Welcome to On Teaching.  If you’d like to hear the podcast episode where we discuss the content of this blog post, please click here. We have identified seven foundational elements of quality teaching and here we will discuss the third, Goals.

In the previous post we talked about having a well-defined purpose that will be intrinsically valuable to a majority of students, and then taking steps to make sure that all expectations of students are aligned with, and serve that purpose.  I’d like to add a quick comment on this topic. 

There will likely be multiple purposes to your class.  Some are utilitarian, students will learn X, Y, and Z.  Others will more closely mirror the classical purpose of education, and others yet will fall somewhere in between.  This is an excellent situation because each student will have a different take on why the class is important, what it means to and for them.  This is where goals come in.

Before we get into the meat of the subject, let me offer a quick story about the power of whole-class goals. 

I teach a difficult college preparatory course for 9th and 10th-grade students.  The subject is math.  At the end of the course, students take a pair of examinations.  If they pass those examinations then they are deemed by Cambridge International (a project of Cambridge University), to be ready for college.  This has proven to be a valid test as students that achieve a minimally accepted score have done very well in college, typically testing out of college math courses for liberal arts degrees. 

This test, called IGCSE, is used internationally in a fashion similar to our SAT and ACT.  Given that the overwhelming majority of high school graduates end up taking remedial math courses, which could mean that simply graduating from high school does not indicate college-readiness, one can safely conclude that IGCSE is a significantly more rigorous standard than the majority of students are accustomed to.  The results bear this out.  About 80% of college freshmen need to take remedial math courses, and strangely enough, only around 20% of participating students pass the IGCSE mathematics exams in the United States.  In my home state of Arizona, it’s considerably worse.  In a given year, roughly 8% to 10% of students pass the IGCSE examinations.

Much of what I have and will share here is taken from lessons learned teaching this course.  I’ve had fantastic results with only three total students not passing the test in 8 years.  This story is about one of my most difficult cohorts. 

This cohort had grossly underperformed (compared to previous cohorts at my school), as freshmen on their first-year tests in English, Biology, and World History.  They were lazy, failed to take responsibility for their actions, and were easily influenced by a few bad actors in the group. 

In preparing for the mathematics examination students were failing to get on board with the program.  They’d either do low-quality work, obviously cheat and lie, or just not work at all.  So, we had our come-to Jesus talk.  It went something like this.

We need to talk.  I’m not happy with how things are going and where we’re headed.  You guys are underperforming, just trying to get by.  That’s now what we’re about, that’s not who I am and not what I support.  I don’t believe that is who you want to be, either.  If you sat down and thought about what kind of man or woman you wanted to grow up to be, a lazy, half-assed person is probably not near the top of your list.  So, let’s fix it.

I believe that you guys need a goal more than just passing this course.  There’s no zip in that.  You look at the history of this class, the cohorts before you, the past three years all of the students passed.  It seems like you think they passed because they sat in these seats, in this room, and listened to my voice.  That’s not it at all.  They worked, the ground, they even cried in frustration at times.  You’re avoiding any real challenge, the opposite of what those before you have done.  The way they tackled and took on these things, the way they tried their best, and when they came up short, owned their disappointment and used that as fuel carried them to success.

So, here’s my challenge to you.  I want to see nobody getting less than a grade of B on the IGCSE exam.  Everybody is going to be pushed to get a B or higher. 

I then laid out the plan of how we were going to approach that goal, what steps we’d take, highlighting the checkpoints, which we’ll discuss in detail soon.

The results blew me away.  One student failed the test, she got a D.  However, she never got on board until the very end, at which point it was way too late.  You can’t learn two years’ worth of material and development of thinking and problem-solving habits, in a couple of weeks.  However, she approached me the next school year.  It was clear that while she failed the test, it had a deeply impactful meaning to her.  She developed in response to the failure, which is a success to me!

Two other students got a minimal passing score of C.  This was a magnificent surprise because these two simply did not belong in an accelerated class.  I’m happy to be wrong in these kinds of things, and they put it together. 

Everybody else got a B or higher.  But, there were only four Bs.  Eleven students earned an A and four earned a grade of distinction called an A-star.  An A-star is awarded to students that score in the 99th percentile internationally.  These are very rare for American students.  Many years not a single American student will be awarded an A-star. 

If there is one thorn on this rose, it’s as follows.  Four of the students that earned an A were 3 or fewer points (out of a total of 200 possible) from earning that A-star!

The goal motivated the students because it served two purposes, was personal, and lumped the entire class, myself included, together.  Individual goals are important and powerful, but it is difficult to foster them for all students in a meaningful way.  We’ll discuss individual goals sometime in the future.

The goal was aligned with the defined purpose of the class in an academic fashion as well as a personal fashion.  This provided a broad appeal to students which brought the majority on board.  As we will discuss, typically, once the majority is on board, the rest fall in line.

While the goal wasn’t designed as SMART goal, (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound), it held each of those elements. (Read more about SMART goals here.) Beyond that, it also aligned with the purpose of the class and, in mapping out the plan to achieve the goal, helped students understand how each expectation placed upon them aligned with the purpose of the class.

Rising Tides Float All Ships

By having a goal that includes academic success for all students a community dynamic is established.  Typically, it works this way.  In a classroom, the top students are pulling everybody in one direction while the poor students are pulling the other.  A poor-quality student surrounded by a classroom full of high-achieving students will perform better than they would otherwise.  Similarly, a top-quality student will not achieve as much in a classroom full of low-quality students as they would if surrounded by like-minded students.  While students test individually, learning is a social experience.  They learn together and they learn what they’re interested in.  (One of the first influences that put me on the path to becoming the teacher I am, Sugata Mitra, said, (paraphrasing here),

Kids learn what they want to learn and they learn it together.  The role of the teacher is not to control the learning or to disseminate information, but to encourage and guide.

