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Classroom Management, Teaching Tips & Tricks, Truth for Teachers Collective   |   Sep 29, 2021

How to create goals WITH students (not FOR them) so kids are invested in outcomes

By Katie McGrath

Middle School Instructional Coach

How to create goals WITH students (not FOR them) so kids are invested in outcomes

By Katie McGrath

We’ve all been there. Those challenging moments when we feel like the students aren’t learning as we hoped they would.

In this struggle, I realized the answer I had been looking for was exactly what I was doing that very moment. Through my own reflection, I recognized there was a lack of purpose and ownership in the work my students were doing. Assignments, tasks were being given to students to complete, instead of creating goal-centered, meaningful learning experiences that gave students time to understand and process the content and skills being taught.

I came to understand the magic combining student-centered goals with reflection throughout the learning process. From the beginning of the unit until the end, inviting students to think about:

  • What goals am I working towards?
  • What strategies am I using to make progress towards my goal?
  • How do I need support from my learning community to reach these goals?
  • How have I grown alongside these goals? What do I now understand?

These 6 phases of Goal Setting & Reflection, not only help the learning stick, but invite the students to become powerful co-constructors of their learning.

Goal Setting and Reflection Process

Phase 1:  Students reflect on initial discussions, pre-assessments, and launching activities to select goals for the unit of study. Teachers and students talk about the goals that were selected and why students think that’s a good fit for them as learners.

It’s important to launch every new unit with excitement and curiosity. Use the first few days of a unit to engage students in routines that build enthusiasm for the learning ahead. Class discussions, mini-inquiry experiences, and goal curation all live in phase one.

Maybe you’re wondering, “How do I come up with goals if they aren’t embedded in my curriculum or units?” Or maybe you’re wondering, “How can students be involved in the creation of these goals?” The following steps help address these questions.

When you need to create unit goals

If goals aren’t part of your current units, start with the standards. Look closely at the standard and think about what it is asking students to do. Remember, oftentimes a standard is asking students to do multiple things. It’s totally fine to break up that standard into multiple goals. Then:

  1. Think about the role you want students to embrace during this unit. What role is this standard asking students to embody? Are our students readers, writers, scientists, problem solvers? Roles can remain consistent across goals or they can vary.
  2. Identify the verb or action in that standard. Again, there might be more than one.
  3. Choose a prioritized role and action. Put those ideas together and name it in kid-friendly language.

Here are some examples. Remember to keep your audience in mind. The language in your goals need to be accessible to your students. Conciseness and clarity are our goals!

Beyond the content standards, we can also include skill-based and work habit goals. These goals are often overlooked or it is sometimes assumed that students have these skills and habits to make them successful. It is important to explicitly name for students the skills and habits that we are working on — especially ones that coincide strongly with your unit of study. In doing this we use the same process: identify a role, name an action, and put that in kid-friendly language.

These might sound like:

When you want to involve students in the goal creation

Lastly, if we as the educator have some goals in mind, it is incredibly empowering for the students to share their input before you decide on the official unit goals. We could do this by:

  • Expose students to the content through immersion and mini-inquiries.
  • Encourage students to ask questions about the new unit or topic as they immerse in the new material.
  • Ask students to complete a pre-assessment. Name patterns you notice in these assessments and discuss this with the class.

When we look at students’ interests, questions, and pre-assessment information as a class, we can then determine the prioritized goals for the unit of study.

Once you’ve thoughtfully curated the goals, create a list of 4-5 goals for your unit of study. These are usually a combination of content-specific, skill-based, and work habit goals. Share and discuss these goals with students at the beginning of the unit. As a class community, come together to unpack the goals so that all students understand what the goals are asking them to do. Prioritizing 4-5 goals in a unit is a win-win for both students and teachers. Teachers get the benefit of a focused unit that isn’t about coverage of material, but rather a strategic roadmap that prioritizes learning. Students get the benefit of clarity and purpose. They know why they are engaging with this unit and what we are working towards.

Once the class has a shared vision and understanding of our new unit goals, let students select which two goals are the best match for their needs. Encourage students to share goals publicly in the classroom, perhaps posted on a bulletin board or digitally on a Padlet.

