Goal-Setting with Adult Learners

Hello colleagues, As we begin a new school year, many of us are thinking about ways to effectively support students to set goals. Research has shown that working toward a clear goal is important in academic achievement as well as personal development.

For example, check out this abstract of a 2014 article "Writing about Goals Enhances Academic Performance and Aids Personal Development" by Locke, Morisano and Schipper.

What process do you use to support student goal setting? Do you engage learners in writing about their goals? How do you structure revisiting and updating learner goals? What tools have you found useful? It would be wonderful to share some of our best practices here on LINCS.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, Teaching & Learning CoP



Hi Susan,

For goal setting in a literacy class, Equipped for the Future, a program whose materials can still be found on the internet, provided instructions for students to use Mind Maps. I used their materials and methods, which involved having students identify a literacy goal for themselves that they could reach in the 14-week period of the class.  After discussing the definition of literacy, which involved the students' input, which I wrote on a piece of paper taped to the board, and a list of activities related to literacy, we came up with a list of literacy goals. Then, I drew a circle in the center of a huge piece of paper on the board, and four quadrants around the circle. The center represented their goal. The quadrants were called: Self & Friends, Work, Family, Community.  Students identified a goal and then, to help them concretize the value in their lives, they wrote how they would use that literacy goal in the 4 quadrants. We spent class time over the course of three classes working on this and then students were asked to create their maps on construction paper over the weekend and present them in front of the class on Monday.  They really enjoyed the presentations! To ensure that small steps were taken toward the realization of the goal, students were asked to make a chart on which they entered the work or progress they made on a weekly basis.  I must admit this process took more time than I expected but students enjoyed it and it had the additional value of helping students engage in academic thinking and academic tasks.  It was difficult to find the goal that suited the time period Many were realized quickly and others would take longer than the semester. However, it was also a community-builder as it revealed a lot about the learners, which they enjoyed.

At enrollment, our adult learners are asked to write about goals that they have for their education.  We have listed in our registration materials some ideas of goals that might be of interest for our learners (e.g., find employment, get driver's license, register to vote, obtain high school equivalency, etc.)  We have created a form to use in conjunction with the SMARTER goal setting process - Smart/Measurable/Attainable/Realistic/Time Bound/Evaluate/Revise.  After about 4-6 weeks of enrollment, teachers work individually with learners to identify specific goals in 4 interest areas - Education, Work, Personal/Family, Community. A goal is indentified and a plan is created, that includes targeted dates.  These plans are revisited, evaluated and revised over time.  Once a goal is reached a new goal is set in one of the interest areas for the learner.  Teachers will often refer to these goals during the course of class instruction to reinforce the connection between learning and an individual's goals.  We have found that we need to work with learners at breaking down goals into realisitic steps - a high school equivalency goal is broken down into the components of the 5 subject test.  It can be further broken down by content area within the test.  For instance, a writing goal breaks down to the level of composing full sentences and then paragraphs.  Depending upon the skills of each learner, goals and action plans are best when very specific and time sensitive.  We see this process itself as creating a transferable set of skills for learners to use throughout their lives.


The following describes a goal setting and development process I facilitate in a graduate class of adult learners to develop a disruptive innovation for improving student learning:

What process do you use to support student goal setting?

5-7 learners work in teams to learn via online learning activities about disruptive innovations to improve student learning and set goals for a disruptive innovation that each team designs in approximately eight weeks. The goals are derived from their ideas and from benchmarking other innovations or current ineffective practices.

Do you engage learners in writing about their goals?

The teams use an online microblog feed, colleague and team messages integrated with learning activities, and GoToMeeting and F2F sessions for collaborative problem-solving and design work and to share ideas and receive peer and coach feedback. They complete a written self-evaluation as part of a culminating activity to think and write about what they have accomplished as a team and what each member contributes.

How do you structure revisiting and updating learner goals?

The teams adapt an action plan template to design their disruptive innovation according to their goals, provide weekly drafts for discussion and feedback, make online and F2F demos for feedback, and demo their final innovation in a “Dynamic Learning Lab” setting. All team goals and final innovations are posted as WikiTasks. This makes each Team’s innovation available to a broader learning community.

What tools have you found useful?

Feedback from the participating adult learners indicates they like the blended learning approach, integrated messaging tools, team collaboration, and use of free online development tools related to the type of innovation required by their goals.

I hope this is useful and I look forward to your feedback.


Hi all, 

We often talk about strategies for goal setting and I love the discussion thus far. But I'd like to also ask our community about when to revisit goals. After we provide students with tools and strategies to set goals, do we periodically work with students at various points along the way to continue to set new goals, revisit goals not yet achieved, and / or set different goals? 

More than being a single process, goal setting is circular - requiring our students to write and rewrite goals along their education. Often, when we set goals and they are not achieved, students may stop and feel as though they failed again. So, how do you continue the goal setting / goal evaluation process throughout the student's engagement in your classes? 

Kathy Tracey