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Teaching Ideas

November 06, 2002

Student Goals

Steven Gershon


Obirin University

A New Semester - A New Class
As the new academic year comes upon us, we teachers scramble to get our textbooks ordered, finalize the syllabus for that new intermediate conversation class, dash off a few more handouts to get us through the first few lessons, or head off to the bookstore to get one more photocopiable text to stuff into our never-full-enough supplementary file. Whether, we are teaching at a junior or senior high school, college or university, language school or senmon gakko, there is a lot to do at this time of year.

One thing that guides us in these beginning of year preparations is our list of goals and objectives we have for whichever classes we are teaching. Being the ever diligent and responsible teachers, we have no doubt thought about the various linguistic outcomes we hope to achieve with our students. And, even if we haven't written them down in their full articulated and eloquent glory, we at least have them firmly in our mind as we set foot into the classroom for the first lesson.

However, what about the students' own goals and the things they hope to achieve from our class? I find that all too often my students don't have any idea what they want from my class (other than a good grade). Sure, they have vague notions like, "I want to improve my English" or "I want to get a better TOEFL score" or "I want to understand native English speakers when they talk to me." But when I try to get them to hone in a bit on their objectives, to think about them in a way that actually makes them tangible and concrete, my students are initially at a loss.

They seem to have no idea what they should be working toward that's reasonable, do-able and manageable. This is especially true of my first and second year university students, who tend to fall into that large ubiquitous category of TENOR students -- Taking English for No Obvious Reason (except to pass the class and get the required credits). But it is also often true of students in other learning contexts who do definitely have, or should have, real objectives, but haven't had the opportunity (or push) to actually articulate them.

Setting Goals
It's important, I feel, to get students to reflect on the goals they have, so that they can know what they are working toward, can keep track of their own progress, can revise their study strategies (or goals) if necessary, and, most importantly, can take some responsibility for their own learning. I generally find in my classes that when students do attempt to articulate their goals, they become more serious, more motivated and, overall, more effective learners.

How a teacher approaches this issue of goals with students depends, of course, on the level and age of the students, the course they are doing, the learning context, many things. There's obviously no one best way. Here's an idea of what I do with my university classes to get the students thinking about their goals. Feel free to adapt, add, delete, and substitute according to your situation and students.

The First or Second Class Meeting
1) Explain briefly the course syllabus, content for the course, being sure to mention the skill areas covered and the time frame, e.g., the total number of class hours or weeks.

2) Ask students to think about what their goals are for the class. Give them a minute or two to think silently, then ask them to write it down briefly on a piece of paper. After a few minutes, pair students up, getting them to tell each other what they wrote.

3) Select a few pairs to tell the class the goals they have written. These will most likely be very vague, general statements like the ones I mentioned above. After each one, try to elicit more information by asking questions, such as, "How many points do you want to increase your TOEFL score?' or "What do you want to be able to listen to and understand in English?" Make sure the questions focus on the specificity, achieve-ability and meaningfulness of the goals the students read out to the class, but don't overdo it.

4) When enough pairs have shared with the class their goals, Explain, simply, the importance of students having clear goals. The important concepts to get across are:
a) Goals should be specific.
b) Goals should be achievable (in the time available).
c) Goals should be meaningful (appropriate for the type of course).

It's best to use examples to make the points. I always use my (pathetic!) study of Japanese to drive the points home. For example, I tell my students that I study Japanese about three hours a week. My goal is to learn five hundred new kanji by the end of this semester (that's about 30 a week). I ask them if that is a specific goal. They can usually see that, yes, it is specific. I ask them then if they think it is achievable. They laugh. Of course it isn't with only three hours a week of study. I use as many examples as it takes to get the above points across.

5) Give out one blank index card (3x5 or 5x7) to each student and ask them to write their name, date and name of class at the top. Then ask the students to write down three goals they have for this class. Remind them that their goals should be specific, achievable and appropriate. The last idea of appropriacy or meaningfulness may be a bit tricky for the students to grasp. As an example, I suggest that if this is a conversation course, being able to write a business letter is not exactly an appropriate goal. Give the students about 10-15 minutes to write their goals.

It is helpful to give the students a frame on the board, for example:

My goals for this course are to…
By the end of this course I will (want to)…

6) Pair up the students again. Have the students read their goals to each other. Partners should point out any goals they think are not specific or achievable, and help their partner revise them. Give students about 10 minutes for this. Then ask each pair to choose one or two goals they think are good (i.e. have the above qualities). Ask selected pairs to read out their examples, making sure that the class agrees that they have the desired qualities. When enough pairs have shared their goals with the class, collect all the cards and keep them somewhere safe.

Mid-term Goals & Feedback
1) Pass out the students' original goal cards and ask them to assess how well they are progressing toward their goals. They can rewrite any goals they want or add new ones. I also sometimes ask my students to give themselves a progress report grade, such as, A = I am doing very well in achieving all of my goals; B = I am doing well in achieving some of my goals; C = I am not doing very well in achieving my goals. Remind students not to be too hard on themselves, as it is only mid-term, so they have the same amount of time again to progress.

2) Get a sense of how the students are doing by asking for a show of hands for A, B, and C above. It is also interesting to find out how many students rewrite or add to their goals. Don't be judgmental, but rather encouraging. Collect all the cards and keep them somewhere safe.

End of Semester/Year Feedback
1) Follow the same basic procedure as at mid-term. Pass out the students' original goal cards and ask them to assess how well they have achieved their goals. I usually pair up students and ask them to share self goal-report with a partner.

2) Get a sense of how the students have done by asking for a show of hands for those who feel they have or haven't achieved their goals. For those who are not satisfied, I ask them to think of a couple of reasons why they did not achieve their goals. The reasons could be because the goals were not achievable in the first place or that they didn't study very much, etc. Once again, don't be judgmental, but rather encouraging. Don't collect the cards; allow the students to keep them.


Steven Gershon
Steven Gershon taught EFL in Britain, France, and China before arriving in Japan. He has been teaching in Japan for 13 years and is currently the Director of the English Language Program at Obirin University. Being a glutton for punishment, he also writes textbooks. When he is not teaching or writing, he is swimming at Tipness, scuba diving in the Philippines, wind surfing at Enoshima or slurping lattes at Starbucks.



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