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Setting goals in the classroom

Teaching strategies

Setting goals in the classroom

A guide for classroom teachers, teacher aides and students

Setting goals – specifying what students will be able to do and know by the end point of a learning program or lesson.

Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely

A common theme in this book has been setting and working toward achieving goals. This is in part because strategies are first and foremost selected for their ability to achieve educational goals. Goals provide direction, purpose, motivation and control. When goals are not clearly set, achievement levels fall. For example, how many people would run a marathon if the goal was to ‘run as far as you can’? Most would stop running well before the full 42 km or 26 miles. Goals build self-esteem by allowing students to experience multiple successes, whether they be small micro-goals or larger long-term goals.

Hint: other terms for student goals include ‘learning intentions’, ‘learning goals’ and ‘educational goals’. ‘Success criteria’ is a term that teachers use when showing students what they need to demonstrate in order to achieve a stated goal.

There are many different types of goals, such as:

  • annual or course goals
  • program (or unit of work) goals
  • weekly goals
  • lesson goals
  • activity goals
  • group/individual goals
  • professional development goals.
Chart demonstrating progressive milestones and long term goals.

Showing the relationship of each lesson through to progressive milestones and finally long-term goals.

There is no doubt that good teaching practice involves an emphasis on setting goals.

There is no doubt that good teaching practice involves an emphasis on setting goals.i Why is it then, that many teachers don’t set goals for each activity, lesson, week or unit of work? One reason might be that setting goals sometimes involves rigid timelines that can stifle creativity and flexibility. However, even with more progressive and open-ended strategies that emphasise student control (such as self-directed learning, anchor activities, investigations and discovery learning), setting overarching and regular goals has its place.

In an investigation for instance, the topic may be open within the confines of certain parameters (for example, ‘it must be an historical event’). Research, note-taking, summarising, synthesizing, critical thinking, professional writing and editing may all be fine-tuned into goals. This allows both the teacher and student to monitor progress and ensures that students aim for improvements.

All student goals are linked with each other in some way. For example, annual goals determine program goals, program goals determine weekly goals and so forth. When a highly structured approach is taken, every activity is linked to the final goals of the course or year. Activities, strategies and resources are selected based on their ability to move learners toward the educational goals in the most effective manner. However, poorly chosen teaching strategies increase the risk that student goals will not be met when they may have otherwise been exceeded.

Activities, strategies and resources are selected based on their ability to move learners toward the educational goals in the most effective manner.

Hint: all goals should be clearly stated and communicated to students and parents. For example, annual goals can be hung on the wall. Lesson goals can be written on the board.

Regardless of the selected teaching strategy, age, topic or lesson, teaching the importance of goals is essential. When students practise setting goals, they learn things including:

  • the benefits of setting goals (such as providing direction, motivation and a bird’s eye view of their progress, as well as encouraging time management)
  • how to set micro-goals (for example, read 3 pages then have a rest)
  • how to set lesson, daily, weekly and longer-term goals (such as to develop a skill)
  • how to work backwards from longer-term goals to set weekly and daily goals
  • tips such as avoiding ‘mission creep’ (changing the goal posts or adding new goals)
  • the importance of writing goals down
  • why being clear about the end point is important for overall success
  • visualisation – imagining what success looks like (for example, if learning how to surf – regularly visualising yourself surfing)
  • setting primary and secondary goals (prioritising goals)
  • setting goals in everyday life
  • setting goals that are SMART. SMART is an acronym for
    • Specific – each goal should have a narrow focus and include numbers if possible
    • Measurable – identify the point at which a goal has been achieved
    • Attainable – it should be reasonable to expect that each goal can be achieved
    • Relevant – there should be a very good reason for the student to achieve each goal
    • Time – each goal should have a timeframe for achievement.

Here is an example of a SMART goal: read 6 books about teaching strategies in 6 months and compile 1 page of summary notes from each book.

Foot notes:

  1. Hattie, J., Anderman E.M. (2012). International Guide to Student Achievement. Great Britain: Taylor & Francis Ltd.

About the author

Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and an author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of Fast Track Training Australia, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.


Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to check his article for accuracy, information may be outdated, inaccurate or not relevant to you and your location/employer/contract. It is not intended as legal or professional advice. Users should seek expert advice such as by contacting the relevant education department, should make their own enquiries, and should not rely on any of the information provided.

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