The best improvements come in small, incremental steps, what Sir Dave Brailsford from the Team Sky professional cycling team calls a “marginal gains approach’.
More importantly goals need to be driven by the student. What does the student want to achieving in the long-term? What does that mean for the medium-term? So, no apply short-term goals to meeting that interim target. A lot of literature exists on goal setting in that goals should be SMART:
These principles can serve us well but how many goals should we have. Most research points to no more than 2 or 3 goals at once. The reason for this is because achieving our goals relies on us developing good habits. We know that habits are formed by repetitive behaviour and for forming a good habit takes a lot of practice in developing the right behaviour necessary for the habit to become ‘what we do’. This probably also explains why bad habits are so hard to break.
Beyond this, however, is something even more important. Who owns the goal? Of course, there are plenty of cases where external motivators such as parents, teachers and coaches all have a role to play in terms of helping students set goals and targets. This alone, is not going to mean students will achieve the goal.
For a goal to be achieved, students need to internalise and be motivated to achieve it. We know that over the long term a carrot and stick approach does not work. Daniel Pink speaks of this in his book, Drive, which outlines three factors that are essential to human motivation: Autonomy, mastery and purpose.
The former is most important when it comes to students. For we can tell them all we want about the purpose of a goal and that mastery comes from practice makes perfect. Autonomy, however, is different. As humans, our own self-direction is our natural inclination. We want control over what we do and when we want to do it. Therefore, in any goal setting process there needs to be significant student voice, so that the student owns the goal and they know it.
More likely if you set the goal for your students, they will not own the goal and they will work on it to please you rather than themselves. This does not mean that we should not set goals for students, we just need to be more mindful of empowering them to become self-motivated lifelong learners, so that when parents, teachers and coaches are out of the picture, our students flourish as empowered young men and women.