Set and Monitor Goals

According to Comings, Perella, and Soricone (1999), learners who have specific goals in mind are more likely to persist in their studies. The primary incentive for learner persistence is the learner’s ability to set a goal and see progress in reaching that goal.

Components of the goal-setting process include teachers helping learners to:

  • Identify goals that are meaningful to them, keeping goals small or breaking down long-term goals into smaller, more readily achievable goals.
  • Organize and prioritize goals.
  • Identify benefits of and barriers to reaching their top-ranked goals.
  • Write positive goal statements to make the goal tangible.
  • Create a goal plan that includes interim steps and deadlines toward achieving each step.
  • Monitor progress and revise goals, as needed.

Comings et al. (1999) recommend that teachers help learners by regularly revisiting goals that were set early in the semester (1) to assess whether the goals are still relevant and achievable and (2) to refine and revise goals, as needed.

Self-regulation is important to the likelihood of learners’ success in realizing their goals and may include the following:

  • Analyze gap between goal and current status.
  • Break down goals into smaller steps and prioritize.
  • Set deadlines for the goal and interim steps.

The difference between a goal and a dream is the written word. —adaped from Donohue (n.d.)

Adult learners engage recursively in a cycle of cognitive activities as they work through a given task, as illustrated in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Learners’ Cycle of Cognitive Activities The three cogwheels in this figure illustrate the interconnectivity and concurrence of the learner’s activities (Selection of strategies, Monitoring of progress and reflection; with revision as needed; and Goal setting and task analysis) as he or she completes a given task.

“… I think the term goal setting has been so linked to policy [mandates] that teachers don’t readily consider some of the regular activities they utilize as part of it, especially because much of it happens [throughout the course]. Now, we have begun to discuss what goal setting can be, alongside what it must be.”

Kristin Hott, Virginia TEAL Team

“One of the most interesting things that came about in our discussion is that the majority of my students did have a goal in mind, but it stayed only in their mind[s]. It never occurred to them to write them down. In addition, the goal was very general and not specific at all. Becoming aware of this alone was very powerful to my students. They had an ‘a-ha’ moment… my students and I left that discussion with a fire lit under us.”

Guillermo Verdin, California TEAL Team

According to Zimmerman (1989), self-regulated learners are individuals who are “metacognitively, motivationally, and behaviorally active participants in their own learning process” (p. 4). To be a self-regulated learner means that the individual plans, sets goals, organizes, monitors, and self-evaluates at various points during the learning process.

You can take the following steps to support your learners in their efforts to become self-regulated:

  1. Help learners to set goals and expectations for their learning outcomes.
  2. Promote reflective dialogue by practices such as modeling think-alouds and encouraging collaborative problem solving among students.
  3. Provide immediate and specific feedback on learners’ performance.
  4. Help learners link new information to prior learning.

Self-regulation supports:

  • Cognitive development of skills and information.
  • Metacognitive development and knowledge transfer.
  • Motivation and persistence.
  • Competence as a lifelong learner.

Self-regulation supports learning and performance on specific tasks through the following:

  • Metacognitive knowledge about academic work.
  • Strategies for analyzing tasks.
  • Metacognitive knowledge about task-specific strategies (e.g., for managing work, learning mathematics, comprehending texts, writing paragraphs).
  • Skills for implementing strategies.
  • Strategies for self-monitoring and strategic use of feedback.

“Teachers and students like [setting goals] because it keeps the learning goal in focus and is transparent for students as to why the lesson is relevant to their personal goals. It helps with the ‘why are we doing this?’ issue. The template is: We will be able to [blank] in order to [blank] as evidenced by [blank]. We used ‘we’ instead of ‘student’ to support the feeling that the teacher and students are partners in this learning process.”

Pam Blundell, Oklahoma TEAL Team

Attributing Success to Effort

What are your learners’ explanations for success or failure?

  • Do they link outcomes to controllable factors, such as applying effort or using strategies?
  • Or do they attribute failure to low ability and success to luck?

Your feedback to students related to strategy selection and success is critical. You play a role in changing students’ motivation when you help them see that success or failure on a task is related to whether they chose effective strategies and followed through in carrying them out. Their recognition of this point is deeply connected to the reflection part of the process. Their motivation will change when they experience success and recognize that it comes from setting goals and using appropriate strategies.

Promote students’ positive self-perceptions of competence and motivational beliefs because:

  • Perceptions of self-efficacy, which is the confidence one feels in his or her ability to perform a difficult task, are critical to motivation and persistence.
  • Students’ perceptions of self-efficacy influence the goals they set, their commitment to those goals, and the learning strategies employed.
  • Self-efficacy influences students’ willingness to invest effort in tasks.

It is imperative that students attribute success and learning to their own efforts. Only in this way can they find the motivation to persist and invest in their efforts. This recognition does not happen easily! It takes time and many instances of seeing and reflecting on the effects of increased effort. Table 3 includes guidelines on appropriate times to teach self-regulated learning strategies.

When Can You Teach Self-Regulated Learning Strategies?

  • One on One - reflective discussions, personalized strategies, task analysis across tasks, self-monitoring and direct feedback
  • Small Group - peer dialogue, collaborative strategies, task analysis across common tasks, providing feedback
  • Whole Class - full-group discussion, common strategies individually applied, task analysis for specific assignment, reflection expected as part of the assignment

Monitoring Progress Works!

  • Learners need to see their successes and monitor their efforts.
  • Make learning visible.
  • See the resources and research in the Look at Student Work Regularly section.

For more information, see the TEAL Center Fact Sheets on Self-Regulated Learning and Metacognitive Processes at the end of this section.



Butler, D. (2002). Individualizing instruction in self-regulated learning. Theory into Practice, 41, 81–92. Retrieved December 27, 2011, from

Comings, J., Parrella, A., & Soricone, L. (1999). Persistence among adult basic education students in pre-GED classes (NCSALL Report #12). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Donohue, G. (n.d.), Goal setting: Powerful written goals in seven easy steps! Retrieved December 27, 2011, from

Zimmerman, B. J. (1989). Models of self-regulated learning and academic achievement. In B. J. Zimmerman & D. H. Schunk (Eds.), Self-regulated learning and academic achievement: Theory, research, and practice (pp. 1–25). New York: Springer-Verlag.