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How to Develop Student Learning Goals

In the teacher-centered classrooms of the past, instructors determined what students should learn and then measured their students’ progress against those aims. Today’s students, though, need to learn how to set and develop their own smart learning goals.

More and more of the responsibility for learning rests on the students. Developing curriculum is much more effective when the educator knows the learning outcomes for their students. Teachers can identify and establish learning outcomes, teach students how to set their own goals, and better use them in curriculum development. 

The Anatomy of Impactful Learning Goals

In their simplest form, student learning goals determine what students learn, and setting them allows teachers and learners to focus on the most important educational content.

Goals should be formed using the acronym SMARTER, which stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, timely, evaluated, and reviewed. SMARTER goals help students and teachers hone their focus and create fairer assessments than unwritten or undefined expectations do.

When educators teach students to define their learning goals, they start with the question, “What do you want to know by the end of this course?” This question goes a long way toward creating a specific and measurable goal.

Usually, these targets should start with a verb such as “calculate” or “apply.” It’s something the student should be able to do, not just something he or she knows and can regurgitate. Typically, objectives include both lower order skills and higher order ones based on Bloom’s taxonomy. Some examples might include basic knowledge such as “list” or “describe” along with application words such as “contrast” or “critique.”

Learning goals work in a three-tiered structure:

  • Activity-level goals: These small goals address outcomes from specific small portions of the course.
  • Unit- or topic-level goals: These medium-sized goals focus on general knowledge about a topic within the course.
  • Course-level goals: These are larger goals, and they determine what constitutes overall success in the course.

Educators and learners develop the content of the course around each of these three tiers.

Types of Learning Goals

The best learning aims are personal and tailored to the individual learner’s needs, opportunities, strengths, and weaknesses. While setting broad-based ambitions may be easier, it’s not typically as effective as creating focused objectives specific to the student. Some educators call these “personal learning objectives” instead of goals. Personal learning objectives typically include six types of goals, according to an article on Classcraft’s blog.

1. Short-term goals

Unlike goals that a student only achieves by the conclusion of the course, short-term goals give a learner something to celebrate along the way. These work especially well with younger students who may not have the patience or sense of time to understand a 10-week or 18-week goal.

Older learners also appreciate the chance to have some wins along the way, though. An example of a short-term goal for an elementary student might be reading one chapter in a book each night for a week. A short-term goal for a high-schooler might be selecting a college major.

Short-term objectives do not have to focus on academics alone. Student’s near-term aims might be personal, relational, emotional, or professional. Any course can equip students to grow in all those areas in some way. Learners simply need to determine their definition of success in the area they want to achieve in and create steps to get them there. 

2. Long-term goals

Long-term goals are ones that students work toward completing over the course of a semester or even a full school year. Sometimes, several short-term goals can lead toward a long-term goal. In all cases, a long-term goal should include benchmarks and a timeline.

Students and teachers can use the benchmarks to check progress they are making against the progress they expect to make. They can use the timeline to make sure they are staying on target to meet the goal in the agreed-upon timeframe. Long-term learning goals examples for students of any level might be improving a class grade by two letters over the semester. 

3. Work habits

While long-term and short-term goals focus on what information the student learns, work habit goals emphasize how the student learns. The purpose of establishing work habits goals is to help students identify their own areas of weakness and to set benchmarks for improvement. A good work habits goal might have to do with staying on task longer, working independently more often or starting projects earlier.

Using a self-evaluation chart, students can measure their own progress against their anticipated outcomes in this area. A self-assessment checklist can help students divide their ambitions according to theme, phrase them correctly, and then give them three or four options for determining for themselves how well they’re doing.

4. Subject areas

Teachers establish subject area learning objectives according to the textbooks or by aligning with national, state, or district standards. Some educators may tailor these expected outcomes to their unique classes, but in general, subject area goals have to follow previously agreed-upon content recall and skills development.

Students who set subject area goals simply identify a particular subject in which they plan to improve. The challenge with subject area goals lies in creating the SMARTER steps that lead a student to improvement. Learners could select a subject in which they wish to bring up a grade, or they could choose a subject they find particularly interesting in which to advance their level of knowledge.

5. Behavioral goals

Behavioral goals relate to social conduct and behavior management in the classroom. These might include having more patience with peers or being more polite to faculty members. Students and teachers may set these targets privately, or a behavioral goal might apply to the whole class. Often parents can be involved in helping students set, work toward and finally meet behavioral goals.

Like work habits, behavioral goals are often best evaluated by the students themselves, working with resources provided by the teacher. Few students will find the motivation to achieve behavioral goals unless they are intimately involved in setting them and evaluating their own progress against them. 

6. Specific knowledge goals

Students can establish a personal goal related to specific knowledge they want to acquire in a field or subject. This goal could be an addition to any other list of learning goals for students in a course. Learners might even establish specific knowledge goals in pairs or small groups and work on them together. Teachers can help students establish and meet specific knowledge goals by setting aside class time for learners to focus on activities that help them achieve these targets.

Defining the Learning Goal Outcome

How does an educator determine what they want students to know or do by the end of the course?

It’s a big concept, but writing a learning goal can be broken down into a series of actionable steps:

  • Determine the most important concepts covered in the course.
  • Establish an assessable definition and metric for the concepts.
  • Consider what questions a student should be able to answer at the conclusion of the course.
  • Determine the most important skills a student should develop and apply.
  • Ask how your course will help learners develop those skills.
  • Consider any emotional goals for the course. For instance, do you want to create a goal that students learn to love the subject?

One way that educators go through this process is to design their courses backwards. Using this approach, educators start with what they want to learn or what students themselves want to learn. From there, the teacher and student consider the skills needed to achieve this learning goal. At that point, the teacher can determine what content will help develop those skills.

Teachers who establish learning goals create classes where students achieve mastery. Those educators who step beyond that approach and help students set their own learning goals also create lifelong learners.

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