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What Teachers Should Know About Student Goal Setting

Intention increases student motivation and academic achievement.

When a student sets academic goals, it helps them focus, creates motivation in their schoolwork, and allows new—more positive—behaviors to form. As motivational speaker Tony Robbins has pointed out, “Setting goals is the first step in turning the invisible into the visible.” 1 Every teacher can incorporate goal setting into their lesson planning by embracing a few techniques and using two basic forms of goal setting in the classroom:


  • Mastery goals involve learning a task, technique, or methodology. These can create a “motivational pattern and deeper level of engagement,” according to Aleidine Moeller, a professor at the University of Nebraska.2
  • Performance-based goals encourage students to tackle an assignment and complete it with excellence. “Performance goals focus on one’s ability and sense of self-worth,” Moeller explains. “Achievement is measured by doing better than others and, more importantly, the recognition from superior achievement.”2

Most often, teachers stress mastery goals as a teaching strategy, encouraging students to study a topic instead of emphasizing the end goal, such as achieving an A on a test.

Why Goal Setting Matters
Research indicates that goal setting can impact student motivation and academic success. The American Institutes for Research asserts that setting goals can fuel “students’ learning-to-learn skills, such as a sense of agency, intrinsic motivation, and capacity to manage their own learning.” 3 Academics have studied goal setting since the 1960s, according to the organization, and the results indicate that many benefits may come from creating such yardsticks—and these apply to K–12 and college students across a broad cross-section of subject areas.

Some students look to obtain a “mastery” goal orientation by focusing on learning new information or skills; others, who are more interested in finishing assignments to gain a reward or recognition, are invested in more “performance” goals. While many studies indicate that goal setting offers educational benefits, the outcome may also rely on the type of goals sought and student investment in them.

How to Use Goal Setting With Your Students
Teachers can encourage students to set their goals through various channels, including group meetings, one-to-one advising sessions, or daily lesson plans. Academic goals should encompass a few factors:

  • Be specific. Tell students to focus on exactly what they want to achieve. If they want to become better at science, for instance, they should focus on one or two steps that would get them to that goal. For example, their goal might be to do science homework every night and get extra help weekly.
  • Measure progress. A student should know when they meet their goal—or at least understand that they are making progress toward it. So what does that look like? One way is to set milestones, acknowledge when each one is achieved, and define next steps (e.g., no longer needing tutoring in a subject area).
  • Make it attainable. An impossible goal merely frustrates a student. They need to know that while goals are meant to challenge, they must be achievable within the required time frame and with the resources they have. The goals should also be relevant to their ultimate objective.
  • Set a timetable. Goal setting should come with an expiration date. When will a student start working toward a goal, and when does completion happen?

These objectives, also known as SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound), provide a roadmap to goal-setting success. “Aiming for progress—rather than perfection—will allow students to maintain perspective, celebrate achievements, and continue persevering toward their goals,” says educator Nancy Barile in an opinion piece for Education Week.4

A MSEd Degree Can Teach You New Methodologies for Student Success
Teachers, like their students, are constantly learning. As an educator, you may be ready to pursue an online master’s in education that can provide you with more teaching strategies, such as goal-setting examples and techniques. Walden University’s online MS in Education program allows you to enhance your teaching skills in a flexible environment while you continue working. Walden offers three MSEd learning tracks:

  • MSEd Traditional: A more structured learning path for those who want a set course load and schedule. This 20-month education degree program is still manageable for working educators with limited free time.
  • MSEd Accelerated: Want to fast-track your degree? Earn your master’s in education in 12 months.5
  • MSEd One-Credit: This option allows you to finish your master’s degree in education in 12, 16, or 20 months—whatever works best for you.6

Those who want to earn a master’s in education online should already be experienced educators. About 920,550 new jobs in education, training, and library occupations are projected to become available from 2020 to 2030, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics,7 so it’s a good time to enhance your skill set with an online teaching degree.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering an online MS in Education (MSEd) degree program. Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.

5While the MSEd accelerated option is designed to be completed in 12 months, time to completion varies by student, depending on individual progress and credits transferred, if applicable.
6While the MSEd One-Credit 12-month, 16-month, or 20-month option is designed to be completed in 12, 16, or 20 months, time to completion varies by student, depending on individual progress and credits transferred, if applicable.

Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,