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Student Indicators of Engagement: Goal Setting

This is the first in a series of blogs that discuss the research-based strategies to increase student engagement and academic achievement.


Of all the strategies on the Student Indicators of Engagement form, “Engages in setting learning goals” is the one most often misidentified in classroom observations.  Many times we see the “Observed” box checked and the comment “Lesson objectives posted in class” written in the “Examples” box.

The key to successfully identifying this indicator lies in the title of the form “Student Indicators of Engagement”.  The learning goals observed must be generated by the individual students or the class as a whole.

Easy for me to say. I’m not teaching a Kindergarten class or have 34 students in 9th grade English.

Well, stop your eye rolling and give me a few minutes of your time to tell you why student goal setting is so essential to achievement and how it can be accomplished.

The Research (yawn)                                  

GoalsStudies show that  goal setting in general has a higher impact on motivation than praise or encouragement from an external source.

Goal-setting theory (Locke & Latham, 1990, 2002) was developed inductively within industrial/organizational (I/O) psychology over a 25-year period, based on some 400 laboratory and field studies. These studies showed that specific, high (hard) goals lead to a higher level of task performance than do easy goals or vague, abstract goals such as the exhortation to ‘‘do one’s best.’’

In an educational context, goal setting has been shown to have an effect size of .56 (Hattie, 2008), so we know that the use of this strategy will have a positive impact on student achievement. The question is why?

According to Katie Curran & Karen Reivich (NASP), there are four key reasons that student goal setting is effective:

“First, goals are directive. That is, they direct attention toward the behavior that will lead to the desired aim. If a student sets a goal to read three chapters of a book by the end of the week, the student has heightened his awareness of this activity and will be more likely to devote his energy to reading.” 

“A second reason that goals lead to positive outcomes is that they are energizing. Goals increase effort toward performance, and when an individual is engaging in goaldirected pursuits, he or she often experiences positive emotion and the state of flow.”

“Third, goals affect persistence. They increase the effort and time spent on–task.”

“Finally, goals lead to action. When goals are set, individuals will rely first on the knowledge and/or skills they already have to try and attain the goal. If a new skill is required, students who have set specific goals are more likely than those who have not set specific goals to identify and adopt new strategies to help them achieve their respective goals (Locke & Latham, 2002).”

The Process

So have I convinced you that taking the time to establish student goal setting protocols is worth the bang for the buck?  I have? Great!  Let’s talk about how to set those goals regardless of the age of your students.SMart goal

We’ve all heard of the acronym SMART in reference to goal setting.

Specific (Goals must be clear and unambiguous)

Measurable (Results must be able to be measured in some way)

Attainable (Goals must be realistic and attainable)

Relevant, Rigorous, Realistic (Goals must relevant to the student and rigorous enough to pose a challenge and show growth)

Timely (Goals must have a fixed duration)

Writing SMART goals isn’t as easy as it seems at first, but with a little practice and tweaking students will be able to set their own goals for the school year, semester, unit or lesson.

Students can write goals based on their personal interests (number of books read; mastering a piece of music; demonstrating a skill) or they can use pre-test data to set progress goals for their post test (with some guidance from you.)

Students can set goals for themselves or  the whole class and chart their progress over time using graphs, checklists, portfolios or journal entries. They key is having a plan to attain the goal and frequent checks on their progress towards achieving it.

Examples of Goal setting Planning Forms

Kinder goal      smart goal        Goal setting superstar           SMART GOal secondary

Kindergarten Goal Setting      Elementary Goal Setting        Middle School Goals    High School Goal Setting


Once your students begin to set their own SMART goals you’ll be surprised at how good they get at tracking their progress and how motivated that are to reach their goals!