The Power of Appropriately Challenging Goals

by Mandi Olson

An important part of learning is helping students reach challenging goals.  Teachers typically have learning goals for each student to master. Ensuring that the right amount of challenge is provided for each student can be a daunting task. As educators understand how to utilize the power of using challenging goals with students, students will reach their learning goals and begin to own their learning.  If we lean into the research we can use it to help us 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.  

With an effect size of 0.59, appropriately challenging goals have the potential to accelerate student learning.  But how can we implement appropriately challenging goals to leverage and reap the benefit of the 0.59 effect size?  As a  necessary precondition for meaningful learning, appropriately challenging goals provide the preconditions for student engagement and the development of intrinsic motivation. While research suggests that students thrive most when teachers clearly describe the ultimate goals of a particular course of instruction, goals need to not only be challenging but attainable by the student. The Goldilocks’s principle of challenge can be used to help teachers determine goals that are not too hard, not too easy, and not too boring (Hattie, 2022). Looking at goals using this principle will allow teachers to find the perfect goal to fit each student’s learning needs. 

How can teachers effectively implement challenging goals in their teaching practice?  Because the appropriate challenge for students depends on what students already know, teachers must know students’ prior levels of achievement and their learning dispositions.  This will help teachers to choose a goal that is not too hard, not too easy, and not too boring. Diagnostics are one tool teachers can use to determine prior knowledge.  To take on a challenge, students need to know about 90% of what they are aiming to master in order to enjoy and make the most of the challenge (Hattie, 2011).  As teachers take the time to determine what students already know they can help students set goals that are just right for them so that they can meet their goals. 

It may be necessary to define goals at varying levels of difficulty for different students.  The greater the clarity and confidence to attain a challenging goal, the more the student invests in attaining the goal.  If the goal is too high students may experience anxiety, if the goal is too low students may become bored.  

The most important aspect when using goals is that they should specify the level of challenge to be attained in the lesson.  This can be communicated in terms of the ideas, relations between ideas, or transfer of knowledge and understanding to new tasks.  It is the degree of mastery that needs to be communicated to students.  For challenging goals to be effectively communicated to students, teachers should consider describing the observable behaviors learners should demonstrate by the end of the lesson, and identify conditions for monitoring learners’ behavior, such as how much time is permitted to complete an assignment or if students can work with a partner, and provide a standard of evaluation for determining whether and to what extent a student has achieved the goal (Hattie, 2018)..  Providing clear learning intentions and success criteria so that students know what they are learning, why they are learning it, and what success looks like at the end of the lesson can help students understand and have a bigger stake in the learning process.  This can also help teachers set challenging goals as they can set goals in relation to the success criteria provided which gives students a clear target that they are working towards in their learning. 

Clarity and appropriate challenge concerning the goals students are expected to achieve results in students understanding where they are in their learning path and what they are expected to achieve.  As students see that they can meet their learning goals their intrinsic motivation will increase and they will become more invested in their learning. 

Hattie, J. (2011). Visible learning for teachers. Routledge.

Hattie, J. (2018). 10 Mindframes for Visible Learning. Routledge.

Hattie, J. (2017, May). How to Empower Student Learning with Teacher Clarity. Corwin. Retrieved November 15, 2021, from 

Hattie, J. (2022). Visible Learning Metax website: Appropriately Challenging Goals  Retrieved September 22, 2022, from


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.


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