How to Make Student Goal Setting Actually Work

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This post is adapted from my upcoming book Flash Feedback: Responding to Student Writing Better and Faster – Without Burning Out from Corwin Literacy.

I’ve discussed the power of student goal setting before—how having students set regular writing goals comes in at or near the top of a number of meta-studies focused on effective teaching practices, likely due in part to the way it grants students some autonomy, frames the student’s growth as a collaborative endeavor between the teacher and student, and allows students to in part pursue the topics they value most.

And yet, despite the research supporting it and the clear logical reasons for why it would be valuable, real and serious student goal setting tends to be rare in our educational landscape. And I have heard from a number of teachers that it often falls flat when they try to engage in it.

So, today I want to borrow upon a section of my upcoming book Flash Feedback and discuss how we can make goal setting actually work:

When I first started asking students to set writing goals, many of them struggled to come up with anything, and the goals students did create tended to be vague, broad, superficial, and overall not great. Further, the students tended to forget the goals they set almost as quickly as they set them.

Patty McGee also identifies these issues in her book Feedback That Moves Writers Forward, and consequently she spends a great deal of time looking at what separates high-impact goals from those that have little to no impact. In the end, her examination boils down to what she calls the “Three Cs”: clarity, challenge, and commitment. Paying attention to and planning around these Three Cs has helped goal setting in my classroom go from frustrating and largely ineffective to one of the most exciting and effective teaching tools I have. Here is how I approach them:

Clarity: Teacher Modeling and Sentence Stems

We often forget that for many students setting their own goals is a completely new concept. Until now, many have relied solely on teachers to set all the writing goals, so when given the opportunity to do it themselves they are unsure of how to set a goal or what value setting their own goals has.

This uncertainty about how to set goals or the value of doing it led to a number of students in my early goal setting attempts creating goals that looked something like these:

  • “I want to be more focused.”
  • “I want to have more voice.”
  • “I want to improve my grammar.”

Goals like these sound nice on the surface, but they don’t actually mean much. These broad statements don’t provide a clear path for how the goal will be executed or what it will look like when it is done. Goals like these are sort of like a construction crew opening a blueprint and finding the words: “Please build a nice house.”

Consequently, if we want student goals to be better, we need to teach them how to set clear, specific goals. When we first start setting goals in my classroom, I model what the difference is between vague goals and clear goals. 

My model of vague vs. clear goals from Flash Feedback

The other way I help them be specific is to give students sentence stems to fill in early in the year in the same way that McGee does. I actually shared my base goal setting stem in my post last week, but here it is again, in case you missed it:

Once again, my base goal-setting sentence stem

Challenge: Micro-Conferences to Push Learning

In a discussion of goal setting, John Hattie argues, “Students often set safe targets… Our job is to mess that up…Our job is to help them exceed what they think they can do.” In other words, students are like the rest of us: Far too often they discount what they can do, avoid excess effort, and fear uncertain outcomes, so they tend toward setting safe goals, especially if the goals are connected to a teacher who will grade or assess them at some point.

Our job, as Hattie suggests, is to push students out of this comfortable, safe zone and toward goals that challenge them. I do this by holding micro-conferences with students after they submit their goals. I aim for 15 to 60 seconds for each conference, depending on if redirection or nudging is needed. In these conferences, it is important not to steer students’ choices too heavily because for goals to be authentic, they need to be self-created. Instead, we can listen to the logic behind each goal and look for places where we can affirm student choices and places where we can nudge them to go further. 

Commitment: Revisiting Goals Throughout the Unit

When students have a say, they tend to be committed to their goals—at the start. But commitment may wane as the unit moves on. This is an issue because to meet a goal in any endeavor or discipline, we generally need our commitment to remain firm.

The key to helping students maintain their commitment to their goals is we need to stay committed to their goals as well. This is why it’s important to regularly make time for students to revisit and think about the goals; if we don’t, goals may quickly get forgotten and ultimately have little or no impact on student growth. For my part, I directly ask students to revisit their goals during peer response, self-review sessions, reflection papers, and conferences. 

In each one of these moments where students revisit their goals—or at any other time for that matter—students have the option to change, tweak, or amend their goals in a Google Form because, as Patty McGee reminds us: “[T]he goals our young writers start with are likely not the goals with which they will end. Along the way, and often as a result of feedback, goals evolve, becoming more tailored, traveling in different directions, being replaced altogether, or giving birth to [other] goals.”

The other way I commit to student goals is I add them to each paper’s rubric, so a part of the student’s final assessment is based on students’ commitment and effort in the pursuit of their own goals.

I have a spot right on my rubric for their goals.

Doing student goals right takes some work, but it is worth the investment. Goals help students revisit feedback; serve as a bridge between the work that came before and the upcoming work; empower students by framing their education as a joint venture between the teacher and the student where we both must turn the key to engage the learning; and introduce the three core traits needed for someone to develop intrinsic motivation: autonomy (they get some say), purpose (they can in part pursue what matters to them), and mastery (they can pick goals that while challenging feel within reach). And they do it all without us having to grade a single other paper.

Yours in teaching,



Teachers are busy–too busy–so we need to share with each other. That is why this blog exists. I’ve studied and written about writing instruction and finding balance for over ten years and would love to share what I’ve found with you. Join my mailing list now and I will send you a thoughtful post about teaching and curated reading suggestions each week. As a thank you, you will also receive the first chapter free of my upcoming book Flash Feedback: Responding to Student Writing Better and Faster – Without Burning Out.

6 responses to “How to Make Student Goal Setting Actually Work”

  1. […] to better understanding and memory of it too. My favorite tool for doing this is having students set goals for the next unit by looking at the feedback from the previous one, which creates bridges between […]


  2. […] will set goals for themselves in the way that I normally do, but I hope to give their goals even more weight right […]


  3. […] readers of the blog or my book likely know that I already have students write me letters, set goals, and reflect regularly, but what Zerwin does so well is that she sets up systems to ensure that […]


  4. […] give students lots of room for choice and voice and opportunities to pursue their own interest and goals, I struggled significantly in the spring with no longer being the gravitational center of my class, […]


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