Reflecting on Our Practice: Setting Goals
By: Virginia Ressa
As a new year begins, many of us set goals for improving ourselves or accomplishing something we have always wanted to do. Yet, so many of these New Year’s resolutions end up unfulfilled. I’ve asked myself, year after year, was I not committed enough? Did I pick the wrong goals? Did I not try hard enough? Did I just get lazy or distracted?
Research tells us that setting clear goals that are “SMART” is important to our success. SMART goals are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely. Though the acronym can be defined multiple ways (the A can be attainable or achievable), the big idea is that we set goals that are clear and within our reach. When we set a goal that is too far beyond our current ability it is likely that we will lose our focus and commitment before we meet the goal. Is running a marathon a realistic goal for you? Or should you start with the goal of running a 5K?
We also need to know exactly what we are working toward – goals need to be clear and specific. “Get more exercise” is vague and can’t be tracked and measured. A more specific goal would be: “Build up to exercising three times a week by the end of March.” That is more specific, measurable, time-based and likely achievable.
You’ve probably already guessed where I’m going with this line of thinking – we can apply this same to setting goals with students. “Do better in math” is not the same as “earn an average of 80% correct on math facts practice sheets.” When we help students set goals that are specific and measurable they are more likely to achieve those goals. One of the most effective strategies is to make learning intentions clear. When learning intentions are clear, students understand what the expectations are and can track their progress towards those expectations. Consider our math facts example: a student who improves from 50% correct to 65% correct on their practice sheets can see progress and know they are moving in the right direction. If the goal had simply been to do better in math, the student would have seen some progress but without the benefit of knowing what the measure of better would be. Has she met her goal at 65%? Does she need to get 100% correct to be better? This confusion is akin to our adult who makes a resolution to get more exercise – there is no clear goal to tell them when they are successful.
As with every teaching practice or strategy we talk about, this one is not fool proof and will not work in every situation. However, it is a strong guideline to keep in mind when setting goals. If we want our students to be successful and meet high expectations, we need to be clear with them about what success looks like and what those high expectations are. Otherwise they are muddling through a vague set of criteria, trying to do better, not knowing if they are improving and lacking a clear destination.
Virginia Ressa is an education program specialist at the Ohio Department of Education, where she focuses on helping schools and educators meet the needs of diverse learners through professional learning. You can learn more about Virginia by clicking here.
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