Guide Students to Goals Using Action Steps

A MiddleWeb Blog

two_teachers-nobord-210The last few weeks have been jam-packed with discussions about goal setting. I’ve been brainstorming with teachers about monitoring their professional goals, as well as their daily lesson plan learning targets.

I’ve also been busy working with teachers to review students’ progress and performance as we monitor, review, and write goals for students’ Individual Education Plans (IEPs).

Come to think of it, setting goals is a tremendous part of our teaching and learning lives. But we must keep our focus on our behaviors and actions – not on our goals alone.

As I was reviewing and creating IEP and lesson plan goals with a few teachers this week, I found myself zooming in on a key point. In fact it is THE point of creating goals. And here it is…

The goal itself is really outside of our control. Only the actionable steps toward the goal are in our control.

teachers-planningAll too often I hear teachers getting frustrated because students “still don’t get it.” As I look more closely at these situations, I frequently find that the teachers have a clear focus on the goal itself – along with the activities they think the students should do to achieve the goal – but not on the action steps we need to take to help them “get it.”

Making the shift from focusing on the goal itself to focusing on our own actions can make a world of difference in guiding students to achieve their goals. Let’s consider these two examples.

Scenario #1 

The co-teachers carefully plan an English lesson that includes the goal for students to demonstrate their comprehension by annotating the text and providing text evidence to share key points. Of the 25 students, five students barely annotate the text and are unable to identify text evidence or share key points. One of the teachers says, “Well, you didn’t annotate! Go back to your seat and annotate the first few paragraphs – then you will be fine.”

Scenario #2

In math class students are given the goal to demonstrate their understanding of ratios and proportional relationships by solving real-world word problems. In this class of 25, there are 7 students who are not able to apply the mathematical thinking, directly following the teachers modeling the process. As the teachers walk around the room, one teacher “supports” the students’ thinking by saying, “Remember to underline key words in the word problem and set up your ratios.”

In both scenarios, teachers’ actions were driven by their clear focus on the learning goals. But it wasn’t enough. More strategic teaching moves were needed to explicitly teach and provide meaningful supports. Clearly, the teacher in Scenario #1 needed to guide some students in deeper strategic thinking and applications. The process of annotating needed to be further explained with guided practice before just expecting the students to “achieve” the goal of annotating by simply being reminded to do it. 

Instructional actions 

  • Incorporate student choice and multiple means of learning through Universal Design for Learning. Students may not only be a part of creating their goals, but they may also choose between activities that guide them to process and express their understandings.
  • Provide a comfortable environment that fosters resiliency. Co-create classrooms where students are motivated to push through challenges as they focus on the process of learning. Meaningful learning leads to achieving goals as a natural result of clear intentions and effort.
  • Keep your actions focused on guiding student understanding. The Understanding by Design Framework reminds us of three important steps: 1. Identify desired outcomes. 2. Determine assessment evidence, and 3. Plan meaningful learning experiences. When teachers plan purposefully and teach with intention, students have a greater opportunity to focus on creating meaningful learning connections along a path that naturally leads toward goal achievement.

Creating actionable steps

Our instructional decisions must be connected to clear goals, but we cannot allow the goal to be our action. To achieve the goal, we must create short-term actions that produce a very necessary step-by-step guidance process. It is our actions – our behaviors – that are the building blocks to realizing achievements.

es puzzle steps 300Are you looking for a way to get students to focus on their behaviors in order to achieve goals? When I was teaching at the middle school, I co-created a weekly goal sheet with students. Each student selected a goal that they needed to work on that week and then broke it down into three visionary steps:

  1. What can I DO today?
  2. What can I DO tomorrow?
  3. What can I DO by the end of the week?

By helping students translate goals into manageable actionable steps, we can help assure that they will “get it” as the time is right.

Has this post changed your thinking about goal setting and your own action steps? How do you connect?

Elizabeth Stein

Elizabeth Stein has more than 20 years teaching experience spanning grades K-8, specializing in universal design for learning and special education. She’s currently a special education/UDL instructional coach and new-teacher mentor in Long Island NY’s Smithtown Central School District. Elizabeth is National Board Certified in Literacy, and a contributor to Education Week and other publications. Her books include Comprehension Lessons for RTI (Grades 3-5) (Scholastic, 2013), Elevating Co-Teaching Through UDL (CAST, 2016) and Two Teachers in the Room: Strategies for Co-Teaching Success (Routledge, 2017). Follow her on Twitter @elizabethlstein and #coteachat

11 Responses

  1. Anne Jolly says:

    Well presented and informative plan, Elizabeth! I like the instructional actions, particularly. Thanks for this clear, straightforward approach to goal setting.

    • Elizabeth Stein says:

      Thanks for adding your voice, Anne! I always enjoy combining our perspectives! Looking forward to future collaborations!

  2. Dr. Pete Post says:

    Hello Elizabeth!
    It is Dr. Pete Post of Trinity Christian College and once again I am indebted to you for providing excellent food for thought for my master’s level students in special education. The group that I will ask to respond to this article are actually teachers pursuing LBS2 certification (BCBA), so they may also offer a “behavioral” spin on goal setting. I look forward to seeing their comments and think that they may enjoy being introduced to this blog.

