The Ins and Outs of Goal-Setting

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When students learn how to plan and execute attainable goals, it builds their confidence, helps them learn their capabilities, and gives them an understanding of the importance of celebrating the little victories. When students’ learning routines are disrupted and many traditional benchmarks of success are suspended or adjusted, it’s even more important to help students set clear and attainable goals. These goals may look different than the ones students set before the current health crisis, but encouraging them to be forward-thinking and find achievement in creative, alternative ways will help keep them on track. What follows are some strategies both you and your students can use to assess what motivates your goals, to generate intrinsic motivation, and to remain patient and encouraging through these difficult times.

Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivation

Goals generally fall into two categories: performance-driven and learning-driven. Students with performance-driven goals are developing extrinsic motivation, which is rooted in fear or avoidance of a potential repercussion, such as failure (Covington, 2000). These motives are evidenced by a student striving for good grades to excel over others, or raising their hand to be viewed as cooperative. Students with learning-driven goals are developing intrinsic motivation, which is rooted in desire and appreciation for knowledge acquisition. Another way to look at it is as a student competing with themselves, striving to reach their potential (Covington, 2000).

Research indicates that an individual’s intrinsic motivation is associated with a better ability to self-regulate and assess their learning, putting greater effort into the learning process, and experiencing higher satisfaction and less anxiety when faced with a setback or failure (Covington, 2000). In other words, the intrinsic motivation generated from learning goals typically brings more satisfactory outcomes and deeper student engagement than does an extrinsic motivation of performance goals.

To help students develop intrinsic motivation and the ability to set appropriate learning goals, have them practice the following techniques.

  • Create an optimal environment. Ask students open-ended questions to limit teacher talk (that is when the teacher primarily talks rather than encouraging discussion). Give students more of a stake in their learning and the chance to explore what interests them about a subject.
  • Give choices. Employ a strategy known as “academic choice,” when students not only make small decisions, such as which colored pencils to use or where to sit, but also larger ones, such as the learning strategy to be utilized for that day or the outcome they expect from a lesson (Denton, 2005).
  • Employ reinforcing language. Use language to reinforce positive behaviors rather than offering students a reward (an external motivator). Tell students exactly why their behavior was good for them. For example, instead of telling the student “Good job on your math,” say, “I see you used a few ways to solve those problems. That persistence helps you learn!” (Vincent, 2019; Mercier, 2015).

Setting Goals

Along with building students’ intrinsic motivation, teachers can help students set specific, attainable goals to help deepen engagement and motivate students from within (Covington, 2000).

To help students set achievable goals, try the following strategies:

  • Make it student-centered. Students are most successful in achieving goals that are aligned with their interests, so it’s important to let students take initiative in setting their goals (Demink-Carthew et al., 2017). Parents and teachers can help guide and revise student goals once they understand what the student wants to achieve.
  • Be specific. If a student wants to learn Spanish, help them set benchmarks. For example, set a goal to learn and use 50 new vocabulary words within a specified time span.
  • Make a plan. Help the student create a manageable plan once an attainable goal has been identified. For example, demonstrate how twenty additional minutes of Spanish practice each night would be required to meet the goal.
  • Model and provide accountability. Set a timer, sit with the student, and help them understand that this additional time is a necessary step to reach their goal.

Setting realistic, attainable goals allows the student to self-monitor and clearly see how they are doing, providing them with control over their progress. With that control comes patience and persistence, as students can understand what’s working and what isn’t and then adapt accordingly. When students are able to monitor themselves and make modifications about how to best succeed, they have a greater stake in their learning and will be more intrinsically motivated to reach their goals with confidence and clarity.


  • Covington, M. V. (2000). Goal theory, motivation, and school achievement: An integrative review. Annual Review of Psychology, 51(1), 171–200.
  • Demink-Carthew, J., Olofson, M. W., Legeros, L., Netcoh, S., & Hennessey, S. (2017). An analysis of approaches to goal setting in middle grades personalized learning environments. RMLE Online, 40(10), 1–11. 404476.2017.1392689
  • Denton, P. (2005, April 1). Academic Choice. Center for Responsive Schools.
  • Mercier, T. (2015, April 17). Teaching without using rewards. Center for Responsive Schools.
  • Vincent, K. (2019, November 20). Developing intrinsic motivation with choice. Center for Responsive Schools. https://www.