An interesting thought occurred to me the other day. As a teacher I spend a lot of time setting goals for my students but I don’t think I’ve made enough space for students to make their own goals. This got me thinking, shouldn’t we let students set their own goals and measure their own progress toward them?
If we, the teachers, are the only ones who set goals in our classes what does that say? Does it say that we don’t think that students can’t set their own goals? Does it mean we don’t think it is valuable for students to set their own goals? Does it just mean we haven’t considered having students do so?
Goal setting is a big part of my life. Every year I start a new journal and look back at my accomplishments and set new goals for myself. I revisit this every month and see if I’m making progress toward those goals or if I need to revise some of those goals. I credit this process with much of my success both personal and professional. I think a similar process might be helpful for students as they develop their mathematical understandings and think about their progress. So how might we go about helping students make and reflect on their goals in mathematics? Here are some thoughts.
Starting off the year, I think it is important for students to first reflect on their past year and accomplishments in mathematics. Note the word accomplishments. Everyone has one, even if they are modest. It is motivating and important to focus on things we did well and to acknowledge past growth before we think through what we might do differently. The accomplishments I note could be relatively modest accomplishments such as passing the prior class or larger accomplishments such as deeply understanding algebra and enjoying it.
2: What is a Goal?
Many of us have probably heard the saying, “A goal without a deadline is just a dream.” However, writing a goal entails more than just setting a deadline on a dream. A commonly used criteria for writing goals is the SMART criteria (used to make SMART Goals, see what they did there?). SMART is an acronym that standards for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. It is important to talk about these criteria with students so they understand what makes a good goal. Once students understand how to make a worthwhile goal, it is time to think about what goals for math this year (or even for a quarter) might look like.
3: Math Goals
Students will probably not know what types of goals make sense for math. To set being good at math this year as a goal is not really specific or measurable. If a student does come up with a goal such as this, don’t dismiss it. Instead, encourage the student to think about what it means to be good at math. They might say being good at math means you get an A on your report card. Then, you can probe them to think further about what they think getting an A indicates. In other words, what does it mean to get an A in math class? You might also ask them why they want to get an A? Once you know the answer to these questions, you can hone in on deeper and more specific goals like, I want to understand the math ideas well enough to explain to someone. In general, it is best to start with the students’ ideas and then help turn those ideas into (SMART) goals.
4: Reflect and Revise
Periodically, perhaps every grading period, students should reflect on and revise their goals as needed. Make space for this conversation to occur. If students have not met a goal by a particular deadline, invite them to reflect on why that is the case and revise their strategies as needed. This should be an iterative process that is revisited throughout the year.
For those of you at the end of term, you might invite your students to start reflecting on their progress throughout the year. If you’ve already finished for the year, maybe you can think about how to incorporate goal-setting early at the start of next year. For those of you who already do this, I’d love to see samples or hear stories of how it works for you and your students!