Classroom Practice - Hit the back of the net with your goal-setting

3rd January 2014 at 00:00
Objectives are everywhere in education but how can you ensure they're effective? The answers may lie in the world of business

It's that time of year when sensible people lie to themselves. Not little lies, but big, stinking lies. Falsehoods such as: I will lose two stone by the end of February; I will finally learn to play the piano; I will start that business I dreamed up in college; I will definitely not bitch in the staffroom.

No one expects these lofty targets to be met, least of all the person setting them. They are aspirational stabs in the dark, a "best-case scenario" dream with no strategy for completion, motivational force or consideration for the consequences of failure. Teachers would do well to take note: they are in the professional business of goal-setting and the annual resolution-fest each January is a great case study in how not to do things.

Indeed, their attention should be particularly rapt as, away from academic targets, this may be the only guidance on goal-setting they will get. For although teachers have to set goals for everything from behaviour and punctuality to personal achievement, the science of goal-setting is not on many teacher training or continuing professional development reading lists.

So let's correct the error. What makes for effective goal-setting in the classroom?

Well, according to Christopher Hulleman, an educational psychologist at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education in the US, the question is problematic. He is working on a literature review around motivation and goal-setting in education, and says it is amazing how much research is focused on lab studies rather than field studies in real classrooms.

That's not to say that the review hasn't thrown up any tips. A key component in goal-setting, Hulleman has found, is feedback. Good feedback is particularly important with challenging goals. It doesn't all have to be positive but it does have to be framed appropriately. "Feedback needs to be focused on the task," Hulleman says. "So instead of saying 'You're really smart', say 'I can tell you worked really hard and read a lot of articles'."

The point is that the student should be encouraged specifically rather than generally. And feedback should be regular, too. "You need to have feedback all along the way," Hulleman says. "If you wait too long before giving feedback, students go in the wrong direction and performance suffers."

It's also important to set goals that chime with what students want to do. "Helping them find what's relevant to them is vital to get kids to buy in," Hulleman explains. "This isn't simply telling them that a maths goal is important because they'll need it later on in life."

Instead, find out what a child is interested in. When trying to teach statistics, for instance, this could mean framing goals in terms of professional athletics or animal populations. "Show relevance," Hulleman advises, "then connect the goal to that."

Setting individualised goals for every student may sound impossibly time-consuming. Yet Hulleman points to the fact that Montessori schools seem to manage this with few problems (a claim that many teachers may wish to debate).

Other academics have found that such an individualised approach may not be necessary. Recent research by Krista Muis of McGill University in Montreal, Canada - reported in The Journal of Experimental Education - compared the results of different goal-setting strategies across a group of 250 first-year students in a chemistry class. The researchers divided the group into four, and gave each a different kind of goal for homework assignments during the term.

Muis found that students who worked on specific achievement goals had higher scores than the control group, but also higher levels of stress at test time and worse organisation than students who were given mastery goals - broader directions that urge holistic coverage of a topic. Students with mastery goals also had greater self-confidence leading up to tests.

Focal point

Peter Bregman, a business consultant and author, believes that using mastery goals is a better model, at least in the corporate world he inhabits. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, he argues against conventional, specific goal-setting. He cites a Harvard Business School working paper called "Goals gone wild" (bit.lyGoalsGoneWild), which reviews a number of research studies and concludes that "the upside of goal-setting has been exaggerated, and the downside, the 'systematic harm caused by goal-setting', has been disregarded".

Harms include "a narrow focus that neglects non-goal areas, a rise in unethical behaviour, distorted risk preferences, corrosion of organisational culture and reduced intrinsic motivation".

Bregman advocates that instead of setting goals, you stipulate and pursue areas of focus (similar to Muis' "mastery goals").

"An area of focus taps into your intrinsic motivation, offers no stimulus or incentive to cheat or take unnecessary risks, leaves every positive possibility and opportunity open, and encourages collaboration while reducing corrosive competition," he writes. "The key is to resist the temptation to identify the outcome you want to achieve. Leave that open and allow yourself to be pleasantly surprised."

Removing specific objectives would be controversial in education: much of the methodology advocated for involving children in their own learning revolves around objective-setting.

Although still rooted in the business world, the theories of Edwin Locke, professor emeritus at the Robert H Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland in the US, may be more applicable to schools. Locke has often been called the godfather of goal-setting theory and has been working on the psychology of goals since the 1980s. Conventional goal-setting can be successful, he argues, provided it is done in a certain way.

First, it has to address a need to improve in a specified area and set a certain level of achievement. So give a student the goal to improve their algebra by one grade rather than a general target to get better at maths.

Second, a structure has to be provided to direct actions and behaviour. So give the student the appropriate resources, teaching and advice required to meet the goal.

Third, the student needs to agree to the goal collaboratively. Locke found that accepting a target was of paramount importance in finding the motivation to achieve it.

Finally, difficulty has to be a key consideration - the target should be attainable but not too easy. "If you want to get high performance, you have to set hard goals," Locke says.

As a blueprint for educational goal-setting, Locke's theory is arguably more attainable than Hulleman or Bregman's suggestions. However, teachers should not write off these two, nor the plethora of other theories out there (most aimed at business leaders). Differentiation is not just about what you teach but how you teach, and so seeing which approach works best for each student is essential to getting the most out of your class. Ensuring you have a theory at all is even more important.


Teachers set targets and goals for students every day, but there is little guidance on how to do so effectively.

The worlds of cognitive science and business have provided theories.

Some believe that, rather than being specific, goals should be general and aimed at "focus areas".

Others argue that specific targets can be effective as long as you structure the goal properly, provide the proper support, set the right level of difficulty and give appropriate feedback.


Focus is everything: find out how to set Smart (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound) targets.


With this Feedback Compendium of ready-to-use targets, you'll never be at a loss again when it comes to goal-setting.


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