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New Study Shows Goal-Setting – With Some Twists – Can Have Big Impact On Student Achievement

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I’ve written a lot in my books and on this blog about goal-setting with students (see The Best Posts On Students Setting Goals) and what I do in the classroom.

A new study has just been published that, once again, reinforces previous research documenting goal-setting’s positive effects on student motivation and achievement. This one has a a couple of twists, though, that sets it apart from other research.

First, the results of the goal-setting experiment with college students (from NPR’s report, The Writing Assignment That Changes Lives):

[it] showed a powerful positive effect with at-risk students, reducing the dropout rate and increasing academic achievement.

Secondly, what the three-part, two-and-one-half hour intervention was (this comes from the study itself, which is NOT behind a paywall) – I’ve copied and pasted snippets from each step:

Step 1 included a series of exercises that required students to free-write for specified amounts of time (e.g., 1–2 min, 10 min) about (a) their ideal future, (b) qualities they admired in others, (c) things they could do better, (d) their school and career futures, (e) things they would like to learn more about, and (f) habits they would like to improve (i.e., related to school, work, relationships, health). This initial “fantasy” step was intended to allow participants the chance to consider a number of possible futures and toidentify the ones that were most desirable.

Step 2 asked students to examine the result of their fantasizing about the future and to extract seven or eight specific goals that could be pursued to realize the desired state.

Step 3 required students to evaluate their goals by ranking them in order of importance, detailing specific reasons for pursuit and evaluating the attainability of each goal within a self-specified time frame.

Step 4 asked students to write about the impact that achieving each goal would have on specific aspects of their lives and the lives of others.

Steps 5, 6, and 7 helped students to elaborate on their specific plans for goal pursuit.

Finally, Step 8 asked students to evaluate the degree to which they were committed to achieving each goal.

Here are what I view as the unique “twists” this process takes that sets it apart from other goal-setting experiments I’ve written about, and used:

Steps 2,3,5,6,7 all are very similar to those previous studies and what I have used with students.

Steps 1 and 4, though, are new angles that neither I or other researchers have tried previously. In addition, another element that stands out is that they didn’t appear to do any follow-up with students (which I do) by having them regularly evaluate their progress towards achieving their goals — it appears to be a one-shot deal that, nevertheless, had a significant longer-lasting impact.

The researchers call their entire process “past authoring” and “future authoring.”

Of course, most goal-setting studies have already demonstrated the valued of students setting them (on a side note, this study has a nice section summarizing previous research). I guess there’s no way of knowing if this experiment’s “twists” had a positive impact on the results, or if just the more general idea and practice of setting goals themselves was the cause of positive student impact.

But it seems to me that adding Steps 1 and 4 to a student goal-setting process couldn’t hurt, so I’ll probably give it a try next school year.

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

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

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