The reality of setting goals…..

reachstar     We all are familiar with the Browning quote “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp…” but Browning is referring to heaven, and not academic realities.  If we are to ask our students to strive to reach goals way beyond their developmental capabilities, we best be there to breakdown, model, and support each attempt at meeting goals that are set too high for students to attain independently. Even so, if the goals are set far beyond the students perception of his/her capabilities, we are promoting a design for academic failure. So we must also be there to break down unrealistic goals into manageable parts, and let them “reset” during the learning process.  The CCSS are standards, that can be shaped into manageable and realistic goals; no one said we had to swallow them whole, just focus on what can be done!

From day one studying self regulation was attractive to me because it had a reset button!


In all of my years of schooling, no one ever mentioned to me that if goals were set too high I could reset my goals, breaking the larger down into more manageable and attainable steps.  As young students, the teacher set the goals, wrote the objectives and we either met them, or as in my case, fell below. I recall my most dreaded math class, geometry.  The only sentence I recall was “This will be on the Regents!”.  If the goal was to pass the geometry regents that was way beyond my reach and grasp, if it was to learn geometry, that did not happen either.  However, if someone had set proximal and realistic goals to learn the mathematical strategies required to pass the Regents, I do believe I would have loved the course.

geo regents

We need to review the research that deals with setting realistic goals for our students and come to the realization that if the goal is not attainable from the learner’s perception, it will be a source of discouragement and not motivation. If Mrs. S had just once worked with me to set goals that I could actually reach, my self-efficacy (when it came to math) would not have suffered for years to come.

Dale H. Schunk (1990), a leading researcher and scholar in SR has a readily available article online (courtesy of Taylor and Francis),  Goal Setting and Self Efficacy During Self-Regulated Learning.   He states, “When students perceive satisfactory goal progress, they feel capable of improving their skills; coupled with high self-efficacy, this leads students to set new and challenging goals.” The article supports the reasoning behind teaching parents, teachers, and future teachers that goal setting and self-efficacy are important self-regulatory processes and close attention should be paid to whether or not each and every student is reaching too far beyond his or her grasp.

Standards do not determine how we set our goals; they guide our curriculum, and we can in turn reset goals that appear to be unattainable. Now that the state (NY) has lifted the mandate that connected high stakes testing with teacher evaluations (for the moment) we need to shift our goals to learning how to be a self regulated learner.  Linking learning to test performance as the only measurable outcome is way beyond anyone’s reach or grasp.  If we set proximal goals for sharpening strategies, or skills, then we are encouraging our students to grow as learners.  If we set goals to do well on the exams associated with the CCSS our students might become great at prepping for tests, but not independent learners.



Schunk, D. H. (1990). Goal setting and self-efficacy during self-regulated learning. Educational Psychologist,
25, 71-86. Retrieved from

( Star Graphic from


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