The Magic That Happens When Students Set Their Own Learning Goals

“We have to do this work with the students, and not for the students.” -Patty McGee

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I’m not proud of it, but I have seen all eight of the Fast and Furious movies. I have no defense except that I have a soft spot for absurdist early 2000s bubble-gum action movies that involve Vin Diesel and/or Dwayne Johnson. One of my favorite parts of nearly every one of these movies is that each one inevitably has a scene where the racers are involved in an intense race and, right as the moment of truth comes, somebody yells, “Use the NOS!” If you haven’t seen the movies, NOS  refers to Nitrogen Oxide, which is a gas that if piped into an engine significantly boosts its performance for a brief burst. The racer then hits the NOS button (always a giant red button), the car takes off like a rocket, and the good guys just barely edge out the bad guys.

One of the things I like about both the movies as a whole and the NOS scenes is the fantasy of how wonderful it would be if reality were that easy — how wonderful it would be if there existed a button that we and our students could hit to suddenly succeed in our toughest ventures.

The closest we have to this is a topic I talked about last post–wise interventions–which are short, timely, and targeted actions that can rapidly make a huge impact on improving student outcomes and/or closing achievement gaps. In preparation for the first day of school next week, I am going to spend this week looking at a few of the most impactful, and I want to start today with one that can have an NOS-like effect on the learning process, if used right: student goal setting.

That’s right, goal setting, which I know seems like one of the least exciting pedagogical tools one could use, but stay with me. Amazingly, having students set their own goals is the only teaching practice agreed upon as a highly effective by three of the biggest meta-studies of writing instruction this decade: Writing Next by the Carnegie Corporation, Critical Factors for Success in the 21st Century by the Department of Education, and the largest meta-study of them all, John Hattie’s ongoing examination of the practices that accelerate learning. 

And after having seriously imbedded student goal setting into my classes over the past two years, I can attest to its power for the following reasons:

  • It frames writing instruction as a collaborative process. The classroom goes from “Here is what you will learn!” to “What should we work on?” 
  • Students are allowed to pursue goals that feel worthwhile to them and connect the goals of class to their personal goals.
  • Students are better equipped than the teacher to set goals that are ‘optimally challenging,’ which is a term used by everyone from education experts to video game designers for tasks that bring the best out of people by being hard enough to not be boring but not so hard that they produce excess anxiety.

Considering these changes, it should be no real surprise that students setting goals can often lead to significantly accelerated learning. These three traits also line up perfectly with our current understanding of motivation, namely that we tend to be intrinsically motivated to do something when we have some autonomy, the task has clear value and purpose, and we believe we can be successful if we put in the work. 

So this year, try having your students start each new assignment with setting their own goals. The investment to do this is minimal, and it doesn’t require making any major pedagogical changes, and yet the result tends to be like a shot of NOS to your writing instruction.

Thanks as always for reading.

Yours in teaching,

Matt

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