Phase 2:  Students make a plan for how they will reach those goals by setting intentions. Have students share these plans with their teacher and classmates.

Woohoo…students have selected their goals, but as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry reminds us, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.” Students need to see the process of creating a goal-centered learning plan through teacher modeling. We show the direct connection between what we’re teaching and the goals of the unit.

When creating a goal-centered learning plan, ask students to think about the actionable steps they will take towards their goal. Prompt students, “What will you do? What work will you try?” This is where the teacher planning comes in. If we’re asking students to do something alongside their goals, have we taught them how to do that? Have we modeled these skills and processes? Have we given students time to learn the necessary content? Have we given them time to practice these skills? For a student to commit to trying something on their plan, they need to have been taught how to do this first.

An important strategy in supporting students’ thoughtful planning is to keep anchor charts (hand-written or digitally) that are centered on the goals. Everytime you teach something alongside a goal, add that teaching point to that goal anchor chart. Bonus if you can hyperlink a screencast or resource for students to access this lesson again if they need to. These charts give students ideas of strategies, resources or tools they can incorporate into their plans and help them set clear daily intentions for work.

Here are some reflection prompts to support students when creating learning plans:

  • One tool I might use today is…
  • Today I might also try…
  • If I get stuck I will…
  • Yesterday I…but today I will…
  • Next week I plan to…

Samples intentions:

  • Today I will try a fact, react chart to support my goal of thinking beyond the text.
  • I might try to use a chart to collect the results of the science experiment. This supports my goal of organizing data in a thoughtful way.

The key parts of goal-based planning are: having students identify something they are going to try that day, that week, etc. and then directly stating how what they are trying supports their unit goal. This practice was transformative for my students. They now saw a direct connection between what they were choosing (not being told) to do and how those choices grew their learning around their unit goals.


Phase 3:  Students have time to reflect and decide to stick with a goal or enhance the goal.

Now that students have chosen their goal, tried some initial work with the goals, and created some goal-centered learning plans, encourage them to meet with a partner who has the same goal. The partners discuss their progress by sharing successes and challenges.

These reflection questions help guide the conversations:

  • Have I made progress towards my goals?  This means I am comfortable sharing what I have done so far with another classmate.
  • Have I attempted my goal but still have some work to do?  Meaning I’m still working on this and I still have some confusion. Let’s try to work through it together.
  • Have I attempted goal work at all?  If not, what can I do about this and why have I not attempted?
  • What strategies have I used?  Have they worked?  What strategies can I start to use?
  • Have I used a variety of strategies?  Which ones have supported my growth and learning?  What else can I try?

Having students meet in partnerships to reflect on their goal progress is important in helping the students develop metacognitive thinking. So far, we have chosen meaningful goals, learned some strategies and skills that support those goals, and tried out those strategies and skills. But remember learning isn’t linear and our intentions alongside our goals will change throughout a unit. Giving students space to talk about their progress so far helps them determine what they might need to do next in order to make continued progress towards their intended goals. Ask students to take some time after these partner meetups to think in these three buckets:

  • What am I going to continue to do? What is working for me? (I will continue to…)
  • What do I still need to do? Name those next steps (I will try…).
  • What do I want to change or adjust? (A shift I want to make is…)

Phase 4: Seek feedback alongside goals and make adjustments to plans.

This goal setting and reflection process encourages feedback in authentic ways. Throughout the process, both the teacher and fellow learners can provide supportive feedback that is anchored in helping the learners make progress towards their selected goal. Individual or small group conferences are a helpful structure for providing feedback. Teachers could pull individual students for personalized conferences or create targeted small groups of students based on identified patterns within a goal.

These conferences might go like:

Teachers can use these patterns and next step teaching points to support whole class and small group planning. As I work through conferences, are we noticing patterns that need to be addressed? I can use these patterns to create and plan lessons for the latter half of the unit. Are there misconceptions or gaps in student learning? Do students need additional modeling and guided practice? Students can use these conferences to update or add to their learning plans. Suggestions from the conference will go into their plans providing students with concrete next steps to make progress toward goals. Overall, Phase 4 allows us to really connect with students. We celebrate student success while also being responsive to student needs.