One way in which a whole-class goal develops an academically minded community is that it tells those that are typically struggling that they are not only included, but are expected to do well.  It is difficult for a class clown to change behavior if the expectation is for them to be a class clown.  When the expectation of such a student is changed by both the teacher and their peers, the influence is powerful. They’re given a new role and a new avenue.  They can easily redefine themselves in such a situation.

When students understand the dynamic, they begin to find mutual self-interest in success.  They can compete against one another while also promoting each other’s optimal outcomes.  The high achieving students push one another understanding that their ceiling is raised just by association.  If another student outperforms them, they will benefit.  Also, by encouraging the low-quality student to engage, and by avoiding being distracted by their typical antics, not only does the low-quality student improve, the entire class reaps a benefit.

Positive Peer Pressure

By having a whole-class goal and also teaching students about the social and communal dynamic at play with learning, positive peer pressure becomes a powerful influence and motivator.  The two students that earned a C in the story shared earlier both started attending after-school tutoring after the goal was set.  They saw the low-quality students (the smart but lazy group), begin to perform, as well as the students that were pressing their ceiling to perform as expected. 

When there’s social accountability (that doesn’t intrude upon privacy), students respond and will often engage in activities they’d otherwise actively avoid.  Nobody wants to let their friends down. 


When the whole group is working to support one another they begin to take ownership of their learning while promoting the success of those around them.  Students begin to reflect upon their levels of engagement as they begin to recognize the negative impact of things like distractions play.  For example, when reviewing a quiz or test, or even homework, the teacher can ask students to review their performance. 

  • How many points were lost by silly mistakes (things you missed because you didn’t read or pay attention, simple procedural errors, and the like)?
  • How would that have affected your grade?
  • How many points did you miss due to something you didn’t understand?

  • Now, on the front of your quiz, make a two-column table.  On the left, write what you’ve learned to be cautious of.  On the right, write what you need to revisit and learn. 

Of course, you could have this type of conversation with students without a whole-group goal.  However, their willingness to engage properly is improved by the whole-group goal.

Pulling One Direction

When everybody is on board, the entire group is working towards a common goal.  They help each other to perform as each person’s success is important for the success of the group.  The dynamic where the class clown is completing with the teacher for the attention of half-interested students is greatly minimized.  The reserved, diligent worker has a newly discovered value in the eyes of the group and is often asked for help and to provide insight.  And the positive leaders of the class push each other and everybody else towards success.  The word to best describe such an environment is harmonious.

Design and Planning – The Importance and Meaning of Checkpoints

A good goal needs to align with the purpose of the class.  The goal’s ability to motivate students is of course directly related to how well students resonate with the purposes of the class, which is why we started there with the foundational elements of teaching.

You could craft the goal yourself, or with the collaboration of some or all of the students.  However, make sure it includes all students.  To make it motivating for students it must fit in with the purpose of the class and be well outlines.  The plan that goes with the goal should highlight the roles of homework, studying, remediation, quizzes, projects, and whatever other expectations are placed upon students. 

One of the key elements in planning to succeed in fulfilling a goal is establishing checkpoints.  A checkpoint will not ensure success but will ensure that you’re on the right path towards success. 

A quiz can be a checkpoint.  Students that understand that by passing a quiz they’ve shown they’re on the correct path towards success will be more likely to take the quiz seriously.  When they realize the homework performances promote success on a quiz, they’ll perform better on homework.  When they realize how they behave in class, how focused and prepared they are, helps them perform well on homework, they’ll do those things too.  Not only that, they might begin to study!

Checkpoints are deterministic.  Success or failure at a checkpoint only shows which track a student, or the group is on.  This is important feedback for those that are off track.  Adjustments can be made.  In a way, making those mistakes that contributed to checkpoint failure are good.  Those mistakes would be made unchecked otherwise.  So, when a student fails a quiz, a new opportunity is presented. 

In the story, I shared earlier the checkpoints were how students trended in their grades.  From one assessment to another, is the student improving?  If so, we’re on the right track.  What we did was have students take previously published examinations and grade them.  The first attempt was expectedly low.  However, in examining the performances, students realized adjustments they could and also identified areas of weakness.  This placed a value on remediation, they didn’t react as though they’re being punished by revisiting the same old, confusing topic, again!  When they completed the next test they reflected upon their performance, noting areas in which they were conceptually weak, as well as ways to become better test-takers.  Then, they also looked at their improvement that came in response to the same observations at the last checkpoint.

Since there was a communal interest in mutual success, students shared and compared their reflections of their performances.  They self-selected into groups that would focus on various topics that were causing trouble and became more resourceful, making use of the textbook and internet.  The quality of the questions brought to me was excellent.  I no longer heard, “I don’t get it,” or, “I’m just not very good at this.”  Instead, there were focused questions that only come after time in reflection.  This is fertile soil!

Let’s pull these components together.  By creating a whole-class goal that aligns with the purpose(s) of the class, a culture of working to improve and include all students is fostered.  This provides the teacher the ability to help students learn to be self-directed and resourceful, while also helping students learn to self-govern and collaborate with others. 

Whether the goal is achieved or not is of no consequence if such occurrences take place.  However, students engaging in such manners will be highly successful.  By doing things the right way for the right reasons, the results seem to take care of themselves.  Even if the results are disappointing, great benefit is realized.