Goal Setting, Planning (and Monitoring) Skills Part 2: How To Avoid Becoming A One Trick Pony

Pardon the mini essay tone of this blog post: I think I wrote this as much for me as for you!

Photo VIU License for Thinkstock photos
Photo VIU License for Thinkstock photos

Goal setting and planning skills are used for everything from planning an event, to planning finances, to planning a lesson.  Teachers across the campus set goals (called learning outcomes) for their courses as well as make plans for assessment to see if their teaching strategies and their students learning strategies are on track to actually reach those learning outcomes. We educators also make plans to set up the learning environment and create assignments to hopefully enable students to meet those stated learning outcomes. But goal setting and planning skill is not the exclusive domain of educators.  Students who learn goal setting, planning and monitoring skills become what we call self-regulated learners.  This is also of central concern when we examine the notion of metacognition.

Metacognition is when we think about how we think.  Inducing students to reflect on their thinking is to induce metacognition. A self-regulated learner regulates her own cognitive activities. This self-regulation includes setting one’s own goals and planning activities, self-monitoring progress, as well as allocating attention and so on.   Self-regulated learners spend time planning how they will spend their time in the learning task. These kinds of learners are confident learners and may or may not be consciously competent in knowing how to learn. These “high performing students have created, consciously or unconsciously, strategies for success.  Beyond the requisite skills and information of a given discipline, they are aware of how they are learning and thinking, and they are self-regulating how they approach any process. This higher awareness and self-regulating behavior is called metacognition and it can be taught” (Flavell, 1976).

Students need goal setting and planning skills as well as self-assessment and monitoring skills in order to adjust their learning strategies.  Often, students who did relatively well in high school, with their one tried and true method for earning good marks, simply cannot study longer and harder when they hit university and meet the mark.  Simply working harder often just does not work. Students who learn to examine their learning strategies, and who also learn to switch them up for more effective strategies depending on the task, become what we call self-regulated learners. They also learn how to not become a one trick pony!

Students’ own beliefs about learning, whether they have a growth or fixed mind set (Lovett, 2008) will play into whether a student becomes a self regulated learner or not.  Students with a growth, versus a fixed mindset seem to naturally roll up their sleeves, perhaps even smack their lips and exclaim: “ I love a challenge” (Dweck, 2008).  Students with a fixed mindset are more likely to give up (and save face) when faced with a seemingly insurmountable challenge.  Many times, even amongst the “best and the brightest”, it takes many attempts and adjustments in learning/study strategies to solve a difficult problem, understand a difficult reading or complex concept, or produce a quality “A+” assignment that meets the criteria at an “excellent” level.  Students who believe they can improve their learning strategies and that their talent is not fixed, will be more focused on goals that are process oriented or oriented towards mastery.  Those with a fixed mind set are more fixated on their performance or the results of the exam or assignment, not what was learned during the process.

Self-regulated learners focus on the process of how to improve their learning skills and the quality of their learning rather than appearing “competent or better than others”. To help a student move toward improvement in their learning skills, consider encouraging them to cultivate a growth mindset: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BoR-E2nWPlE  As well, consider emphasizing the process of learning and how to improve learning strategies in addition to the requisite skills and information of the discipline.   Also, check out Scot Crisp’s nice summary in “Teaching How To Learn” for some strategies to accomplish this: http://faculty.academyart.edu/export/sites/faculty/assets/faculty/TeachingHowToLearn2013.pdf

There are also these specific strategies that Crisp mentions that one can use before and after lectures, exams and assignments to help students regulate their behavior.  These strategies are called wrappers.  I especially like them, so I will elaborate on a couple of them here:

Exam wrappers direct students to review their performance (and the instructor’s feedback) with an eye toward adapting their future learning.  When a teacher provides an exam wrapper, students can focus on more than just their grade but also on the following:

  • Identifying their own individual areas of strength and weakness to guide further study;
  • Reflecting on the adequacy of their preparation time and the appropriateness of their study strategies; and
  • Characterizing the nature of their errors to find any recurring patterns that could be addressed. http://www.cmu.edu/teaching/designteach/teach/examwrappers/

Lecture wrappers help students to figure out what to focus on when listening to a lecture thereby hopefully capturing the lecturer’s intended main points.  “Prior to beginning the day’s lecture, the instructor gives students some tips on active listening. In particular, students are encouraged to think about the key points of the lecture as they listen and take notes. At the end of the lecture, students write what they think the three most important ideas of the lecture were on an index card. After they hand those in, the instructor reveals the three most important ideas from the lecture. This immediate feedback allows students to monitor their active listening strategies.” http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/metacognition/teaching_metacognition.html

Marsha Lovett (2008) summarizes what is important for teachers to keep in mind when teaching Metacognition.  She notes the following three critical steps:

1. Teach students that their ability to learn is mutable

2. Teach planning and goal-setting

3. Give students ample opportunities to practice monitoring their learning and adapting as necessary

From: Marsha Lovett’s presentation at the 2008 Educause Learning Initiative conference  http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/metacognition/teaching_metacognition.html

So the big question here is “can educators assist ALL students to gain these goal setting, planning and self-monitoring skills”?  My optimistic self screams “Yes!”

When we pay attention to teaching goal setting and planning skills, talk about various strategies to accomplish the learning task and provide practice monitoring learning and adapting as necessary, then yes, I believe we can teach students “How To Avoid Becoming a One Trick Pony”.

Goal Setting and Planning (Part 1): Overcoming Obstacles

open-accessVIU is an open access institution.   And each year, new students join programs with big dreams and high hopes.  They have spent time exploring their options, thinking and preparing, applying, getting transcripts in or assessments complete and once admitted they register in courses, organize finances to study and set out to fulfill their educational dreams.  They have created educational plans with great hopes of achieving their educational goals.  Goal setting and planning skills are required in order to get into school.   May I suggest that the ability to face and overcome obstacles and challenges is what it takes to stay in school and realize a dream?

