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Setting and Achieving Personal Learning Goals

“If you don't know where you are going, you're likely to end up somewhere else.” (Lawrence J. Peter; American educator of “Peter's Principles” fame; 1919–1990.)

Personal Goals

Many students work hard but don’t feel they are achieving what they want to achieve and/or what others want them to achieve. They do not have clear goals in mind, nor have they identified good ways to measure the progress they are making toward achieving their goals. See

Quoting from the Wikipedia:

A goal is a desired result a person or a system envisions, plans and commits to achieve, a personal or organizational desired end-point in some sort of assumed development. Many people endeavor to reach goals within a finite time by setting deadlines.

Goals that come from within oneself and are integrated into one’s self concept are called self-concordant (intrinsic) or personal goals. Because such goals reflect an individual’s self-identity, self-concordant goals are more likely to receive sustained effort over time.

Continuing to quote from the Wikipedia:

In contrast, goals that do not reflect an individual’s internal drive and are pursued due to external factors (e.g., social pressures) … [are] more likely to be abandoned when obstacles occur. Furthermore the Self-determination Theory and research surrounding this theory shows that if an individual effectively achieves a goal, if that goal is not self- endorsed or self-concordant, well-being levels do not change despite goal attainment.

Quoting from

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) represents a broad framework for the study of human motivation and personality. SDT articulates a meta-theory for framing motivational studies, a formal theory that defines intrinsic and varied extrinsic sources of motivation, and a description of the respective roles of intrinsic and types of extrinsic motivation in cognitive and social development and in individual differences.

In each academic area of study, a student is apt to have some level of self-concordant academic goals (intrinsic) and some level of academic goals that are not self-concordant (extrinsic). Good teachers help students to develop personal self-concordant learning goals and to understand extrinsic, often school-or parent-imposed, goals that are not self-concordant but that often must be met for academic success.

Measurable Academic Goals

Quoting from

You cannot achieve success without working towards something that is measurable, memorable and attainable. Goals allow you to gauge when you have achieved success.

Once a goal has been set, it is necessary to have measures of progress toward achieving that goal. “I will study harder and smarter” is suspect as a goal. What does it mean to study smarter? How do you measure whether you are studying harder? How about the goal, “I am going to ‘ace’ tomorrow’s test.” What does it mean to “ace” a test? How do you measure progress toward doing well enough on the test to “ace” it?

As a teacher, would you like for a student to “ace” one particular test? Or do you want the student to develop a high level of understanding of the subject area that will provide a solid foundation for future learning and serve the student for years to come? How would you measure a degree of achievement in working toward this second goal?

We want students to learn to set clearly defined, measurable academic goals that allow them to both measure progress towards achieving the goals and to know when the goals have been met. We also want these goals to be of long-term value. Learning to learn, developing good habits of mind, and becoming an intrinsically motivated, self-sufficient learner are very important long-term goals. Notice that such goals are not currently measured on high-stakes state and national tests.

Going back to the “I will study harder and smarter” goal, a student can keep track of time per day or week spent studying, and can compare this with data from previous days or weeks. But there are “smart” ways to study, and there are less effective ways to study that lead to relatively little learning.

What does the student know about developing habits of effective study skills? There is a great deal of research on study skills. We know that many students multi-task while studying and doing homework. Thus, a student may be reading/studying an academic book while simultaneously doing one or several of the following: watching TV, playing a computer game, talking to a friend on a cell phone, and/or social networking via the Internet.

Research shows that this is not a very effective way to learn the content of the book or to master any other skill. For more about study skills see and This reference is but one of many excellent study skills reports by Annie Murphy Paul. You can use these to help in attaining your personal goals and in helping students with their own goals.

Self-assessment and External Assessments

How can a student measure progress toward achieving an education-related goal and, once achieved, measure how successfully the goal has been accomplished? Answers depend on the particular goal. For example, suppose a student sets a goal of completing a specific homework assignment, doing the homework well, and turning it in on time. The student can self-assess both success in doing the homework and success in turning it in on time. The student may think the homework has been done well, but this is sometimes hard to determine. Feedback from the teacher in the form of a grade, comments on the completed assignment, a personal word of congratulation, or other feedback can be of great benefit to the student.

Learning to do accurate self-assessment is a very important educational goal. A student can become better at this through practice and through making use of external aids to assessment. As noted above, a teacher can be a very helpful aid to external assessment. In addition, there are many other aids.

A very simple example of self-assessment feedback is provided by electronic or paper flash cards that are quite valuable in rote memorization. A cue is presented, a learner mentally forms an answer, and the answer is checked against what appears on a computer screen or is on the backside of the flash card.

Modern computer-assisted learning systems provide sophisticated feedback. These programs also provide additional instruction and retraining as needed, often repeating the cue and/or the test in slightly different formats. In addition, there are a host of self-assessment instruments available free on the Web. See

Final Remarks

Students of all ages can learn to set learning goals, and make use of personal and external feedback both on progress toward achieving the goals and on assessing the actual levels of achievement of the goals. Progress in this endeavor is a good indicator of growing cognitive development. See

What You Can Do

Help your students learn about personal goal setting in both school and non-school settings. Integrate personal academic goal setting into each subject you teach.

And, of course, all of the ideas in this IAE Blog entry apply to learners of all ages‑including teachers. “Practice what you preach.”

Suggested Readings from IAE and Other Publications

You can use Google to search all of the IAE publications. Click here to begin. Then click in the IAE Search box that is provided, insert your search terms, and click on the Search button.

Click here to search the entire collection of IAE Blog entries.

Here are some examples of publications that might interest you:


Costa, Arthur and Kallick, Bena (n.d.). Sixteen habits of mind. The Institute for Habits of Mind. Retrieved 7/4/2011 from

Eleven useful tips on setting goals and achieving them. See

Moursund, D. (2013). Self-assessment instruments. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 5/27/2013 from

Moursund, D. (2013). Self assessment. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 5/27/2013 from

Moursund, D. (2009). Becoming more responsible for your own education. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Free download available at

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Tuesday, 27 July 2021

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