Teaching Goal-Setting and Self-Monitoring to High School Students

Goal setting and self-monitoring are two of the most important skills I teach as a high school special education teacher. The bonus is that, while I’m teaching skills that are valuable and transferable in themselves, my students also become more focused and motivated to learn my course content. I’ve included some printable resources at the end of this post to share some of the resources and tools I use to embed teaching goal setting and self-monitoring into classroom routines.

The students I serve all have disabilities and have been identified as at-risk for dropping out of school or leaving school without meeting diploma requirements. Most are disengaged from school activities and some have chronic truancy. Their needs are complex, and many have issues outside school that sometimes seem insurmountable, like homelessness, involvement with juvenile justice, unmet healthcare needs, and teen pregnancy or parenthood. The teachers and administrators who refer them often describe them as unmotivated, since many seem to have given up any hope of succeeding in school.

My students have something else in common: They all have goals. They all have aspirations for the future. What they don’t always have is the ability to clearly articulate their goals and keep themselves on track to succeed. While we may all experience these same difficulties to some degree, the students I serve are more likely to have deficits in what is termed executive function, a set of cognitive skills related to the ability to self-regulate and set or follow through on their goals. So by explicitly teaching them how to set clear goals, follow through, and reflect on the process, we teach them critical skills that can transfer to every area of their future lives.

Teachers all know that we must explicitly explain our objectives for each lesson, and we’ve all been observed and evaluated on how many times we point out those objectives to the class while we teach. But isn’t it even better when the students themselves approach the lesson with their own learning objectives?

So how do I get students to write and monitor their goals?

  1. My first job is to convince them that the content I’m teaching is relevant to their lives. Since almost every student I teach wants to live independently and have his or her own money one day, we start with resources like www.mynextmove.org to learn what kinds of jobs they’re interested in and the requirements for the jobs they want. Most jobs require a high school diploma, and many also require additional certifications or diplomas, so the majority of students accept the idea that gaining credits toward graduation is necessary. I want much more from them than this in the long run, but this is a good place to start. Once they agree they need to earn the course credit, I share the course standards with them (often broken down into more easily understood units) and have them identify what they most need to learn and write their goals based on these standards.
  2. I also talk to students about what makes school so discouraging and I’ve heard them say over and over that they are tired of failing and not understanding what is going on in the classroom. From there, I can usually convince them that if I can help them get caught up and learn skills they missed in earlier grades, their classes will be less stressful. I have them look at their unit grades and test results to identify the skills that are holding them back. These prerequisites form the goals for many students.
  3. Some students don’t buy in to the importance of learning the course content, so I take a different approach. I often share the employability skills needed to get a job they want, and they might write their goal based on those skills. Here is a description of some of those skills, again from http://www.mynextmove.org

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4. Once the student has a goal in mind, we start drafting and revising our written goals. We keep improving the goals until they are clear and attainable. I ask students to self-assess their own written goals using a rubric, and I provide specific feedback as they revise.

5. Once the goals are written, we don’t just tuck them away to be forgotten. The students regularly assess their progress toward meeting the goals. We use a variety of journal reflections, checklists and exit slips to monitor how they are progressing and how they can keep growing and learning.

Printable Resources

  • This is my “go-to” goal setting worksheet that I modify for different settings and student needs. I have tried to word it to encourage the students to set personal learning goals instead of performance goals. Here is a link that compares the two types of goals.  I don’t ask the students to set learning goals for the whole year. They start a new set of goals with each unit they begin. The top half of this form is for writing the goals, and the bottom is used to self-monitor progress: MyClassGoals  Here is an example of one completed:
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  • I use this rubric to provide feedback on student goals, which they can use for revising and polishing: SettingGoalsRubric
  • Some students need more explicit instruction to understand differences between the expectations in different settings. This is a form I use to brainstorm expectations: Self-AssessmentMeetingExpectations Here’s an example of one that has been completed.
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  • Once we’ve clarified the expectations, I create quick self-assessment checklists for students to monitor their behavior toward meeting those expectations. Self-evalExpectations
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  • Some of the kids I serve with autism need some visual reminders to keep themselves on track in their general education classes. Here is an example of a self-monitoring sheet with visual reminders:
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The powerpoint presentation I recently used when presenting this information at the TN Edu CTE Institute is available here: Leech-Embedding Personal Goal Setting and Monitoring in the Curriculum

As always, I’d love any feedback on these tools.



Embracing a Buzzword: Personalized Learning

It’s in my nature to bristle at slogans and buzzwords. I’ve taught long enough to know that buzzwords are easy to toss around, much harder to understand, and nearly impossible to transform into effective change. So when I first heard the term “personalized learning”, I questioned it. Does it mean we cater to the whims of every child? Is it just another word for “blended learning? How is it different from the individualized education plans we write in special education?

While I still question the ways I hear the term used, even by many who style themselves as experts in personalized learning, I think I’ve clarified what it means for me, the extent that I am already using it, and how embracing the buzzword might help me move my program toward richer student gains.Read More »

Guest Post: Guidance from the Community College Level

Course Pathways Sample
A sample page from the set of spreadsheets Al describes as “50 course pathway templates: one master for graduation requirements only, then 41 technical program templates, followed by the six transfer and two other community college technical program templates.” He considers these plans as “starting points” to be used in personalized planning.
In my article, “Rethinking High School Pathways” in this month’s Educational Leadership magazine, which the publishers have allowed me to link here without the paywall restriction, I discuss the need to provide alternatives to the one-size-fits-all high school diploma. Personalized guidance counseling is one of the key ingredients for the development of pathways that students can follow to connect their high school level studies to their personal career goals. Too often, high school guidance counselors have little time to do more than ensure students meet minimum, generic high school graduation requirements with a few CTE elective credits thrown in to fill the gaps. I wrote that many of the students I serve need clear pathways to follow into their chosen careers, but that these are often unavailable to those who don’t choose a career requiring a 4 year degree.
Shortly after the article appeared, I received an email from Al Scheider, a community college guidance counselor who has been working to develop individualized pathways that bridge the gap between high school coursework and post-secondary certifications and degrees. I was intrigued by his work, which he described as follows:
“Last year I was hired by our local community college to develop course pathways from every high school in the community college district into every technical program at the college.  I expanded that to also include six types of “transfer pathways” and references to “unique” technical programs at nearby community colleges.”

What if all high school guidance counselors could coordinate with their local community college and technical school guidance counselors to provide clear pathways like this? Even though most of the credits at the high school level must still fulfill broad, generic high school graduation requirements, pathways like this just might clarify the progression enough to keep some of my students motivated to continue.

Pathway to Individualized Focus

submitted by Al Scheider

As an academic adviser for Political Science majors at Illinois State University in 1972-73, the value of one-to-one communication became apparent to me.  During that assignment I also became aware that Political Science majors were in that major for a variety of reasons.  Therefore, I developed seven Poli Sci “career paths”, encouraging particular courses within the department to both “check out” and pursue more specific fields within the political world.

For the next 20 years I worked in a variety of settings.  In a state government agency and a couple of non-profit organizations there were many committee assignments.  From that type of work, I concluded that the bigger the committee, the less effective.  In other words, a two-person committee was much more effective than a seven-person committee.  In my early teaching days, I also learned that disciplinary or academic communications were much more effective when they occurred away from the class (either outside the room or after class).  In all these situations it seemed like the one other person was so much more genuine when not having to impress or “be cool” in front of others.

Finally, in both my training for and experience as a school counselor, the importance and effectiveness of a genuine one-to-one communication has become so apparent to me.  After many years of developing an individualized-focus guidance program, surveys of graduating Seniors exhibited very high rates of satisfaction with that program (over a three-year period, 87% satisfied, 3% unsatisfied).

Twenty-one years after starting to work as a school counselor, I enjoy warm greetings on almost a daily basis from former students and their parents.  I believe that strong positive reaction is attributable to the individualized nature of my program.  Not only did I not assume that any two individuals would follow the same path in school/life, I also tried to meet the diverse needs of each student as best I could.  While the personal needs were too diverse to categorize, some similar academic pathways were developed to give students a starting point to both “check out” and pursue stated career fields of interest.

After years of researching college program requirements, my work culminated in a course pathways project for my local community college.  After studying the curriculum guides for each high school in the community college area, reviewing those guides with the respective school counselors, and consulting with the technical program heads of the college, course pathway spreadsheets were developed for each high school.  Each spreadsheet has 50 templates:  one master for the high school’s graduation requirements, 41 technical program templates leading into AAS/certificate programs at the local community college, two templates for transfer into unique programs at nearby community colleges, and six “academic transfer” templates.  Every student in the area school districts can therefore easily obtain a six-year plan if intending to go to the community college or a 4-by-4 plan if intending a direct-to-university path.  With fifty possible “starting points” for student planning at each school, my basic belief in the unique desires/goals of every student has been at least partially addressed.