Help Students Set Goals

Click for video about student goals.

The famous basketball player Michael Jordan wrote the following about goal setting in his book, I Can’t Accept Not Trying: Michael Jordan on the Pursuit of Excellence:

I approach everything step by step….I had always set short-term goals. As I look back, each one of the steps or successes led to the next one. When I got cut from the varsity team as a sophomore in high school, I learned something. I knew I never wanted to feel that bad again….So I set a goal of becoming a starter on the varsity.  That’s what I focused on all summer. When I worked on my game, that’s what I thought about. When it happened, I set another goal, a reasonable, manageable goal that I could realistically achieve if I worked hard enough….I guess I approached it with the end in mind.  I knew exactly where I wanted to go, and I focused on getting there. As I reached those goals, they built on one another. I gained a little confidence every time I came through.

…If [your goal is to become a doctor]…and you’re getting Cs in biology then the first thing you have to do is get Bs in biology and then As. You have to perfect the first step and then move on to chemistry or physics.

Take those small steps. Otherwise you’re opening yourself up to all kinds of frustration. Where would your confidence come from if the only measure of success was becoming a doctor? If you tried as hard as you could and didn’t become a doctor, would that mean your whole life was a failure? Of course not.

All those steps are like pieces of a puzzle. They all come together to form a picture….Not everyone is going to be the greatest….But you can still be considered a success….Step by step, I cant see any other way of accomplishing anything.

I Can’t Accept Not Trying: Michael Jordan on the Pursuit of Excellence is published by HarperSanFrancisco, a division of HarperCollinsPublishers (ISBN 0-06-25119)


An ancient Chinese proverb notes that no wind is favorable if one does not know to which port one is sailing. Goals provide a standard against which students can gauge their progress, and setting goals can have a substantial impact on student self-efficacy and achievement. Setting and measuring goals is probably the most effective classroom modification teachers can make to increase student confidence. When students achieve short-term goals, they gain an initial sense of self-efficacy for performing well, which is later substantiated as they observe progress toward longer-term goals. Goals are effective in two ways. First, they give directions for a student’s effort. Second, they provide a way to measure, and thus draw attention to, previous achievement. As mentioned earlier, past performance is the strongest indicator of self-efficacy, and helping students set, measure, and record achieved goals draws their attention to their past performance.

Smaller can be better
When it comes to goal setting, smaller is better. Help your students set small, achievable goals that can be accomplished quickly. As you work through a project or unit, you can help them set more difficult and larger, longer-term goals. During the initial phase of any project, short-term goals that ensure immediate success are essential. Young students, in particular, are not able to focus on long-term goals. One setback during a long series of successes with short-term goals is much easier to handle than a larger set-back with one long-term goal. As Michael Jordan’s advice at the right states, “Step by step, I cant see any other way…”

Research on Goal Setting
Ronald Taylor (1964) compared the goals of underachievers and achievers. He found that underachievers either had no particular goals, or if they did, aimed impossibly high. Achievers, by comparison, set realistic, attainable goals that were related to their school work.

Robert Wood and Edwin Locke (1987) found a significant relationship between goals and self-efficacy: Students with a stronger sense of efficacy also set higher, but reachable, goals. Wood and Locke also pointed out that more challenging goals usually prompt higher achievement. Challenge, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. Goals the teacher considers challenging may be seen as too stiff by some students, and laughably easy by others. The challenge for the teacher, then, is to assist students in setting reasonable goals for themselves.

Albert Bandura and Dale Schunk (1981) showed that when elementary students are taught to carve up large, distant goals into smaller subgoals, several useful outcomes follow: They make faster progress in learning skills or content, they learn an important self-regulation skill, and they improve their self-efficacy
and interest in the task. In every class, there may be some students who already are skillful at goal-setting. On their own, gifted students– especially gifted girls– make frequent use of goal-setting and planning strategies. But all students will profit from careful thought about their achievement goals. Dale Schunk’s (1985) study of sixth grade learning disabled mathematics students showed that the best learning occurred not just when the students focused on short-term goals, but when they also had a say in goal-setting. Students showed more growth in self-efficacy and math skills when they participated in goal-setting.

Specific goals are far more effective motivators than general ones, such as “Do your best.” When a student goal contains a clear performance standard, it cuts out a lot of guesswork about where to aim. Learning and self-efficacy are enhanced by specific goals, because it is easier for both teacher and student to gauge progress.

What to do…

  • Print the Michael Jordan goal-setting basketball story and share it with your student.
  • Work with your student to set three goals each week. A form (My Accomplishment Plan) is provided for the student to use. These goals should be sufficiently specific that it is easy for the student to recognize progress toward them. The goals should also be attainable…within the student’s reach with reasonable effort. Help the student set improvement rather than benchmark goals. For example, the student may decide to increase the number of homework assignments completed, as opposed to completing twelve homework assignments. The first promotes achievement while improving performance. At the end of each week, review the student’s Accomplishment Plan for the week and assist the student in developing new goals for the next week.

Check Your Understanding:

  • Since students with high self-efficacy set very challenging goals, teachers should encourage underachievers to set such goals.
    True   False

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