If I have learned nothing else as an educator, I have learned to NOT underestimate what a motivated student, who sets appropriate goals and follows through on a relevant plan of action, can accomplish. That is why coaching students about how to set goals and create action plans is such a powerful tool for student achievement. Unfortunately, this is another area that most teacher preparation courses do not address. Since anything you accomplish can basically be attributed to attaining a goal, helping students set and attain goal
Here are 3 reasons students have trouble setting (and attaining) appropriate goals.
1. They do not get specific enough
Often students need prompting to get specific about what they want to accomplish and how they plan to do so. Without clear and thoughtful ideas, most goals will not be met. A few classic unspecific student goals and plans are "to get a higher grade", "to do better", and "to work harder." If you hear your students telling you one of these (or a version of one of these), ask the student what she means by X. Make the student be as specific as they can. Be prepared for the student to possibly get frustrated with this exercise because it may be a totally new way of articulating goals, which can be difficult for some students to grasp at first.
2. They confuse "get better" goals and "be good" goals
This topic alone could fill a book. Basically, students sometimes need help figuring out how to set goals from a growth mindset (get better) and from a fixed mindset (be good). If students are trying to accomplish a "get better" goal by using "be good" strategies, they can get frustrated by the process - which may lead to them giving up too soon. If students are trying to "get better", their focus, goals, and plans should center around their effort and progress. If a "be good" goal is being pursued, focusing on what needs to happen in order to achieve a certain outcome is appropriate.
3. They have trouble navigating the "why" and the "what"
The two questions most students want to answer are "why" and "what". Those are both perfectly reasonable questions and are both good starting points for setting goals. The challenge comes when students are asking the wrong question, thereby setting goals that do not seem to ever move the student closer to where he wants to go. Navigating "why" and "what" is not terribly difficult but it does require close attention to the student. In most cases, a student who is having trouble understanding a new or particularly difficult concept may ask, "Why do I need to know this?" but the better question is, "What do I need to do to better understand this concept?" Likewise, a student who has mastered a concept may ask, "What else do I need to know?" but may get much more satisfaction by asking, "Why does this concept have relevance to my future?" Picking the right question will help put the student on the most effective and productive path, thus leading to a more appropriate goal.
If you are looking for a good reference to use in helping students set and attain goals, I highly recommend Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals