Leveraging Goal-Setting to Increase Student Learning

by Mandi Olson

Goals are a driver for what we choose to do each day.  Goals help us maintain a steady focus and allow us to know if we have reached a target. As teachers, we have learning goals for our students.  We know what benchmark levels must be met by our students throughout the year and we use student progress as feedback to provide targeted instruction to help students achieve and meet their goals.  Often, though, students are not aware of the goals they are working towards. How can teachers help students understand their learning goals and use goal-setting with students to help increase their learning?

Educational research can help educators focus on what matters most to make informed decisions to better support student learning and growth.  Researcher, John Hattie, examined and synthesized more than 1,000 meta-analyses which comprised more than 50,000 individual studies, to determine factors that affect student learning and achievement.  In his book, Visible Learning, Hattie ranked 138 effects that influence learning outcomes and he continues to add to his research as his original list has grown to 195 (Hattie, 2017). This research is helpful to educators because if almost any change in education will have a positive effect, why not focus on those that will have the greatest effect on student learning?  A year’s growth, calculated by Hattie, is 0.40.  So from his rankings of 195 effects on learning, educators can examine those influences that have a greater chance of increasing student learning and begin to use them in their teaching practice. 

According to Hattie’s research, goal-setting has an effect size of 0.50 which has a strong influence on learning.  How can teachers use goal-setting with students to increase student learning?  Having clear goals communicated to students allows students to understand and reach their target.  If students do not know the target they should reach then how will they know if they have met their goals? For goal-setting to reach its maximum benefit in the classroom, students need to understand what their individual learning goals are so they can work to achieve them. 

One way that teachers can use goal-setting with students is to clearly communicate learning goals to their students. For instance, targeted reading goals could be built around fluency and accuracy.  Allowing students to see what their current performance is in both of these areas and clearly understand what their goal is can help them become active participants in their learning.  Then as students continue to read while practicing their fluency and accuracy they can see their progress toward their goal. This same process could be used in math.  Having targeted goals for students related to their progress in the different math domains for their grade level or based on computation or problem-solving skills could help them understand how they are progressing in their understanding of mathematical concepts. 

As teachers examine the assessments they use they can create goals for students so that students can first, understand their target, second, see their progress towards their target, and then finally, celebrate when they reach their learning goals.  Helping students see what their target is allows them to become active participants in their learning journey.  By leveraging goal-setting and including students in the goal-setting process students will be able to understand their current progress, see their goals, and then work to achieve them. Ensuring students are part of the goal-setting process will increase student learning allowing educators to utilize the 0.50 effect size as they implement this practice in their classroom. 

Hattie, J. (2017, May). How to Empower Student Learning with Teacher Clarity. Corwin. Retrieved November 15, 2021, from https://us.corwin.com/sites/default/files/corwin_whitepaper_teacherclarity_may2017_final.pdf.

Mandi Olson

Mandi Olson Mandi Olson, Ed.D, is an elementary educator who currently works as an instructional coach in Utah. She utilizes her fourteen years of knowledge and experience to support others as they further develop their educational expertise. She will provide practical insight to help teachers navigate the complex roles and responsibilities of an educator.