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Aim Higher: Why Goal-Setting Matters and Making Goals Visible

Aim Higher Blog Series

Why Goal-Setting Matters

Much has been written about the current environment in education. We can choose to focus on the ways in which fear is driving the work that we do, the ways in which we feel forced to take time away from what really matters to prepare for the hoops we and our students must jump through.

Or, we can accept the current trend toward high-stakes assessment and ever far-reaching accountability as an opportunity to help kids to have frank conversations with themselves and others about what they are good at and what they are working on. Kids typically discuss their strengths and weaknesses on the ball field, or with movie trivia, or with video games, with great aplomb.”Marianne is so much better than me at free throws!” or “John totally nailed the seventh level in that game. I can only get to four,” they might remark.  However, when it comes to discussing academic strengths and weaknesses, they clam right up.

John Hattie, a leading education researcher, undertook a giant research study, a study of studies, really, in which he ranked, compared, and analyzed the data from over 800 existing studies in the field of education. He sifted through scores and scores of data in order to uncover the answer to the question we all seek: What really works best to help kids to learn? Hattie ranked a stunningly comprehensive list of factors that might contribute to a child’s learning to uncover the factors that have the most influence. What he discovered makes perfect sense. The top influence on student learning is what Hattie deems student self-reporting, which essentially means students evaluating their own work. Also high on the list is receiving ongoing feedback from a teacher (what Hattie calls micro-teaching). These two factors scored much, much higher than factors such as frequent testing, ability grouping, class size, motivation, and homework. My takeaway from this is that we MUST, above all else, provide our students with ample opportunities to evaluate their own work, to set clear goals for their own progress, and to give them ongoing feedback about how to meet their goals.

Making Goals Visible

There are a few simple ways to utilize tools and systems that are likely already set up in your classroom to encourage students to reflect more deeply and more often on their writing goals.

1. Writer’s Notebooks

Many teachers channel students to set up section in their notebooks for goal setting and reflection. This is certainly a crucial first step to guiding students to set goals for their work. However, even the best list of goals isn’t worth much if it remains tucked in a notebook. Remind students to return to this section often, to reflect upon and update their progress toward their goals. They might use tally marks to record the number of times they worked toward a goal in their writing. They might jot a few dates notes with their thoughts on how they are progressing. A simple way to ensure students are referencing their goals often is to draw upon them and ask students to add to them each time you confer.

2. Charts

Even the best charts get just a little better when they are interactive. The list of teaching points, skills, or strategies on a chart can instantly turn into a chance for student reflection. Draw a line under a strategy, and ask students to write their names on a sticky note. Have them place their sticky notes on the line to represent how they feel they are progressing toward mastery of the strategy. A note placed toward the left means they have just started to try the strategy. A note placed toward the right means they have tried the strategy a lot. Encourage students to move their sticky notes as they try the strategy more, and encourage them to help remind each other to give the strategy a try so everyone moves together toward the right.

3. Bulletin Boards

Many teachers beautifully display students’ finished work inside or even outside of the classroom for all to see and admire. One way to make students’ goals super-visible and to emphasize the value of process over product is to have students add to their finished pieces a list of what they are proud to have accomplished with the piece of writing and a list of what they work on next. In a narrative unit, for example, one student might list that she is proud of the way she used setting to foreshadow the twists and turns in the story. She might also list that, as a writer, she would still like to work on more realistic dialogue.

4. Writing Partners

Countless research studies into the efficacy of any programs that involve progress toward goals, be they weight-loss, or fitness, or writing goals, have pointed to the importance of recruiting a partner to hold one accountable. Aiming to give students even just two minutes at some point during each day’s writing workshop to share their progress toward their goals with each other will work wonders to lift the level of accountability, and ultimately, the work, in your classroom.

5. Share Sessions

Whether you follow a traditional writing workshop model with a built-in share session at the end, or you gather your students to share and celebrate their work in other ways, you might consider regularly reserving share time for students to discuss not their writing, but what they would like to get better at as writers, and the steps they are taking to get there.

Most of all, the more we encourage and create a safe place for honest, open dialogue about what is difficult and what stops students from meeting all of their goals, the more we can help them truly meet them. Celebrate honesty and reflection more than mastery. After all, according to Hattie’s analysis, if we teach our students to become powerful self-reflectors, then this is truly the most important lesson.

For more on goal-setting and the kinds of goals students in a writing workshop classroom might set, see Tara’s post on checklists and my post on using assessment tools to teach for transference. 

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Anna Gratz Cockerille View All

Anna is a staff developer, literacy coach, and writer, based in New York City. She taught internationally in places such as Sydney, Australia; San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and Auckland, New Zealand in addition to New York before becoming a staff developer for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University (TCRWP). She has been an adjunct instructor in the Literacy Specialist Program at Teachers College, and teaches at TCRWP where she helps participants bring strong literacy instruction into their classrooms. Anna recently co-wrote Bringing History to Life with Lucy Calkins, part of the 2013 series Units of Study in Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing (Heinemann). She has been a researcher for Lucy Calkins, contributing especially to Pathways to the Common Core (Heinemann, 2012) and Navigating Nonfiction (Heinemann, 2010).

6 thoughts on “Aim Higher: Why Goal-Setting Matters and Making Goals Visible Leave a comment

  1. Anna,
    I love this for students and teachers – power back in the right hands! Hmmm . . . thinking about how to incorporate something similar into graduate classes! Thanks so much!!!! ❤


  2. I teach gifted kids. They don’t have much trouble telling me how much better they are at academic tasks than their peers. But one of their issues is perfectionism. I think if we had open conversations about goals and weaknesses honestly without comparison, they could actually grow. Their growth will look different. I think I’ll have a conversation soon about their goals in writing. It would also help me to meet their needs better.


  3. This is such important stuff, Anna. I love the second tip of using charts and Post-Its to encourage self-reflection. I imagine this would be so powerful as a learner. I wish I would have had more opportunities for this kind of thinking when I was in school.


  4. Anna, wonderful specifics of how to make SSR (student self-reporting) a regular event in the classroom. My favorite – “One way to make students’ goals super-visible and to emphasize the value of process over product is to have students add to their finished pieces a list of what they are proud to have accomplished with the piece of writing and a list of what they work on next.” I’m off to email this link to some of my former colleagues.


    • What an inspiring post…I love the reference to Hattie and the support you provide in giving specific examples of how we can achieve student self-reporting. I agree with Dana, I like the sticky notes on chart paper – what a great idea for an exit ticket that promotes reflection and provides insight the the teacher as well. Thank you.


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