Because learning a new language is often a years-long effort, learners need regular and consistent ways to understand their progress and connect that progress to the larger goal of being able to speak and write in the new language. . Perseverance in learning a new language is essential to go from those first hesitant vocabulary words to real fluency. Goal setting for students provides a context, a vocabulary, and a set of systems that can help students achieve this perseverance. Language researchers and educators have been at the forefront of exploring how goal setting works (Lee & Bong, 2019; Moeller et al., 2012), establishing that goal setting goals is one of the most effective practices teachers can use to improve student achievement. in any subject (Hattie, 2021; Marzano, 2009).
For almost every part of an education system that has data, the goal is to improve that data. We set goals for district attendance, class-wide improvement goals on standardized test scores, and goals for students on their IEPs (individualized education programs). These goals can be their own valuable and important motivations for educators in a school system.
However, such goals are fundamentally different from the types of goals that motivate students and support learning growth. Learning goals should be designed to help students understand where they are in their learning journey, where they are going and how they will get there.
Three Characteristics of Effective Goals
To meaningfully change student outcomes, teachers and students must work together to design goals that support meaningful, long-term changes in learner behaviors and mindsets. To do this, these objectives must have three important characteristics.
First, effective goals are individualized for learners. Certainly, our hope for students learning any language is the same: to speak and write proficiently. But each student begins their learning journey in a different place, each responds to different prompts and motivations, and each has a different relationship between the new language and the life they want to live. For these reasons, setting the same short-term goal for each learner and expecting them to reach the same milestones at the same time doesn’t make much sense. Students need their own individual goals to accommodate their individual differences.
True individualization of goals goes even further. Students should play a central role in deciding what their learning journey will look like and the steps they will take to get there. Certainly, students need help: educators bring meaningful data on each student’s performance, a clear understanding of the learning trajectory in each area, and the ability to mentor younger students as they learn the skills to take independent control of their learning. But the most engaging learning – the one that is most likely to give students the encouragement they need to persevere in language learning – is the learning that students make their own.
Second, goals should be mastery-oriented. Mastery goals are those that focus on learning for the sake of learning: learning how to get better at something, become a more balanced person, or experience more of the world. Their opposite – performance goals – focus on learning to appear competent, outperform others, or please a position of authority. Research has clearly shown that performance goals have a negative relationship with student outcomes (Anderman et al., 2011; Ciani et al., 2010; Maehr and Zusho, 2008) and that only mastery goals can consistently stimulate student motivation and ownership of learning (Ames and Archer, 1988; McGregor and Elliot, 2002; Wolters, 2004).
Educators play an important role in how their students become mastery-oriented. Mastery-focused teachers demonstrate the goals of learning by rewarding effort, describing the intrinsic rewards of learning, and celebrating students for their ability to grow. Performance-focused teachers, on the other hand, highlight students higher on the achievement continuum, reward specific performance on assessments, and give students little role in understanding or acting on their performance data. learning (Marsh et al., 2014). All students come to school with different ideas about learning, but educators can dramatically change the way students think over time.
Finally, effective goals balance what is meaningful and what is achievable. To motivate students, it is necessary to give them learning goals that matter, ones that produce results that students will find meaningful.
At the same time, goals must necessarily be attainable enough that students feel they can achieve success on a regular basis and any failure to achieve their goals is short-lived. Finding that balance is tricky, but important.
Benchmark assessment data can often provide insight into the type of growth students typically achieve between test events. Beyond data, tying a short-term learning goal to something that a student really cares about (a book they want to read, a topic they want to communicate about, a place they want to visit) can motivate much more than a goal that does not correspond to their interests.
None of these values should distract from the fundamental belief that all students can master a given language given the time and support needed to learn. Underlying all goal-setting practice is the belief that all students can achieve high standards. Developing the right kind of goals, however, makes this success more likely by giving students the motivation and ownership they need to reach their full potential.
Changing the way we talk and think about goals
The prospect of setting truly individualized, mastery-focused, meaningful and achievable goals for each learner can seem daunting. Bringing a new way of thinking about what goals should look like can have broad implications for how IEPs are written, how school-level performance is measured, how educators are rewarded, and how we think about learning. learning itself. More fundamentally, however, the spirit of goal setting is about the relationship between educator and student, adjusting the way we talk and think about learning with each other.
The joy that comes from learning a new language has always had an inherently motivating quality. Goal setting aims to match this motivating quality with classroom policies and procedures that support learners as they work through their difficult times, persist through struggles and disappointments, and gradually accumulate knowledge and skills. they need to speak and write with a new voice.
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Chase Nordengren, PhD, is a Senior Research Scientist at NWEA, where he supports the Professional Learning Team. His research includes the development and execution of needs assessment services and programs for partners; supporting school improvement processes; and thought leadership on formative assessment and goal-setting practices for students. With an insatiable curiosity, Chase works closely with leading scholars around the world, including Thomas Guskey, PhD, turning theory into concrete practice to drive educational improvement.
He is the author of Step into Student Goal Setting: A Path to Growth, Motivation, and Agency (2022, Corwin).