Goal Setting for Students

Five Things You Should Know About Goal Setting for Students

Goal setting is crucial for career and personal success — but it is also essential to academics. However, goal setting for students can often be a challenge. For one, students rarely have much say in their achievement. Parents, teachers, and even sports coaches set expectations for levels of performance. That leads to one key problem: students lack a personal stake in these goals, which ultimately hurts motivation.

1. Emotional Investment is Key

Just as professionals need to have some sort of emotional investment or attachment to a goal, so do students. If a student is struggling and you would like to improve performance, start by having a conversation.

The Solution: Start a Conversation

Sit down with the student and ask them about what they enjoy about school, what they dislike, where they feel they struggle. Ask them what they would like to accomplish or how they would like to improve. Listen and work with them to set goals that they want to achieve. This could be raising overall quiz grades from a C to a B, or B to an A, or reading more books throughout the year. Let the student determine which goals to work toward.

This applies to older students, as well. Have a conversation about what colleges they want to apply to, what sort of coursework and grades are needed to get into that school, and what career paths they might pursue after leaving school. Good communication is essential.

2. Incentivizing Doesn’t Work

You might think that a reward is a good way to help motivate a student. It’s classical conditioning after all: helping them associate a positive reward with a particular behavior.

However, research shows this incentivizing ultimately does more harm than good. It doesn’t increase motivation. In fact, it can lead students to resent the activity for which they are rewarded.

The Solution: Help Them Discover Their Own Motivation

Instead of providing extrinsic motivation, help your student develop intrinsic motivation. Let them rack up a few successes under their belt. This helps boost confidence and will probably lead to a desire to continue achieving and striving for new goals.

If you absolutely think some sort of external help is needed, keep this in mind one study found that when given a task students who were given interesting information were more likely to complete (and yes, repeat) a task. This was in comparison with a control group that received no reward, another group that receiving a sticker, and another group that received uninteresting information. Young students in particular have an intrinsic desire to learn, even though they can be the most challenging to motivate.

It’s also important to bear in mind that some students want to do well, achieve more, and reach their goals. They just may not understand how to do that, or they may have given up because of conflicting or unclear messages. If you can show them the path, you’ll go a long way toward helping them maintain their own motivation and succeed. We’ll revisit this idea shortly.

3. Big Goals are Great… But not Always Practical

Sure, you might want to raise your child’s failing grade to an A. Your child may even want the same thing. But is that plausible? Unfortunately, in many cases, no. Big, general goals like “do better in math” can be a death sentence to progress. Over-reaching when setting goals with a student can actually be harmful because failure to make progress kills motivation. The further behind a student falls, the more discouraged they could become. If this happens it can be a vicious circle.

The Solution: Use the SMART Framework

When setting goals, apply the SMART framework. Goals should be: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. Let’s look at this in a bit more detail. Say your child wants to improve their math grade.

An example of a goal that meets all the SMART criteria is this:

I want to achieve at least a B on half of my math tests this semester.

The key is to be as detailed as possible to address all of the SMART criteria. But even that isn’t a guarantee of success.

4. Setting Goals Isn’t Enough

Raising a grade — or achieving any other academic goal, for that matter — doesn’t happen by sheer force of will. Your child may feel like they are studying harder, making improvements on homework, or paying more attention in class, but none of that is guaranteed to translate into success.

The Solution: Establish A Clear Course of Action

It’s time to talk with your student about how to actually make their goals a reality. Does it mean extra study time? Changing study habits? Does it require mentoring your student, sitting down with them and going over notes?

If your child wants to read more books, or get better at completing reading assignments, you could talk about setting daily or weekly reading quotas. You might time how long it takes your student to read a certain number of pages and use that to create a benchmark and timeline.

Set aside time each day to work on specific tasks that help your child achieve their goals.

5. It’s Important to Revisit Goals

Even the best of us fall behind, and it’s likely your student might need help more than once. If, despite all efforts to keep a student on track, they are still struggling it might be time to talk. Rather than risk a total failure, talk about what your student can still achieve. It is also important to note priorities can change over time. What your student wants one school year may be completely different the next year. A single class can change your child’s focus as they uncover new interests and talents.

The Solution: Chart Progress and Have Regular Conversations

For smaller goals, make it easy for your student to track progress. Empower them to take control by keeping a journal or setting their own study hours, or demonstrating what they have learned for you. For younger students, charts can be immensely helpful. Even older students can benefit from daily organizers (digital or otherwise) where they can check off tasks. And finally, be sure to set aside time to talk with your student at the start of the school year, at various points throughout, and at the end of the school year.

This post was created to help both parents and teachers concerned about goal setting for students. If you have any additional advice please provide it in the comments section below.