reading skills that he’ll need to get there. For Carlos, goal setting has provided a language and a set of tools to get what he wants out of learning. Similarly, the young student eager to pick up and understand the Harry Potter series, the middle schooler who wants to join the robotics team, and the high schooler who wants to organize her community for change all have ambitions and interests that their teachers can tap into.

For students like Carlos, the impacts of goal setting are cumulative over time. From an early age, Carlos engages in frequent informal conversations where he actively participates in setting a goal, monitoring his progress, and revising the goal as appropriate. His teachers serve as guides: they show Carlos how to connect those goals to academic standards and lead Carlos’ peers through exercises, simplifying  standards and learning targets into their own words. Over time, this gives Carlos a sense of personal relevance and student choice. Through techniques like creating time for independent work, giving students opportunities to talk, and acknowledging students’ personal experiences, Carlos’ teachers further promote this independence. Goals can provide a level of meaning that will help Carlos persevere through difficulties throughout his educational career—even through hardships like school closures and switching between remote learning and in-person learning.

Goal setting is ultimately about taking the spirit in which we educate and translating it into concrete instructional strategies that can motivate learners. Will Carlos always care about frogs? Maybe, maybe not. Regardless, he’ll retain the benefits of all that motivation: his improved reading skills. Across grade levels and content areas, Carlos will have opportunities to engage with all his learning in the same way, based on what he cares about and what he wants to do in his future. As our focus shifts to helping students connect with what they’re learning, our students deserve a seat at the table in shaping the character of that learning.

Written by

Chase Nordengren, PhD is a Sr. Research Scientist at NWEA, where he supports the Professional Learning team with primary and secondary research that drives content innovation and instructional improvement. His work includes needs assessment and program evaluation services for partners, supporting school improvement processes, and thought leadership on formative assessment and student goal setting practices. He received a PhD in Leadership, Policy, and Organizations in K-12 Systems from the University of Washington as a US Department of Education Institute of Educational Sciences (IES) pre-doctoral fellow. He is the author of Step Into Student Goal Setting: A Path to Growth, Motivation, and Agency.

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