Phase 5: Reflect and teach to partner with the same goal.  What can you do in this final push? What do I need to do to get to where I want to be?

This phase echoes Phase 3 where the learners check-in with partners. The main difference is where we are in the learning process. Think of Phase 3 as the initial check, while this is the final push. As we near the end of our unit, “What do I now understand about my goal? What can I teach others? Is there any work I still need to do alongside my goal to meet my target?”

Have students get with partners. Support the conversation by offering these reflection questions:

  • What do I now understand about my goal?
  • What do I now understand about the unit? Why are we doing this work?
  • What strategies or techniques have helped me work towards my goal?
  • Do I feel like something is missing? What else do I need to do to get to the place I need to be?
  • How can I help you achieve your goals? 

Encourage students to take ideas from this reflection into their final push. It’s crucial to emphasize learning as a process and even though we are nearing the end, we have the opportunity to revise, try again, or start anew with a strategy or idea. Emphasize progress towards goals by taking actionable steps that support growth and learning.

Phase 6: End of Unit Reflection. Students make a plan for how they will share their growth with classmates and families. You may also want parents to respond with their thoughts on the student’s growth alongside their goal.

This is a time for celebration! Ask students to think about their goals and all the hard work they committed to during this unit. Share some reflection prompts:

  • What kind of learner [or fill in discipline specific word] were you before this unit and what kind of learner are you now? 
  • I used to be the kind of student who…But now I realize I am the kind of student who… 
  • What feedback have you used in this unit (teacher or peer) that helped you grow as a learner? 

Encourage students to create a reflection celebration which highlights their growth and progress throughout the unit. Students might:

  1. Create a timeline of their learning throughout the unit, noting their learning goals and why they chose those goals
  2. Annotate spots in their notebooks or work samples that show growth and understanding of their goals.
  3. List out the significant moments of learning and the activities or experiences that brought that learning (light bulb and gem).
  4. Name the most important feedback they received and how that feedback impacted their learning.
  5. Share learning alongside your goals that made the most impact.

Giving students ownership over learning goals and time to reflect and share their learning throughout a unit is equally as important as the content being taught. When we support this process by explicitly teaching reflection and giving students the time and space to do this work in class, we are helping to develop metacognitive thinkers who work with intent and purpose. And that’s a goal we can all get behind!

Katie McGrath

Middle School Instructional Coach

Katie McGrath is a middle school instructional coach in the Paramus Public Schools. Prior to coaching, she taught middle school language arts for 12 years. Katie has written literacy curriculum for middle school, and coaches in classrooms regularly. She had...
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  1. Hi Katie & Angela,

    Thank you for this great post about goal setting. I am currently learning about self-regulated learning in a university course, and a major piece of this is around goal setting. Working with students to create relevant and meaningful goals will foster a sense of autonomy for our learners and help them take ownership over their learning. I appreciate that in this article you mention multiple times that the teacher is still working with the student, prompting them, and asking reflective questions. While a component of self-regulated learning is having the student take more ownership over their learning, that doesn’t mean we completely abandon them and have them do it all. We are still mentoring and teaching them, guiding them, and recognizing what strategies they need at different steps along the process. I also appreciate that you have categorized this article into 6 phases as these phases reflect the Cycle of Self-Regulated Learning which includes planning/setting goals and strategies, using strategies and monitoring performance, reflecting on performance, and using results to guide future learning.

    You also mention skills-based goals or habit goals, which I really appreciate. A big learning piece for me has been the idea of two types of goals: learning goals and performance goals. Learning goals are about the process of the activity and the focus is on learning new skills or habits. An example of this is practicing a sport where one will learn and practice skills and work on strategy. The goal in this situation is to improve and learn skills. Performance goals are when we are performing or creating a product. An example of this is game time in sports. Someone is performing and using the skills they have learned to try to win a game. The goal would be to win the game. We should keep in mind what goals we are encouraging our students to create based on what the desired outcome is. I also think we should teach our students about these two types of goals so that they can better align their steps with their personal end goal.

    Thank you again for this great post. I love reading your blog and listening to the podcasts. I appreciate the great information you put into the world.

    Samantha Jarvis

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