This article first appeared in the Teaching Professor on November 1, 2013. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.
On the first day of classes two years ago, I had students in my professional and technical writing course send me an email with their goals for the semester. I discovered they had no understanding of goals, expectations, or objectives. The next semester I explained that goals should be specific, measurable, attainable, positive, and have a time limit. I gave some examples, but they still could not complete the task. After several more tries, I realized there are several reasons why students typically can’t do this without additional coaching: 1) they do not know the language, the cause-effect, the psychology of responsibility, or the careful determination involved in setting goals and making a plan; 2) they do not see the relationship between their success and the stating of goals; 3) they have not had repeated exposure to this task; and 4) they do not understand that goals are important in learning and in the workplace. Teaching my students about goals has become something of a crusade. It’s important for them and it matters to me. If students have no understanding of their goals, how can they assess me on the clarity of course objectives?
“I hope to be successful,” “I wish to have more confidence in my writing,” “I want to be more comfortable with all the documents in my field,” “I feel like I could work on…,” and “I expect you will teach me a lot” are examples of students’ first attempts at writing goals. Their attempt to write specific goals demonstrates an inability to effectively move from essay and reflective language to professional language. No or little previous experience writing goals and no or little exposure to business writing puts students in the untenable position of using vocabulary from essay-writing and from their personal lives to create a professional identity. And it is not only a matter of correct phrasing; an absence of language also means an absence of understanding. They are not actively participating in their own education. This cause-effect relationship between the outcomes of the course and their work ethic is worth spending time on in class.
Since the act of goal-writing necessitates an overall understanding of the course and its assignments, along with an analysis of their own strengths and weaknesses, students have to take an active part in their learning from the beginning of the course. The student who was expecting me “to teach him a lot” missed the first lesson. Although I would teach him a lot, he had to be available to receive and apply that learning. The best student goals have little to do with the instructors. Imagine a workplace where the employees expect their boss to do all of the work. Indeed, I am there to help and support students in their learning, but ultimately, it is their job. If the students wrote goals and were given ways to achieve them, and if the instructor mentioned the course objectives every week, would the students see their part in learning differently? Would they see the purpose of the course differently? I believed they would.
Cause-effect relationship between goals and objectives
After much prompting, many of my students offered this goal: “I will earn an A in the course.” Now, we move to the next step: “What steps will you take to get an A?” Many students do not understand the relationship between their everyday study habits and their final grade. Anyone could “hope” to achieve a goal, but hard work is the way it’s accomplished. Students do understand that “wishing” isn’t going to get them into good physical shape. They have to exercise and eat healthy. The same principle applies in courses, but they need help making that connection. Objectives such as spending two hours a day writing, going to the writing center, and producing quality assignments are likely to establish a pattern of work and engagement that will help the student achieve an A in my course.
Connection to curriculum
Since goal-writing requires analyzing a problem, forecasting solutions, and then breaking the task into smaller tasks, is a good lesson in any college course. It offers a built-in way for us to check on student understanding of course content and to remind them of the dividing line between our role in the classroom and their part in achieving success. We should be helping students meet our course objectives, especially since we assess them on their achievement of those objectives.
If students evaluate teachers on how well they believe the teacher has accomplished the course objectives, then helping them decipher goals and objectives is not just a useful assignment for their learning; it is also about how teachers are assessed. Since students in my courses have to write specific, positive goals, they might be more likely to be specific and positive in their evaluations.
I’ve discovered that I can teach students about objectives in a way that clarifies and enhances course concepts along with my relationship with them. The alternatives—students going through the motions, or doing assignments for the grade instead of learning—go against my teaching philosophy. I have made teaching goal-writing to my students my new goal.