+ Helping Students Set Goals

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 An article in the Wall Street Journal by Sue Shellenbarger reports that a student’s ability to set and reach realistic goals is clearly linked to higher grades as well as lower college dropout rates and adult well-being.

Shellenbarger cites a recent study in the Journal of Applied Psychology

The researchers asked college students to complete an intensive written exercise in which they had to identify goals, and also map out steps to reach them.   These students posted a significant increase in grades as well as credit earned, compared with other students.

But students in the US, according to a Gallup poll last year, lack faith in their ability to reach goals.  Children begin to form ideas about what they might or might not achieve by the age of seven or eight.  

But the poll found that only 42% of students ages 10 to 18 say they are energetically pursuing their goals.  And only 35 % believe they could find ways around obstacles to their goals.

Students may struggle with this skill, writes Shellenbarger, partly because schools focus more on raising test scores or lowering dropout rates than on helping kids learn about setting and achieving goals.

Now, however, more and more states are mandating career planning for all students.  Goal setting is drawing increasing attention.

To help students remember the steps, schools often use the acronym SMART.  Goals must be

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Results (clear)
  • Time frame (set)

The concept of “Smart” goal-setting came into use by project managers in business during the 1980s.  Around a decade ago, educators began to embrace it as a method to help administrators and teachers set their own goals.  Recently, school districts moved this goal-setting approach into the classroom

At Bruce Jenner High School in Texas, test scores and state ratings have risen in the three years since administrators began a goal-setting program. 

At the beginning of every year, students use their own test scores to identify specific, measurable learning goals.  It might be achieving a certain grade: the student will set a  target date for achieving it and break that big goal into smaller steps.  He will write down the skills he needs to learn, name specific strategies and resources he will use to overcome obstacles (perhaps, spending more time on homework).

And teachers will help him track his progress each quarter.

Jackson Sikes’s mother says he has not only benefitted in the classroom, but he is now applying his goal-setting skills on the baseball diamond.  And his coach praises his achievements.

Jackson asserts that the approach “taught me to out-do other people.  Even though they might be better physically, I think I might be a little better mentally.”   

For example, Shellenbarger notes that student Renee Lamarque set a goal: to learn to dance en pointe in ballet.

Renee strengthened her muscles even when not in ballet class, doing sit-ups and exercises.  She wrote that she would “do different jumps every class” and “practice balancing on her feet.” 

 She also focused on role-models whom she wants to emulate.  That kind of intrinsic motivation makes goal-setting work for kids, according to Anne Cozemius of Madison WI, who works with school districts on goal-setting.

Another student in Falls Church VA set a goal of getting straight A’s.  She gave up time with her friends; she stayed after class to re-take tests or ask for a teacher’s help.  She hit her mark.

Dominique Morisano is assistant professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University, and author of the college goal-setting study.  She says that even when students cling to lofty ambitions, they sometimes set themselves up for failure.

They might say ‘I want to be a pediatrician,’ but they’re not attending school, they’re using drugs, they’re not taking care of themselves.

That can lead to hopelessness. 

A belief in one’s abilities to reach her goal is key to building a hopeful attitude, says Shane Lopez, a senior scientist in Omaha, who works for Gallup Inc.  A hopeful attitude is a high predictor of college success.

When David Schafer’s mother noticed that striving to compete with peers for high grades made him anxious, she encouraged him to set a different goal: making a traveling soccer team.

He failed his first tryout, but instead of giving up, he mapped out a new approach:  practicing at home, getting coaching and learning to visualize himself playing well.  He made the team for several years and his confidence bloomed.

David now knows that if he fails in some endeavor, there is always something else to strive for. 

What matters is the striving, writes Shellenbarger.  The striving instills a sense of mastery and confidence.  Says David, “If you aim to be No. 1 — even if you can’t achieve that in everything — you’re still going to do great.”

sole source: Sue Shellenbarger’s article in the Wall Street Journal on March 9, 2011.  http://www.wsj.com

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