Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day…

…For Teaching ELL, ESL, & EFL

Avoiding Goal-Setting Problems — In The Classroom & In Education Policy


Goal Setting – Pitfalls and Benefits is a useful post about goal-setting issues. It has a couple of good links within the article itself, as well.

The article, and its links, are primarily focused on goal-setting in a business environment, but a number of the points raised can be useful to educators — both in the classroom and in thinking about broader education policy.

As regular readers know, I use goal-setting a lot with my students, and you can read more about how I do so in My Best Posts On Students Setting Goals.

Here are a few items that stood out for me:

* It can be very dangerous when you set goals for others . It can result in:

a narrow focus that neglects non-goal areas, a rise in unethical behavior, distorted risk preferences, corrosion of organizational culture, and reduced intrinsic motivation. (I wonder if Education Secretary Duncan has read this study?)

I don’t set goals for my students, but neither am I a “potted plant” when we discuss them. When I work with students on helping them develop their goals, I certainly share what the “average” academic assessments are (in cloze, fluency, and state test assessments). They then make their own determination of what they want to achieve in relation to their existing scores. I also share with students what research says are the qualities of a good learner and good leader, and then they decide which — if any — they want to improve on. In goal-setting decisions — which all occur weekly, quarterly, semester, and yearly — they make their other two or three goals based on what they think they want to focus on. I also ask them to write why they picked those goals — what do they see as the pay-off for them?

To adapt an old community organizing saying, if I set their goals I’m sending the message that their meeting the goals are more important to me than to them. If that’s the case, their investment in meeting them is reduced considerably.

* Another study reinforced what I do in my classroom — having students primarily focus on setting “learning goals” (learning how to categorize information better, to work better in groups, be more disciplined about reading a book for a half-hour each night or to read a more challenging book), with a lesser priority (though we definitely include them) on “performance goals” (increased assessment scores). The study says that M.B.A. students who focused more on learning goals ultimately ended-up with a higher G.P.A. than those students who had only set a G.P.A. goal.

It’s similar to my community organizing experience. Our organizations were often more effective in building affordable housing than groups that just focused on affordable housing development and in getting people into jobs that paid a living wage with benefits than job training agencies. The primary reason for that success was that we were focused on helping people learn to become leaders, and then used housing and jobs campaigns as tools to help people develop leadership skills.

The idea is to help people become life-long learners, and then the performance outcomes will come. In our organizing campaigns, though we were more effective in the long-run, our ultimately very successful efforts did take what some might consider too long of a time to bear fruition. Our school emphasizes building life-long learners and not teaching to the test. We are making slow, but very steady, improvement. Nevertheless, we are in Program Improvement Status as defined by No Child Left Behind.

* The study found that performance often drops when goals are seen as a threat instead of a challenge. In the classroom, I deal with that by making sure students set their own goals and making it clear that there will be no negative consequences coming from me if they don’t meet them. However, I ask students to regularly review their goals and their progress towards making them. If they are not moving towards them, they need to think about the reasons behind that lack of progress and develop a new plan of action, and I’m available to help if they want.

Perhaps Education Secretary Duncan should this study, too….

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. Larry, do you ever feel that students can simply decide NOT to meet their goals, given the lack of consequences? Are there students who feel little motivation to rise to the challenge but who might be more inclined to work if there were a stick as well as a carrot?

    • Claus,

      It’s a good question.

      There will be negative consequences for students not achieving their goals, but they are not necessarily coming from me.

      They might say that one of their longer-term goals is they want to pass the high school exit exam the next year on their first try. They know from me that, historically, most students need to score 50% or greater on our regular ninth-grade cloze assessments in order to make that happen. If they set that as a goal, and don’t meet it, and don’t continue to try to meet it, the likely consequence of not passing the Exit Exam is not coming directly from me.

      After learning that one of the qualities of a good learner is being a good teacher, they might decide that one of their goals is to be better at helping other students learn. In talking with me, they might have also shared they have hopes of becoming a doctor, which also requires some teaching ability. If they set that as a goal, and don’t document progress towards it, the negative consequence is that they have not made progress towards their life goals

      I obviously control the grade they will receive. If they achieve their “learning” goals, it’s almost a guarantee of achieving their “performance” goal of the grade. At the grade period, I always ask students what grades they think they should receive and why. Nine times out of ten, students will tell me the grade that I think they’ve earned — even if it’s not the one they set as a goal. If it’s not the one they set as a goal, we’ll talk about what they can do to achieve that one by the following grade period.

      In the one out of ten times when there’s a disagreement, more often than not we’re able to have an honest discussion with one of us changing our minds.

      There are, of course, exceptions to this policy. Every year, I do have a few students who, for various reasons, might require more of a carrots and sticks approach. I’ll use that to maintain the overall class atmosphere and my own sanity, while constantly looking for opportunities to try to wean them off that system.

      All of this is done in an atmosphere where, I believe, students know — in their minds and in their hearts — that I want them to be successful, and that I care about them. Student know that I want them to achieve their goals, and that I’m seeing them as co-creators of their education and the system that we’re using to evaluate them.

      I don’t necessarily get the same message from The Department of Education.

      Thanks for stretching my mind, Claus.


  2. happy that you liked my post on goals!

    just thinking a bit more about the learning goals … they generally are more process oriented than target oriented, aren’t they? my hunch is that humans are target-oriented only in very specific situations, otherwise processes come much easier to us. thoughts?

  3. Pingback: goals, learning and contracts

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.

Skip to toolbar