Goal setting, on paper, is a relatively easy task.  I am here, and I want to go there.  I make my plans, garner my personal resources and set out to achieve my goal.  I see students do this all the time. I also continually see students bump into obstacles and unless they learn to overcome them, they become defeated and the educational goals and plans they’ve made can fade off into a distant forgotten dream.  Sometimes the obstacles are external like time constraints or financial issues.  Sometimes they are internal like fears or self-limiting beliefs.

Some students come to school with a strong circle of support in place – friends, family, mentors, and others who are there for them when the going inevitably gets tough. Education, in my books, is transformative, and even if one has all the financial resources to get to school and stay in school (which is an obstacle to be overcome by so many), it is tough work to transform. The task is fraught with many obstacles. Many wins are hard fought with late nights, early mornings and dogged determination.  Some students know how, or maybe are mentored at home into how to be gritty and determined and how to increase their circles of support to include their teachers and other professionals to help them build skills and reach goals regardless of the obstacles encountered.

And, in my experience, VIU has many capable and dedicated teachers who know how to reach out and make themselves available to students on a personal level to become part of each of their students’ lives not only as teachers, but also cheerleaders, encouragers and mentors. Many also know when and how to refer students to the support service professionals who work along side the academy enabling students to learn skills they can use to overcome obstacles.  These obstacles range from writing and study challenges, to financial challenges and lack of budgeting skills, to procrastination and time management challenges to name just a few.  Fortunately, there are also teachers, encouragers, cheerleaders and mentors who work in the Library, Writing Center, Math Center, Student Affairs, the Gathering Place, International Student Services, IT and in the gym.

I have wonderful colleagues across campus and am honored to witness them work to engage students, challenge them, reach out when they see students struggle, and help them learn to overcome an obstacle.  I try to do the same. Transforming is no easy task, and when we all recognize and rely on the skills of the other, and know when and how to refer, some of our students, all of whom inevitably encounter obstacles, may choose to widen their circle of support.  They may decide to face their challenges, struggle and learn new skills, transform and overcome – not all by their lonesome, or just with the aid of their personal resources, but with the inclusion of resources available to all students at VIU. Rather than walking away when they run into challenges, they choose to leverage available resources to help them learn new skills.  And this is a very good thing, because we all know that once a person graduates and realizes their academic goals, they do not suddenly stop encountering obstacles.  To learn how to overcome obstacles is to learn how to achieve a goal.

Teaching Metacognition: Learning in Mutable

brain-exercisesI believe in people’s ability to grow, change and develop over time – it was something my mother taught me.  This great potential for growth is why I love working as an educator and why I also love the topic of metacognition.  The summary I appreciate regarding how to teach metacognition goes like this:  teach students that their ability to learn is mutable; teach goal setting and planning skills; teach students to monitor and adjust their learning strategies to better meet their learning goals (Lovett, M., 2008, Educause Learning Initiative). This first post in the 5x5x25 challenge will address the notion that learning is mutable.


Several people’s work and ideas have influenced my own thoughts regarding the mutability of learning.  Carol Dweck, world-renowned researcher and author of the popular book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success has been the most recent as well as influential.  The idea, which she developed over several decades of research, is that people hold either a fixed or growth mindset and that holding a growth mindset can set a person up for higher levels of motivation, productivity and success. It is an influential idea regarding beliefs about learning.  Those with a growth mindset believe that their basic abilities can be developed through hard work and dedication.  Talent in any arena is just a starting place.  Moreover, talent can be developed through a love of learning and resilience in the face of setbacks. People with a growth mindset pay attention to feedback regarding their errors and how to improve or change strategy when not successful in order to figure out a better approach for next time.

Resource Videos

Here are 3 of my three favorite videos, which are good resources for learning more about the growth mindset:

Growth vs. Fixed Mindset: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o8JycfeoVzg&sns=em

The Power of Belief: Mindset and Success: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pN34FNbOKXc

This last one is not about the growth mindset per se, but I believe it showcases people who in my estimation must possess a growth mindset:

Life = Risk: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0yetHqWODp0  


The burgeoning field of neuroplasticity also supports the idea that the ability to learn is mutable.  Exercise aerobically for instance, get our hearts pumping for the recommended 20 minutes, and our brains will produce brain-derived neurotropic factor, BDNF for short.  BDNF is like “Miracle Gro” for our brains and it encourages the growth of neurons. Then, when we challenge our brain with complex analysis or by simply memorizing new vocabulary or learning a new dance step, new neural pathways are established.  As John Ratey (2008) states in his book SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, “The evidence is incontrovertible: aerobic exercise physically remodels our brain for peak performance”. Indeed, in a 2007 study of humans, German researchers found that people learn vocabulary words 20% faster following exercise than they did before exercise, and that the rate of learning correlated directly with levels of BDNF  (Ratey, 2008, p. 45 in SPARK).

If we want to encourage brain growth, we can encourage students (or ourselves for that matter) to take breaks from study to run stairs, skip a rope, play squash and spawn new neurons (and relieve stress).  Then, the challenge of learning something new will help those new cells survive.  Caution: one cannot learn complex new material while exercising, but as soon as one stops, the blood flow shifts back to the brain and this is prime time to focus on a task that requires sharp thinking or complex analysis. Bottom line, there is a direct biological connection between movement and cognitive function.

Want to learn more from Dr. John Ratey?  Listen to a recording of him speaking at the Neuroplasticity and Education Conference in Vancouver (2013): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lRwMf7QVMvs#t=30

Teaching students that their ability to learn is mutable is the first important lesson in encouraging students to become self-regulated learners.