Effective Classroom Practice: Goals
Students are less likely to become discouraged during long-term tasks when they set short-term goals. An appropriate level of challenge can be achieved by adjusting goals for students with varying skill levels.
- Create short-term (proximal) goals. Although the long-range or distal goal is important for students to keep in mind, progress toward a long-term goal is sometimes difficult for students to gauge. Proximal goals can raise self-efficacy simply by making a task appear more manageable, and they can also enhance perceptions of competence by giving continual feedback that conveys a sense of mastery (Harackiewicz, Manderlink, & Sansone, 1992; Schunk, 1984a, 1990, 1991).
A study by Bandura and Schunk (1981) demonstrates the advantage of proximal goals. They gave elementary-school-age children seven sets of subtraction problems to work on over seven sessions. Children were told either to complete one set each session (proximal goal), to complete all seven sets by the end of the seventh session (distal goal), or simply to work On the problems with no mention of goals. The proximal goal situation led to the highest self-efficacy and subtraction skill. Students in the distal goal condition performed no better than did students who were given no specific goal.
Some students are overwhelmed by large, multidimensional projects. These projects can easily be broken down into sections with independent due dates and feedback. If students focus their attention on the section at hand, the task will seem more manageable. As children develop skills for planning and organizing, they should take more responsibility and require less assistance from the teacher in dividing tasks up into smaller units.
- Vary goals among students. While it may be realistic for some students to aspire to fill in a multiplication grid in 2 minutes, a 4-minute goal may be equally challenging for others. However, differential goal setting will work only if appropriately challenging goals are valued and reinforced, regardless of how one student's goals compare to other students' goals or achievements. Thus, completing the multiplication grid in 2 or 4 minutes needs to be reinforced in the same way, if these two goals represent equal levels of challenge for the students who set them. Research has shown that goal-setting has the best effects on performance when goals are specific (quantifiable or framed in terms of specific action as opposed to general terms, such as "I'll do my best"), and when feedback provides information on performance relative to the goal (Locke, Shaw, Saari, & Latham, 1981).
- Engage students in personal goal-setting. Students sometimes undermine their own self-confidence by aspiring to unrealistic goals and failing to meet them; or they set goals that are too easily reached and do not produce any learning. Teaching students to set goals is important because they will need this skill when their achievement pursuits are not monitored on a day-to-day basis. Personal goal-setting has also been shown to raise self-efficacy (Schunk, 1985a) and enhance performance (Hom & Murphy, 1985).
There is evidence that even young children can be taught to set realistic goals. Gaa (1973) demonstrated that first and second graders can develop skills in setting appropriate goals for themselves—ones that are challenging but likely to be achieved. Some of the children in the study met weekly with an experimenter to set goals for the next week and discuss achievements relative to the previous week's goals. These children subsequently set fewer and more appropriate goals at the end of the intervention, and attained a higher level of reading achievement than children without experience setting and reviewing personal goals. Having students graph their goals and accomplishments can also help them develop skills in setting appropriate goals. (See also Tollefson, Tracy, Johnsen, Farmer, & Buenning,1984.)
a. Provide incentives for setting challenging goals. Students will sometimes take the easy route when there is no incentive to set challenging goals. This was demonstrated in a study by Clifford (1988). She provided fourth, fifth, and sixth graders with items varying in difficulty from the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills in mathematics, spelling, and vocabulary. When told to select any six problems in each domain, students chose problems considerably below their ability level. The low-risk-taking tendency increased markedly with each grade level, suggesting that as children get older they become less inclined to seek challenging academic tasks.
Students can be offered incentives to set more challenging goals. For example, more points can be given for more difficult math problems or spelling words. The overly ambitious student quickly learns that attempting words that are too difficult results in lots of "0's," while choosing words that are too easy results in a relatively low score. The number of points are maximized by selecting the most difficult words that the student is likely to spell correctly. The effects of such a system were documented by Clifford (1991) on her problem choice task, described above. When points were linked to the difficulty level of problems (that is, more points were given for more difficult problems), children were more willing to take risks.
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