The best way I can start this blog post is with a story: a story typical of many experiences I have had over the past 15 years as a high school science and mathematics teacher. It’s a story of hope: for our students, and for us as teachers.
Lucy appeared nervous when I first met her. She had started Year 11/Grade 10 a month later than the other students, and had come to our school from a completely different country. English was not her first language, and to further compound things she was in my class to study chemistry (and at IGCSE level at that). She had never studied chemistry at any level before.
The whole class had a test coming up in a few weeks time. The test covered advanced topics in chemistry, along with some topics that had been covered the year previously. Lucy was incredibly nervous about having to sit that test.
“I’m just going to fail this test aren’t I” she whimpered one morning.
“Just try your best”, I said – realizing the monumental challenge that was ahead of her (in both the immediate, and long-term future).
She got a grade U in that test – a grade that most would consider a ‘fail’.
After the test, I sat down for a chat with Lucy about the different questions and how to answer each one. The time-investment on my part that day was significant (and, therefore, this strategy tends to be unpopular with some teachers), but it was worth it for a number of reasons:
- We went through each and every question on the paper and, in Lucy’s case, this involved teaching her some fundamental chemistry from first-principles. This was a rich learning experience that helped her to grasp some of the basic concepts.
- We agreed on a target for her next test – a grade E.
- At random points in the weeks ahead I reminded her of her target. I would ask her “What’s your target, Lucy?”, and, crucially, “How will you make it happen?”. She would usually answer the latter question by describing the textbooks, websites and resources she would use for her revision. I would always reassure her by saying something along the lines of “I know you can do this!”.
When Lucy’s next test came along, she scored her target grade. After that, we repeated the same process: going through the paper deeply and carefully, followed by target articulation and my near-constant reminders of what that next target was. On some level I think she didn’t want to let me down. Eventually, that evolved into a desire to not let herself down.
She exceeded her target on her next test: scoring a grade C.
After almost two terms of repeating this process, Lucy found herself achieving grade As, and then A*s. At the end of the academic year she sat her IGCSE exams in Chemistry, and scored an A* – a more than monumental achievement considering that she had studied the course is much less time than the other students had, and had never learnt any chemistry prior to IGCSE.
Somewhere along this journey, Lucy really started to believe in her capabilities. I think she started to believe because she could see that was actually making progress. The process was working.
An analysis of Lucy’s story
A number of key elements came into-play to create success for Lucy. One such element was the fact that Lucy’s targets were SMART:
- Specific: Lucy knew exactly what her expected minimum grade was for each test.
- Measurable: Lucy knew the exact percentage she would need to achieve each grade, and therefore knew how many percentage points she would need to increase by (e.g. her grade U was 18%, and she would need 35% for a grade E – an increase of 17 percentage points).
- Achievable: Lucy articulated her own targets along the way, and we went in ‘baby steps’.
- Relevant: Lucy put-in so much effort because the journey was meaningful to her. She reached a stage where she wanted to outperform her peers, and she wanted to outperform her previous attainment.
- Time-bound: Lucy knew exactly how many weeks would pass between the present moment and her next test. This allowed her to plan her revision in such a way that work could be spread-out over a period of time, rather than crammed at the last-minute.
SMART targets have been known about in teaching circles for decades, and are a well-established method for empowering students and facilitating progress. In fact, Jan O’Neill and Anne Conzemius stated probably one of the most poignant arguments for the use of SMART targets in their book – The Power of SMART Goals: Using Goals to Improve Student Learning:
SMART goals redefine the relationship between effort and personal satisfaction. What the authors call “joy in work” can only be experienced when daily work is linked to goals that allow us to see that our thoughts and efforts connect, at every moment, to something larger and worthwhile – to something we can see and examine and enjoy. Without this orientation, effort and energy can only dissipate into aimless, joyless toil. Without goals, we will never work as hard or as smart to accomplish what is important – to us and for our students.The Power of SMART Goals: Using Goals to Improve Student Learning by Anne Conzemius and Jan O’Neill.
In Lucy’s case, I could definitely see her initial ‘joyless toil’ when she started her IGCSE Chemistry studies turn into “joy in work” as she began to link her efforts to realistic, achievable goals.
In my personal opinion, however, I think teachers generally find it difficult to get the time-bound part of SMART targets perfectly on-par. Where possible, it’s really helpful to have a year-long schedule for all assessment planned in-advance, with a topic list for each assessment given to each student on day-one. Many educators, however, are reluctant to do this as it’s often difficult to follow a planned schedule as school events can knock-out a few lessons here and there, and lessons may progress at slower or faster pace than anticipated. However, I would still argue that having such an ‘assessment plan’ in-place is better than not having one – topic lists for each test can be modified along the way if more, or less, content has been covered. At least that way the students can plan-ahead, and if they are given specific, measurable targets (e.g. “I want you to get 40% on your next test”), then that can pursued with more confidence than if the test-dates and topic-lists are unclear.
A number of researchers have suggested ways to set targets that are even more effective than using the SMART system. Trevor Day of the University of Bath and Paul Tosey of the University of Surrey, for example, made the case in a 2011 paper for the use of ‘well formed outcomes’ in conjunction with SMART targets.
Well formed outcomes are a construct from the field of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) and take into account the “learner’s identity, affective dimensions (feelings and emotions), social relations and values, as well as encouraging mental rehearsal.” You can read more about well-formed outcomes and how to use them for target-setting with your students at this excellent blog post here.