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Personal best goal setting can buffer student disengagement: opinion

Research consistently shows that many students become disengaged in their schoolwork as they move further into the middle years of high school. As students become disengaged, they participate in class less often, enjoy school less, become less interested in schoolwork, and achieve at significantly lower levels. Because of this, it is important to consider practical classroom strategies that can help students remain engaged throughout high school.

One potentially effective strategy is personal best (PB) goal setting. Here, we summarise findings from a recent Australian study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology that examined the role of PB goal setting in students’ engagement across three years of high school.

What is PB goal setting and how can it help?

PB goal setting creates personally-competitive, self-set targets that students can strive for. Put differently, PB goal setting is aimed at exceeding past personal best performances or efforts. It encourages students to focus on their personal growth and improvement, rather than comparing themselves to other students. Examples of PB goal setting include: studying for longer than the previous week, completing more homework problems than before, and trying to do better than before on an upcoming test.

Prior goal setting research has found that effective goals are specific, challenging and personally relevant. We predicted that PB goal setting would be effective for improving students’ engagement because they meet the key criteria of effective goals: they are specific (students identify the specific targets they are aiming for), challenging (students raise the bar on themselves), and personally relevant (students set their own goals). Thus, PB goal setting provides students with clear targets, optimal challenge, and a target that matters to the student.

Because PB goal setting has students focus on competing against their past personal effort or performance, these goals are more likely to hold personal value for the student. Because they are personally set and held goals, students are more inclined to remain committed to them and to see school as a helpful resource for meeting these personally-valuable goals. This ongoing commitment to meeting their goals underpins their continued engagement.

Our study examined 368 Australian high school students in New South Wales and Victoria. The study tracked students for three years in high school. Students were first involved in the study in Grade 7, 8 or 9, and continued to be involved until Grade 9, 10 or 11, respectively. This approach meant that we were better able to understand how PB goal setting impacted students at different stages of high school. Thus, the study included three time points, each one year apart, for each student (i.e. longitudinal investigation). By doing so, we were able to examine how engagement changed over time and how PB goal setting was related to this change.

We found that as students moved through high school, their engagement did indeed decline (consistent with prior research studies).

Importantly, however, we also found that PB goal setting played a significant role in reducing this well-known developmental decline in engagement. That is, students who used PB goal setting reported higher rates of engagement throughout high school. We also found that the positive effects of PB goal setting increased as students got older. This suggests that PB goal setting may buffer the decline that we see in engagement during secondary school and can help students remain more engaged throughout their schooling experience.

What does this mean for teachers?
Perhaps most encouragingly, PB goal setting is a practical strategy that teachers can develop in their students. There are several ways that teachers can help students do this, including:

  • Providing examples of PB goals in different academic subjects – for example, in science, teachers might provide examples of PB goals that focus on effort (e.g. improving their time management for their science homework) or performance (e.g. getting a better grade than they did before on a test or quiz).
  • Helping students identify their PB and level of optimal challenge – many students under- or over-estimate their ability, which can mean that they set goals that are too hard or too easy. Because of this, it is important for teachers to help students identify PB goals that reflect the optimal challenge for that student.
  • Discussing with students the areas they want to improve on most – this helps students set PB goals that are personally relevant and therefore more likely to engender commitment.
  • Providing feedback and helping students track progress – to increase students’ chances of achieving their PB goals it is important for teachers to provide specific feedback about how students can improve, as well as provide resources that help them track progress, especially for long-term goals. Worksheets are available that help students track and set PB goals.

PB goal setting is an effective strategy for improving and sustaining students’ engagement throughout high school. Indeed, PB goal setting, as found in our study, can buffer declining engagement.

This offers promising direction for teachers looking for practical strategies to promote students’ engagement in the classroom – especially at a time in their academic life when school becomes increasingly challenging.

Dr Emma Burns, Scientia Professor Andrew Martin, and Scientia Fellow and Senior Lecturer Rebecca Collie are from the School of Education at UNSW.

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