A recent post, 3 Reasons Why Students Have Trouble Setting Goals, has quickly become one of my top five most visited posts and has become my top "+1'd" article. To recap, those three items are:
1. They do not get specific enough.
2. They confuse "get better" goals with "be good" goals.
3. They have trouble navigating the "why" and the "what"
As a follow up, here are three suggestions for how to help students set goals.
1. "Let go of the reins."
Goals that we set for ourselves have a better chance of being followed through on than those given to us by others. This is true for your students as well. When you start the goal setting process, give students a chance to set any goals they want. Avoid trying to "help them" set the best goals at first. This allows students to gain ownership of the process and also provides a place for you to coach them as they move forward. If you try to get too involved at the onset, they will turn to you to direct the whole thing, and that will not produce goals to which they are truly committed.
2. Provide feedback, guidance, and suggestions one-on-one.
As the student's coach, mentor, teacher, etc. supporting the student's effort to set good goals includes providing feedback, guidance, and suggestions. This is especially true while students who are new to the goal setting process work through some normal difficulties. Goals, particularly those self-selected, are usually not items that students will feel comfortable discussing in a group. When goals have been met, then it may be a good exercise to ask students to share their goals and how they were achieved. However, in the early stages of development, your feedback on the self-selected goals should probably be given in private one-on-one sessions. More likely than not, the initial set of goals that you see will include the problems I listed above and wrote about in 3 Reasons Why Students Have Trouble Setting Goals. The feedback you provide should allow the student to refine their goals, not change them to be the goals you would have chosen. When this phase ends, the student should still recognize the goals as her own, but in a format that is easier to understand and clearly speaks to exactly where the student wishes to go.
3. Include check points.
When I was a child, I remember playing with toy cars on a track. The cars would be propelled around the track as they reached one spot where a device with spinning wheels caught the car between the wheels and provide a push designed to get the car around the track once again. When helping students with their goals, I find it important to remember that without a method to periodically provide renewed focus and energy, many goals will be lost. Therefore, with any plan to attain goals, a specific schedule that allows you to review and celebrate progress is essential for students. We see examples of this in many areas. Video games have "chapters" and check points where the game can be saved, credits earned, etc. On television, weight loss shows have weigh-ins, social support groups have meetings, etc. In almost every important endeavor, there is some method for frequently sharing feedback and reviewing progress. If the goals your student has set are important, then it seems obvious that such feedback come frequently and on a previously agreed upon schedule.
Of all the information students can provide, knowing where they want to go and what they want to accomplish should be among the top five. Students often have goals in their head, but rarely do they go through the exercise of truly working on them in a deliberate and meaningful way. Even if the goal is to simply pass a difficult course (a "be good" goal that will need to address "what" questions), being able to provide guidance and support can have a positive impact on the student's chances of achieving that goal. Even if you are not a goal setting expert, using these three techniques can at least provide enough support to keep the student moving forward until you can help identify a partner to help you maintain the student's momentum.