Set goals, not targets

Written by: Matt Ward | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Goal-setting can prove aspirational and motivational for students and avoids the stress that can come with the traditional target-setting approach. Matt Ward explains

One of the things students need much less of today are “targets”. Setting targets sounds great to adults, but to students they can be next to meaningless. Worse, they are often a source of near constant stress.

The reason for this is because most students by key stage 4 know full well what their targets are, but those same students often have next to no clue about how to move towards achieving them. Critically, what is often missing from targets – be they aspirational targets or otherwise – is the detailed goal-setting that clarifies exactly how students are going to achieve this long-term vision for success.

Without telling students, in detail, how they are supposed to actually progress towards these defined end-points, targets merely become another burden.

What students need more of is effective goal-setting. Goal-setting involves the creation of individual action plans for each student. Done correctly goal-setting is bespoke to each student and successfully maps out how they are to get to their predetermined target or end-point.

Effective goal-setting gives students hope, lets them actively see the progress they are making on a day-to-day basis and sustains and reinvigorates their enthusiasm. But how, as teachers, do we go about setting effective goals for our students?

Think about your language

You are aiming to create “action items”, not merely to present students with a “to-do” list. Each action should be accompanied by a verb so that students are clear. For example:

  • “Attend every after school revision session,” is not the same as announcing revision will be on every Tuesday and Thursday nights.
  • “Read pages 10 to 15 of this revision booklet by tomorrow morning,” is different from handing out a thick revision document and assuming they can manage their own way through it.

You may think that much of this is self-explanatory and too simple. It is not. Follow this rule: be as specific about the simple things you expect from your students as you are about the more complicated matters. Believe me, many of your students need this level of direction.


Do not just be strategic, be tactical too. The strategic part of this process is acquiring the shared vision for a realistic end-point with each of your students. For example: “I want you to achieve a grade A in history.”

The tactical part involves you breaking this big picture down for them into much, much smaller achievable increments (and when I say smaller, for some students, I mean tiny increments).

Along with the overall strategic goals you must include the nuts and bolts of how, step-by-step, each individual student will achieve this. If a student’s goal is to get an A in history, this strategic aim must be followed by much more specific goals: “, you must memorise the terms of the Treaty of Versailles by the end of this week.”

Next week, there will be more specific and tactical goal-setting towards their target and again the week after, right up until they reach the very door of their examination.

Stop, reassess and redefine goals

In order for this to be successful teachers must reassess the progress individual students are making towards their targets regularly. Stop and reassess your action plan with students, ideally about once a month. This does not have to be a drawn out, formal affair. It can be easily managed as a part of the normal cycle of feedback we give after marking and assessing work, and can be as simple as a one-minute informal conversation during class.

It is essential though to continually reassess the progress that is being made and crucial that the direction students are travelling in towards their targets are tweaked and changed subtly from time to time as required throughout the course of a year to put them back on course.

Be time-specific

It is important to hold students to account for their progress, and one of the best ways of doing this is by including timelines so that students know not just what is expected of them but when things are expected.

Timelines provide students with an easy to grasp understanding of exactly what they need to do, in what order and by when, so that they can continue making progress towards their target. Timelines for students should include;

  • A breakdown of tasks to be completed.
  • The dates on which the tasks need to be completed.
  • The expected duration of each task.

Doing these things provides students with an accurate picture, broken down into small increments, of what is needed for them to maintain their progress and momentum. The timelines allow them to keep on track towards the end-point and, crucially, allow you to know when individuals are falling behind and potentially underachieving.

Identify obstacles

Trying to identify early on what might stand in the way of each individual’s success is an important part of this puzzle.

Equally important is being honest about it with students when challenges are identified. If playing computer games each evening is likely to be an impediment, or spending too much time with a boyfriend/girlfriend, raise it and be frank with the students. Be honest with their parents about the barriers to meeting goals as well.

Involve parents

A key component in the success of this process is the involvement of parents. Everybody needs to know what is expected of students at each point. We all need to be “singing from the same hymn sheet”.

Involving parents in this type of goal-setting develops a collaborative process between student, teacher and parents/carers, and provides another layer of support, guidance and encouragement for students along the way.

Be patient

This process is a marathon, not a sprint. Success is often incremental and slow, which is why vision is so essential. Where mistakes or failure occur, use it as an opportunity to further build and develop relationships.

Nurture your students and do not be overly quick to punish them if they do fail or flounder. Take your time, go slow, be specific and most importantly, never stop encouraging them.

  • Matt Ward is lead teacher for behaviour at an inner city academy. Follow him@MWardBehaviour.


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