  3. Deborah Bumber says:

    Hello Elizabeth. My name is Debbie Bumber, and I am a graduate level student in Dr. Pete Post’s class at Trinity Christian College. Thank you for your article. I enjoyed reading it, and it resonates strongly my own beliefs on teaching and learning. Too often teachers spend much of their energies focusing on the end goal and on planning engaging activities overlooking the power of including students in the goal-setting and self-monitoring processes of learning that have been proven to facilitate learning. In my experience as a special education teacher, I have always looked for ways to incorporate student self-assessment in my teaching. Even students with moderate and more significant disabilities can participate in their self assessment. I have had many students who rate their participation in class for the day with a smiley face, a frowning face or a face with a neutral expression. I have also had students color in bar graphs representing their unit pre- and post- test scores for a thematic unit. Also, including students while updating and writing new IEP goals is a great way to incorporate students in real planning for their learning. Students can lead their IEP meetings by sharing a presentation including strengths, weaknesses, progress made, next steps and necessary accommodations. One of the important aspects of including students in this type of planning is to aid them in becoming the best self-advocate they can become. By putting students in a position to be more in charge of directing their learning, we put them in a position to become better at directing their futures. Thank you for your article, Debbie Bumber

  4. Nichole Mueller says:

    Hi Elizabeth. My name is Nichole Mueller. I am a graduate student in Dr. Post’s class at Trinity Christian College. As I was reading through your post, I agreed with many of your statements. I recently just had my students grade their own writing using a smiley face rubric to assess if they had capital letters, correct spacing, end punctuation, and staying within the lines. When my students completed their rubric, they seemed more proud of their work. In addition, they knew what my expectation was. I have to say, it was their best writing work since the beginning of the year! More often than not, teachers are so focused on the end result and what engagement looks like for their students rather than the process and how the students feel during the process. After reading your post, I definitely feel that I can bring this back to the classroom with me and slow down when focusing on a goal.

  5. Maggie says:

    Hi Elizabeth, my name is Maggie Kalwat. I am a graduate student in Dr. Post’s class at Trinity Christian College. I could not agree more what everything you had said about goal setting, and how the children meet their goals based off of the teaching done in class. I am a strong believer of teaching until mastery. If my students don’t understand how it is being taught the first time, I go back and teach it a different way the second time. I think teachers are caught up on teaching to the book and if a student doesn’t get it, they can’t understand why. I think if we took more time to differentiate the way we are teaching, teachers would see more success from all of their students not just 75%. This is something I would definitely share with some of my colleagues!

  6. Erin Miller says:

    Hi Elizabeth, my name is Erin Miller. I am a graduate student in Dr. Post’s class at Trinity Christian College. I teach in a high achieving district and I am constantly fielding “they just don’t get it” or “they need an IEP” from general education teachers. In some cases, they are correct, but many times I am able to find a simple solution that benefits the student’s learning and supports the teacher’s goal. It can be something as simple as modifying the format or providing different modalities for responding, adding visual supports or hands on manipulatives, or altering the classroom environment slightly.
    I love what you said about having the students set goals. That should be happening in all classroom settings and would help teachers understand what the student views as successful or what he/she finds important about a certain activity or behavior. When the students are invested in their learning they will be more motivated to achieve.
    Thanks for sharing! I am sharing this with my team!

  7. Brooke Kline says:

    Hi Elizabeth!
    My name is Brooke Kline and I am a graduate student in Dr. Post’s class. I, like several of my classmates, teach in a high achieving, teach by the book district. If students are not performing as high as their peers, teachers begin to suspect something is “wrong” and the child needs additional services. A lot of the time, I am finding these students are still performing within the average range, but may need to learn the content in a way that isn’t presented in the teacher’s guide. I think it is so important to think about the process of achieving a learning target or a goal and decide the best approach rather than worry that the child isn’t meeting that end goal. My district has been talking a lot about ways to involve students in their learning. I have been more active in having my students evaluate their work and be part of their learning. I am trying to use more cooperative or alternate ways to show their knowledge.
    Thank you for sharing!

    • Brianna Gerhard says:

      Hi Elizabeth, my name it Brianna Gerhard! I am a graduate student in Dr. Post’s class at Trinity Christian College. I am a teacher in a multi-needs program in a cooperative. The students I work with are always considered the “exception” to most teacher- general education and special education teachers of higher functioning populations. I really enjoyed reading your article about goal setting for teachers and students. It is a great perspective to have and as a second year teacher, it is an eye opening perspective. As special educators, we are SO goal oriented but having an action plan is critical to accomplishing the goal. We always have a clear focus on the goal because we write them and we think of a variety of activities we can use to make progress towards that goal. Yet in this process, the plan of attack is missing. Your three visionary steps really stood out to me and is something I would like to bring, not only into my classroom, but as a way of life. Although it seems like these are student based questions, I think we can use these questions to plan our action plan as well. 1. What can I do today? 2. What can I do tomorrow? 3. What can I do by the end of the week? What a great way to start planning. I am the type of person that gets overwhelmed thinking of only the big picture of things. Using these questions to help break things down will defiantly help me in creating action plans in my classroom. Thank you, Elizabeth!

  8. Carol Vitkauskas says:

    Hi Elizabeth, My name is Carol Vitkauskas and I am also a graduate student in Dr. Post’s class at Trinity. I really enjoyed reading your article and agree with your point about goal writing and student progress. It’s so true that the focus needs to shift from the goal itself to the way we teach that goal. I hadn’t really thought about the fact that we can only control the steps toward that goal, so we need to put our energy there. In my experience with my students, a task analysis can help them learn a new skill, but I still need to think about ways to differentiate it based upon each student’s specific needs. When I read your comment about our actions and behaviors, it brought to mind the importance the actions and reactions of my staff and I, to students who will exhibit behaviors to seek attention or get out of a task they don’t want to do. The staff in the classroom can make a huge difference in the success of a student’s achievement when appropriate steps are taken and staff are consistent in their reactions.
    I also really like your “visionary steps” and plan to use that strategy myself. There’s usually a long list of things on my “to do” list, and I frequently become overwhelmed and don’t know where to start. I can see how breaking the list down and keeping the priority on a few things at a time for each week, can make it more manageable.
    Thank you for sharing!

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