Goal setting happens all the time in the workplace, but what about inside the classroom? “Successful entrepreneurs know how to aim for ambitious goals and achieve them, but that skill doesn’t come naturally for everyone,” says Ivy Xu, co-founder of BETA Camp, a six-week online program that breaks down entrepreneurship and business dynamics for students. “One of the best things a teacher can do is provide their students with a head start in self-reflection and goal setting.”
Self-reflection comes before goal setting
“For decades, schools have relied on grades to motivate students,” says Xu. “Grades measure compliance, but students won’t have artificial motivators when they leave the classroom. When teachers emphasize goal setting, they switch the focus from an artificial incentive to real-world skills.”
Before setting personal goals, students need to believe they can achieve success. Successful people have the confidence to set their minds on a goal and work toward it, and recent research finds that students who participate in their learning achieve better results.
“Before students can set personal goals, they need to know how to reflect on how they want to grow,” Xu remarks. “Self-reflection shows you what you want to achieve and how you can improve to make that happen.”
To train students in self-reflection, teachers need to ask the right questions. Instead of asking what students learned during the last unit, they can ask what they learned about themselves with purposeful questions to help students explore their mistakes, strengths, and weaknesses.
How to teach students to set goals
When students learn to reflect on their learning and use feedback to drive improvement, teachers can introduce them to goal-setting. Many educators use the acronym “S.M.A.R.T.” when teaching students to set goals. A goal is smart if it is:
Because S.M.A.R.T. goals are specific and measurable, students know exactly how to achieve the goal. A clear time frame tells them when the goal will be achieved.
By starting with class-wide goals, teachers can ensure they are attainable and reward students who reach them. For example, if the goal is to read for 20 minutes on four out of five school nights, students know whether or not they have reached their goal because the task is measurable and has a time set for completion.
When students are comfortable with the idea of self-reflection and goal setting, they can move on to practice the “personal best” approach. Personal best goals teach students to compete with themselves and strive for their best work. They conference with teachers and examine previous work to determine a specific and measurable way they can raise the bar.
Personal best goals still involve all the elements of S.M.A.R.T. goals. For example, rather than saying, “I’ll get a better grade on my next book report,” a personal best goal might say, “I’ll include three quotes from the text in my next book report.”
When learning how to set personal goals, it’s best to work toward one achievable goal at a time. Teachers can ask students to draft a list of long-term and short-term goals, then collaborate to choose the most specific, measurable, attainable, rewardable, and time-oriented ones.
“Raising students’ aspirations is one of the lowest-cost, highest-return investments our teachers can make,” asserts Xu. “Teaching ambitious goals to kids who have been trained to only set goals they can achieve is not easy. High achievers focus on grades and only learn to set goals they know how to hit. It’s the huge, scary, almost impossible goals that transform lives. Colleges, top companies, and society reward those who dream big and tackle ambitious ideas. Now is the time for students to set goals, break them into attainable steps, and achieve results.”