Educational Goals: How to Foster Learner Autonomy

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They arrive, all shiny-eyed and excited, pens and pencils in hand, willing and eager to dive into a new learning adventure.

Then, a few weeks or months go by, and the shine wears off. Suddenly you don’t seem so exciting to them anymore, and lessons have become just another routine.

What happened? Well, there could be several variables at play here, but let’s look at the one that can be most easily managed: defining a purpose for learning.

educational goals
Setting SMART educational goals can lead to learner autonomy.

Of course, it would be unreasonable to attempt to control the exact purpose for learning itself. However, as teachers, we can ensure that a clear purpose does in fact exist. That purpose is attractive and motivating for the students.

Why Purpose Matters

Educational goals are often overlooked by teachers and students alike because they seem to be self-evident. After all, we all know why we’re here, right? You’re here to learn, and I’m here to teach!

But what is critical here is being specific about what is being learnt, how it’s being learnt, and by when it will be learnt.

I used to work as a sous chef in a restaurant, and whenever there was a mix-up with one of the orders, my chef would shout at the servers: “communication is the key to success of any relationship!”

One of the biggest mistakes a teacher can make is assuming to know exactly what the students need/want to learn. Just as a server has to be able to uncover and communicate the specific needs of the customers in the restaurant, the teacher has to follow a similar process with the students.

In the classroom however, the teacher’s role is much more complex, as she must play the role of the server and the chef and the health inspector. The teacher not only delivers the lesson but creates the lesson content and makes sure that it adheres to curriculum standards as well.

This analogy only goes so far because in the restaurant, the customer has a set menu to order off, so it’s easy to determine what to do. In the classroom, goals are harder to define.

Setting a Menu

In order to help learners know exactly what they are working towards, the teacher can ask them to define their educational goals in terms of abilities. For instance, in an ESL classroom:

By the end of this semester/2018, I want to be able to listen to BBC without subtitles.

Educational Goals: How to Foster Learner Autonomy
How will I know when I am making progress?

This can then be systematized by using a goal template, such as SMART (originally developed by George T. Doran for management goals but equally applicable for learners, even children). There are many versions available, but this one is quite suitable for learning:

Specific — What exactly do I want to achieve?

Measurable — How will I know when I am making progress?

Attainable — Is this goal possible in this situation and timeframe?

Relevant — Why is this goal important for my life (big picture goals)?

Timely — When (and how) will I achieve this goal?

An example of this in regards to listening would be:

Specific: I want to be able to listen to BBC News World without using subtitles.

Measurable: I’ll score my confidence out of 10 each time I listen (15 minutes per day) and receive feedback from my teacher about my progress.

Attainable: I’ll notice an improvement within the next 2 months (specific dates are better).

Relevant: This will help me to be more confident about my language ability when speaking with international friends and improve my ability to socialize.

Timely: By the end of next month, I will be able to understand BBC without subtitles because I will listen to three episodes a week and do exercises on connected speech that my teacher gives me.

A Few Considerations

As you can see, Specific is a more detailed version of the broad purpose for learning we defined earlier. The broad statement is a good place to start because it provides a general direction, but it should be refined into a more specific target. Be careful to avoid statements like “I want to do better in class” or “I want to improve my English” because these types of educational goals like this do not have distinct purposes.

Educational Goals: How to Foster Learner Autonomy
Being S.M.A.R.T.

Another common issue students face is trying to measure progress with unquantifiable goals like “I want to speak more fluently and confidently”. Of course, teacher feedback helps here, but before depending on that feedback, students should be encouraged to self-reflect. Get them to record themselves and self- or peer-evaluate their fluency, confidence, or accuracy before you do. Keep several records so they can compare and notice progress. This allows them to see the difference for themselves, rather than just being encouraged.

The Importance of Writing Down Educational Goals

Benjamin Hardy has a good metaphor that illustrates the importance of goal setting: airplanes are off-course for 90% of the flight time due to flight conditions such as turbulence, but they still manage to arrive on time. This is because the pilot is constantly making minor adjustments, and only a few degrees can make the difference of reaching that destination.

When students write down their goals, they have evidence that they can refer back to later. This written record serves as a guide for them to see if they are still moving in the direction that they had intended to earlier, so they can see if they should make any adjustments to their course.

Finally, the teacher can set educational goals at any point in the year. Certainly, at the beginning of the year or semester might be a more auspicious time, but in reality, goals can be set whenever there is a new topic, task, need, or objective. Learners can even set “mini-goals” for certain assignments.

This video discusses how to write specific, measurable, and observable learning objectives using Bloom’s Taxonomy. Made by Course Design on a Shoestring Budget.
Tyler Scharf
Always looking for new ways to learn, I focus my energy on enabling students to discover themselves as learners so they can find techniques and strategies that fit them the best. A Delta certified ESL teacher currently based in Istanbul, I have taught students between the ages of 4-64 from all walks of life.