Setting Personal Goals Fuels Academic Growth

By Kathleen Cushman, co-author, Belonging and Becoming (Harvard Education Press), and
Wendy Baron, Chief Officer, Social and Emotional Learning, New Teacher Center 

Born in the U.S. but raised in the Dominican Republic till the age of 9, Luis entered grade 4 in Springfield, MA without a word of English. It took him a year to learn “how to defend myself,” he said, and he dreaded the state’s annual high-stakes exams.

When he transitioned to a grades 6–12 school, his anxiety continued. “I did not even know how to introduce myself,” Luis recalled at 16. But he discovered a huge advantage at his new school: its belief that social and emotional competencies build young people’s academic muscles.

Through team-building games and other activities, Luis said, he got practice in “how to do this friendship-bond thing.” In advisory groups, students themselves affirmed the traits they most valued— respect, courage, responsibility, friendship, cultural sensitivity, perseverance, and self-discipline—and agreed to use them as school-wide behavioral touchstones.

Each year, students at the school lead three parent-teacher conferences, reviewing their personal and academic growth and setting new goals. And Luis was already preparing for the high-stakes “Passage Portfolio” required before entering grade 11. There he would present and defend his work (including a physical challenge and a service challenge) before a panel of family members, community guests, teachers, and students.

By 16, Luis saw himself as someone who could “take on challenges that not everyone will take.” He said, “Courage means to confront your fears, keep it going even though it’s hard. I can look at myself in the mirror now, and definitely say who am I as a person.”

Recent good news added extra pride to his conviction: Luis had that week passed the high-school exit exam he had been working toward for years.

Their ‘Possible Selves’: Coaching Students in Goal-Setting

Students like Luis thrive when they and their teachers have access to “inside information” — not just test scores, but a range of social and emotional factors that have significant effects on academic performance.

And when young people get regular practice in identifying and monitoring their personal and academic goals, they have a key advantage. They begin to envision their future “possible selves” — as a person, as a learner, and as someone whose work matters in the larger world.

Coaching students’ goal-setting process can fit neatly into other teaching priorities, because it develops the skills and habits that underlie successful learning. Here are its key steps:

  1. They self-assess, identifying their strengths and areas for growth in various areas.
  2. They set one goal in a particular area.
  3. They make a specific action plan.
  4. They review the results, reflect and share with others, and revise the goal. 

Partnering with researchers at Kansas University’s Center for Research and Learning, New Teacher Center helped develop a curriculum called Possible Selves, including simple and powerful tools for self-assessment, action planning, review, and reflection.

This NTC video shows fifth-graders in Oakland, California mapping their hopes and dreams on large drawings they make of a “Possible Selves Tree.” Labeling its three limbs as person, learner, and worker, children depict their future hopes and dreams. Factors that nurture or threaten their goals show up as well, perhaps as fertile soil or lightning bolts. Their teacher models the process by drawing her own tree, and continually elicits the children’s ideas through reflective questions.

No matter how one does it, starting with personal reflection primes the pump for academic development. At 14, Garlyn followed directions and earned satisfactory grades. But when her ninth-grade advisory class filled out a self-assessment profile, she realized that she usually avoided trying new things, because she wasn’t completely sure they would go well. She set herself the goal of “taking positive risks” and began using that new mindset to looking at her habits as a learner.

“You don’t always get the results that you want when you take a risk,” Garlyn reflected later. But otherwise, “you’d always be questioning yourself saying, “What if I’d said this?” Or “This coulda happened and somebody else did it . . . Why didn’t I choose to do that as well?” [Garlyn video, You’d Never Know, 41 sec.]

Looking ahead to his “possible selves” in the workplace, Max, 16, took a rueful view of his chances. Any future job would require organization skills, his teachers had made clear, and that was “something I’m not really all that good at.” Reticent by nature, he also knew that networking skills also played a part in career success. He decided to work first on the executive function skill of “organizing your stuff so you can do it.” Next, he would tackle the skill of active listening, to develop his social network.

The ‘If–Then’ Strategy

We experience more success if we set one manageable goal at a time and anticipate what might block us from it, according to several decades of social psychology research. The very act of stating our intentions in “if-then” form (e.g., “If situation x arises, then I will . . .”) makes it more likely that we will respond in a way that supports our goal.

