Using Learning Goals to promote self-directedness: the LEC experience, Part 1

by on November 5, 2009 in 2009-2011 with Comments Off on Using Learning Goals to promote self-directedness: the LEC experience, Part 1

By Jaya Kannan, LEC Director


At the LEC, in creating a learning environment for students that is conducive to the development of self-directedness, we recognize the construction of a learning goal by the student to be a crucial step in the process.

The objective of this series of articles to be posted on our blog is to reflect on the role of goal-setting in learning and its connection to the promotion of autonomy based on the LEC experience. In doing so, we will focus on:

  • Analyzing what characterizes a good goal and the difficulty in coming to an agreement on standards
  • Describing the challenges math/writing specialists and the students face in arriving at a well articulated goal
  • Finding ways for enabling students to use the goal in such a way that it contributes to their ability for deep learning.
  • Outlining the complexities involved in the assessment of learning in relation to the student’s stated learning goal

For the purposes of this introductory section, I will limit myself to explaining the learning process involved with particular reference to creating a goal.

Observations about students at the LEC

While setting a goal, the individual refers to the quantity and quality of performance that he or she is aiming to accomplish. (Locke & Latham 1990, 2002). From time immemorial, setting a goal has been considered to be a very important and beneficial step in developing self-regulation. (Schunk, 1990). Research shows that setting one’s own goals leads to a high level of commitment (Hayes, et al., 1985).

In fact, a high percentage of students visiting the LEC (about 80%) are self-referred and therefore show very high motivation for learning. Even if they do come in anxious to work on an assignment at the last minute, there is a set goal that they want to achieve.

An academic practice of having students create a goal in their very first session has greatly strengthened the students’ attitude to taking responsibility for their learning. While this has not been without its challenges, even those students who see goal setting as an additional burden when they are racing against time have almost always been able to present an idea and (in discussion with their math or writing specialist) arrive at a goal by the session’s end.

Steps in student learning goal setting:

  • Irrespective of when their first session is (week 1 or week 14), students jot down a goal in their “Learning Plan” document in that session. If they come for more than 3 sessions within a term, there is opportunity to revisit the goal, to review and even change if necessary while they focus on their learning tasks.
  • When a student visits the LEC for more than one semester, he or she tends to build a cumulative path by referring back to the old goal or refining it further for the next term.
  • In some cases, students are able to state their goals quite independently and with clarity and conciseness, but in many other cases, the input from the specialists in the goal creation can be very high.

Categories of goals: Distal and proximal

In discussion with the writing/math specialists, students create different types of goals that can be distinguished into proximal or distal goals. (Schunk, 1990). Students tend to use the distal goal, for say, planning their learning for the term and then under the guidance of the specialist, they break it down to specific goals that define the objective for that particular session. The constant iterative loop that connects goals from the distal to the proximal helps establish the connection between the session goal and the overall learning goal. To sum up, we can classify goals into three categories:

  • Goal for the semester: Oftentimes the student’s goal is a combination of a few different interconnected sub-goals and not just one single idea . Example goal: “Breaking down a sentence-subject verb agreement, dependent and independent clause, how to use a subordinate conjunction and make sure that the clauses are correct”.
  • Goals for each session: within the overarching goal for the term, the students visiting the LEC are usually keen to choose what they want to do for that particular session. There have been times when they veer away from the main goal for a particular session or even change their goal altogether based on the direction that their specific course is taking. Math and writing specialists have enthusiastically shared in the departmental meetings how more than 50% of the students tend to lead the session with a specific objective.
  • Cumulative Goals – building connectivity with previous goals, aiming for lifelong learning. A good number of students who have visited the LEC for more than 3 terms have demonstrated the emergence of a lifelong learner by connecting goals to learning in their previous terms.

Types of goals

Within the context of the achievement goal theory, distinction is made between a mastery goal and performance goal. When choosing a mastery goal, students are said to show more adaptive processes as opposed to a performance goal when students show inconsistent effects. (Grant & Dweck, 2003; Elliott,2005).

A good number of students choose a performance goal [“I want to get an A grade in this course’] as part of their overall goal. But a majority of the students show a propensity to choose a mastery goal as their main learning goal.

Range of goals

Students visiting the LEC create a range of goals that may or may not be connected to their course objectives.

The gamut runs from an eager to learn but unable to narrow down goal (“I want to improve my writing”) to a performance oriented approach (“I want to pass the statistics class”) to the highly reflective( “My learning goal is to achieve a more meaningful way of expressing my thoughts”).

When learning summaries are prepared at the end of the term, the specialists assess the student’s learning by paying careful attention to the learning performance in the tutorial sessions in relation to the goal set by the student. The beginning section of this learning summary requires presenting the learner’s objectives by referring back to the students’ session summaries. In preparing this report, an important challenge for the writing/math specialist in presenting the learning goal is in being faithful to the original voice of the student.


Elliot, A. J. (2005). A conceptual history of the achievement goal construct. In A. J. Elliot, & C. S. Dweck (Eds.), Handbook of competence and motivation (pp. 52-72). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Grant, H., & Dweck, C. S. (2003). Clarifying achievement goals and their impact. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 541-553.

Hayes, S. C., Rosenfarb, I., Wuifert, E., Munt, E. D., Korn, Z., & Zettle, R. D. (1985). Self reinforcement effects: An artifact of social standard setting. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 18, 201-214.

Locke, E.A., & Latham, G.P (1990). A theory of goal-setting and task performance. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Locke, E.A., & Latham, G.P (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal-setting and task motivation: A 35 year odyssey. American Psychologist, 57, 705-717. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Schunk, D.H. (1990). Goal setting and self-efficacy during self-regulated learning. Educational Psychologist, 25, 71-86.
*Look for Part 2 of this series tomorrow!


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