By Aoife McLoughlin

18 May 2017 - 14:48

'With focus and attention, students can reach their learning goals and stay motivated.' Image (c) TeroVesalainen, licensed under CC0 and adapted from the original.
'With focus and attention, students can reach their learning goals and stay motivated.' Image ©

TeroVesalainen, licensed under CC0 and adapted from the original.

As a student, do you set learning goals for yourself, or leave this task to your teacher? Multiple winner of the TeachingEnglish blog award Aoife McLoughlin of ELT-Connect explains how to set learning goals.

Who is responsible for a student’s learning: teacher or student?

Both are responsible. However, a lot of students feel that if they are attending a class with a teacher, they don’t need to set their own goals. It is tempting to feel that the teacher is the expert and knows each student’s learning needs, so the student can sit back and relax while the teacher does all the hard work.

Unfortunately, if you are serious about reaching your goals, it isn’t quite that easy. It will be hard work, but with focus and attention on the areas you need to improve, students can reach their learning goals and stay motivated.

Why do students do better when they set their own goals?

Students who set their own learning goals tend to achieve more, compared to when they focus on goals set for them by a teacher.  According to research in this field (full reference at end of article), the behaviour that results from setting personal goals is empowering and proactive. When students identify what is important to them, they take control of their learning, becoming more autonomous and independent.

Setting individual learning goals means you are not simply passively absorbing information. You become an active participant in your own development. When you see progress, you feel more motivated, giving you the boost you need to keep going.

What's the best way for a learner to set goals?

It's worth setting time aside on a daily basis to set goals and reflect on your learning. It will help you become more aware of what strengths you have, and which areas need developing. This process of self-discovery is crucial to achieving your goals.

Here are two tools for you to use to help you achieve your learning goals.  The first is called a learning log, and the second is a GROW model.

The learning log

This is a practical tool to help you keep track of your learning for the week. It helps you focus on the specifics of what you have covered this week in areas such as grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. The tool gives you an overview of your week, and what you have done to review what’s been covered.

The very process of keeping a log will train your mind to focus on the detail of how exactly you are spending your time on a daily basis. This way, you can think about what changes you would like to make. You might find that you are not spending enough time on one area, such as grammar, and too much time practising your vocabulary. Your learning log will highlight this very quickly.

Example of a learning log

Draw a grid or table. Along the horizontal column, put weekdays: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.

Along the vertical column, put the areas you're focusing on, such as grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation and self study.

This is just an example – you should assign your own areas depending on what you are concentrating on.

Monday's column might look like this:

Grammar: present perfect – 'I have been to Dublin'

Vocabulary: Crime – a pickpocket, to mug someone, to shoplift

Pronunciation: -ed endings – eg: 'She was mugged' /d/

Self-study: revise vocabulary on crime and present perfect

GROW Model

Alongside your learning log, which helps you track your learning, consider what you want to focus on as your goal for the next day, week, month and even the year.

The GROW model has often been compared to how someone might plan a journey.

First you decide you would like to go to New York. This is your goal.

Next, you consider your current location in Dublin. This is reality.

Then you might think about what might get in the way of you reaching your destination, such as an expensive flight and accommodation and getting the time off work. These are obstacles.

Next, you start to consider what options you have to get there: maybe take on a second job, or cut back on spending to save money.

Finally, you decide what steps you will take to get to New York (way forward).

You decide to save an extra €100 per month for the next six months, while also taking on overtime in work when it arises. In six months, you will have reached your goal and will be happy that you focused on it.

Example of GROW model for a student

Here is an example of a student’s GROW model for the end of the month.  This student has difficulty speaking in front of her classmates and wants to focus on this for the next month.

First, she identifies her goal: to feel confident speaking English.

Next, she acknowledges her current reality: she is only confident speaking with a partner, not in front of the class.

She also considers what her obstacles might be, which may defeat her on her path to achieving her goal: fear of speaking, other students with a better level of spoken English.

She considers her options of how she can reach her goal: make more effort in group work, speak to more people outside of class.

Finally she plans her way forward: talk to the teacher and ask for topics the day before, and to join a speaking club.

What the GROW model might look like:

Draw a table and write Goal, Reality, Obstacles, Options, and Way Forward, spaced along the horizontal axis. Then add information to the columns below each section, as in the example below.

Goal: To feel confident speaking English (group work and with the teacher in class discussions)

Reality: Only feel confident speaking with a partner, doing exercises alone, and when allowed to use a dictionary for new words. Don't feel confident speaking to the teacher or answering questions in front of the class.

Obstacles: Confidence level. Afraid to speak in class. 'Other students have a better speaking level than me.'

Options: Make the effort to speak more in group work. Find a way to speak to more people outside of class time to build confidence.

Way forward: Ask teacher for discussion topics for the following day in order to prepare some vocabulary. This will help build confidence for now until it starts to become comfortable to speak with classmates. Meet more students by joining the speaking club.

Find a friend to help you stay accountable

It’s also motivating to have a ‘goal buddy’; a friend or classmate who is also focusing on a particular goal. The two of you can have a weekly meeting for five to ten minutes to discuss your goals openly and honestly with each other. You might be surprised at how much you achieve when you have to report in to someone.

Reference: Elliot, A. J., & Fryer, J. W. (2008). The goal construct. In J. Shah, & W. Gardner (Eds.), Handbook of motivation science (pp. 235–250). New York: The Guilford Press. 

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