For example, one intervention by University of Pennsylvania researchers asked middle school students to name what stopped them from persisting at a difficult task—and then name one thing that could keep them going. The study showed that classroom behavior, grades, and attendance all improved as these early adolescents practiced this fundamental self-regulation skill.[1]

To help teachers make similar interventions in the classroom, the nonprofit Character Lab partnered with social psychologists Gabriele Oettingen and Peter Gollwitzer on a simple goal-setting strategy they call WOOP (standing for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan). A free toolkit for teachers offers downloadable worksheets and other materials, and a 4-minute video describes how one school uses WOOP in advisory groups.

Using guided imagery, teachers prompt students to visualize:

  1. A Wish — something they really care about, and is challenging but feasible
  2. The best Outcome if that wish were fulfilled, and how that would make them feel
  3. The Obstacle (something they feel, do, or say) that keeps them from accomplishing it
  4. One “if-then” action they will Plan to take, to overcome the obstacle.

Such a protocol helps young people develop the crucial sense of agency, which results from choosing one’s own goals and reaching them through effort. For example, Wedjeena, at 14, typically grew discouraged when looking for evidence to include in text-based analysis essays. In a conference with her English teacher, she developed a strategy where she stopped, took a break, and then went back to the task.

[1] Duckworth, A. L., Kirby, T. A., Gollwitzer, A., & Oettingen, G. (2013). From fantasy to action: Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions (MCII) improves academic performance in children. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 4, 745-753.

At Regular Intervals: Review, Reflect, and Clarify the Goals

It helps to set aside time for students to review their goals, reflect on their own progress, and revise them. For example, one high school in New York City has made such self-monitoring a school-wide classroom strategy, aligned with a Common Core standard for speaking and listening. Every time students engage in academic discussions, they use a simple worksheet to follow this protocol:[1]

[1]From Higher-Order Thinking Through Daily Academic Discussion:Tools and Practices for Supporting Overage, Under-Credited Adolescents in Learning. Developed by Metropolitan Diploma Plus High School in collaboration with Eskolta School Research and Design and NYCDOE Office of Postsecondary Readiness.

  1. Before their discussion starts, they select one of “today’s skills” as their personal goal (g., “I will paraphrase what other people said to show that I understood their claims”).
  2. After their discussion, they write brief self-reflective answers to prompts: “What did you do well in the discussion?” “Were you able to achieve your goal?” “What is one skill you want to build on for the next discussion?”
  3. An “exit ticket” prompts them to note “two things you learned from your partner(s) during the discussion” and also to identify a “big idea,” draw a conclusion, or reflect on a change in their thinking.

The Expeditionary Learning (EL) network of schools also emphasizes student goal-setting in its school-wide structures. All students, for example, take the lead at regular conferences between teachers and parents or guardians. They identify and revisit their goals, presenting evidence of progress in both academic and social-emotional areas. (Expeditionary Learning makes available three video examples of actual student-led conferences at the elementary, middle school, and high school levels.)

As a sixth grader new to that experience, Griffin found it challenging to speak to his parents about his weaker areas, not just his strengths. “You’re admitting when you’re wrong,” he reflected, two years later. “And that’s when the most growth happens.”

Goal-Setting as a Collaborative Effort

Students may also collaborate with peers in setting and reviewing goals, especially if they have practiced the skill of giving feedback in non-judgmental ways.

One grade 5 teacher, for example, starts the year by introducing a class-wide goal, “Stretch + Support = Shared Strength.” Every month, she uses a collaborative protocol as a way for students to review and address the obstacles to reaching that goal. It works like this:

  • On “goal review day,” her students reflect on an obstacle they encountered with either “stretch” or “support” in their own learning. (Example: “I didn’t understand the questions on the test.”)
  • Writing their personal obstacle on a strip of paper, students hand it in anonymously.
  • Every day that week, the teacher distributes different examples to students in small groups.
  • The group brainstorms possible action steps to counteract the obstacle, discusses pros and cons, and chooses one or two they think would help.
  • Groups report out to the class on the obstacle and the action steps they chose.
  • At the end of the week, each student writes down a new action step and commits to try it.


It takes about 45 minutes for students to brainstorm in groups, report out, and decide individually on an action step, this teacher noted. But over the months she can see its effects: “The children really develop a culture of ‘shared strength,’ by helping each other with challenges.”

At the end of the year, she plans a wrap-up ceremony, in a format inspired by the World Café protocol. On their table charts, students share their ideas about this important question:

“When we help each other overcome obstacles and reach our goals, how does our class become a better place to learn for all of us?”

That “better place to learn” — otherwise known as NTC’s “optimal learning environment” — grows from a deep commitment to knowing our students well in every dimension. When we support their social and emotional development by helping them learn to set important goals for themselves, we are nurturing the crucial sense of agency that will launch them into adulthood.

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