Setting 'personal best' goals helps students - especially those academically at-risk

An educational approach that helps students focus on their own progress can level the academic playing field, the largest study of its kind has shown.
UNSW Media | UNSW Newsroom
Growth goal setting is fundamentally focused on self-improvement. Photo: Shutterstock

Setting personal best goals – what educational researchers call ‘growth goal setting’ – improves educational outcomes, according to new collaborative research by UNSW and the NSW Department of Education.

The researchers found growth goal setting was associated with significant gains in high school students’ academic engagement: they reported improved perseverance, aspirations, attendance, and positive homework behaviour. The approach was particularly beneficial for previously low-achieving students and those from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds.

The NSW Department of Education-funded study – an analysis of a survey involving more than 60,000 students – has implications for educational policy and practice.

UNSW Scientia Professor Andrew Martin, Associate Professor Rebecca Collie, and Dr Keiko Bostwick from the Faculty of Arts, Design and Architecture were co-authors of the study, along with Dr Emma Burns from Macquarie University. Prof. Martin, the lead author, says growth goal setting is all about outperforming one’s previous best efforts or performance.

“It is fundamentally focused on self-improvement, such as investing more time or effort in a task or striving to achieve a higher result in the next test,” Prof. Martin says.

“Goals can be related to process, such as studying for an exam over the weekend when previously a student wouldn’t do study at weekends, or asking a teacher for help if the student usually wouldn’t seek help.

“Or they can be outcome growth goals, so things like correctly spelling more words in this week’s spelling quiz than last week’s quiz, or doing better on the yearly science lab report than on the half-yearly report.”

Does growth goal setting help everyone?

Prof. Martin says students’ growth in education had been a topic of increasing interest and research in recent years.

“Research over the past decade has shown these approaches can have many benefits, such as improved engagement, learning, and achievement,” Prof. Martin says.

“But we didn’t know if focusing on growth would just help academically advantaged students and increase existing inequities, or if it may actually be beneficial for struggling students too, and therefore narrow the gaps instead.”

That’s one of the key questions the researchers sought to answer in their study, published recently in the international Journal of Educational Psychology and further discussed in The Conversation.

Prof. Martin’s prior research among students with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) already demonstrated growth goal setting was linked to increased engagement and achievement, particularly for students with ADHD.

“Our new study focused on other groups of students who may be academically at risk: students from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds and those low in prior achievement,” Prof. Martin says.

Growth goal setting beneficial across the board - and especially for disadvantaged learners

The researchers analysed data involving 61,879 high school students from 290 government schools across NSW. They looked at data collected in Term 1, 2018 and again in Term 1, 2019 by the NSW Department of Education’s annual “Tell Them from Me” student survey. Students were in years 7-10 in 2018 and years 8-11 in 2019.

They analysed four sets of survey questions – student reports of growth goal setting, teachers’ instructional support, academic engagement (perseverance, aspirations, attendance, and positive homework behaviour), and personal background attributes (such as SES and language background).

“For the sample as a whole, we found that growth goal setting was associated with significant gains in students’ perseverance, aspirations, and positive homework behaviour,” Prof. Martin says.

Crucially, growth goal setting was linked to particular benefits for groups of academically at-risk students.

“Aspirations to complete school and school attendance both improved for students with low prior achievement and students from low-SES backgrounds who participated in growth goal setting,” Prof. Martin says.

Growth goal setting also reduced some existing gaps between advantaged students and those academically at risk.

“For example, growth goal setting had a significant bolstering effect for lower achieving students – helping to reduce the aspiration gap between low and high achieving students,” Prof. Martin says.

“And it minimised differences in attendance between students from low- and high-SES backgrounds – in fact, low-SES students who had high striving for growth goals were among the highest school attenders,” Prof. Martin says.

Ian McCarthy is a co-Director of Strategic Analysis and Research in the Department’s Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation (CESE) and also co-authored the study.

“We were also able to identify that explicit teaching practice, use of feedback, and being clear and organised in class are key teaching practices that support growth goal setting and student engagement,” says Mr McCarthy.

Challenging and specific – and not in competition with others

The researchers say students can be taught how to set and strive for growth goals.

“To support students’ growth goal setting, teachers should encourage them to set goals that are specific (so the student knows exactly what they are working towards), challenging (so the student pushes themselves to the next level), and focused on competing with themselves more than competing with other students,” Prof. Martin says.

The researchers say they need to conduct further research to fully understand the causal mechanisms at play.

“One potential explanation is that a focus on personal progress and self-improvement can be motivating and inspiring,” Prof. Martin says.

“If struggling students compare themselves to most other students, it is quite possible they will see academic success as something that’s not achievable for them, which could make them feel inferior or disengaged.

“But when they are encouraged to focus on improving themselves first and foremost, academic success is suddenly within reach – it can seem a lot more realistic to exceed your own prior effort or previous test result than to outperform others.”

According to Mr McCarthy at CESE, “With this evidence-base the department has developed further resources to support teachers and schools in implementing growth goal setting in the classroom.” The NSW Department of Education has published a comprehensive guide to growth goal setting that complements a broader analysis of What Works Best in terms of quality teaching practices that are known to support school improvement and enhance the learning outcomes of students.