Researchers typically divide goals into two types - learning goals (also known as mastery goals) and performance goals. Learning goals are motivated by a desire to increase one's skills and ability in an area or in accomplishing a task, while performance goals tend to be more motivated by a desire for recognition - from friends, teachers, or family - and a competitive desire to "be better" than others. Students have been found to persist more when they face obstacles if they are focusing on learning, rather than, performance goals.
This heightened level of perseverance is generated because learning goals can often be more likely achieved by effort without a finite end point ("I want to be more focused in class" or "I want to speak English more clearly and with more confidence"). Performance goals are more easily attributed to innate ability with a more definitive ending - that is also based on an outsider recognizing it -- so a student can give up on working toward achieving it more easily if it doesn't appear in reach at some point ("I want to get an 'A' this semester" or "I want to read ten books this semester") or cease trying once it's assured.
Interestingly, those who make a higher priority of learning goals have been shown to achieve higher performance levels than those who actually emphasize performance goals. When students are focused on a performance goal, they tend to pay less attention to "understanding" and more on "the score." For example, one of the formative assessment tools we regularly use with our students is having them read passages to us - individually - for a minute each and then count the number of words they read accurately, while at the same time noting their level of prosody (reading with feeling and intonation). A performance goal-oriented student might try to rush through this evaluation of reading fluency to get the highest word count number possible, notwithstanding our cautions about accuracy and prosody, and may not care if they know the meaning of many the words they are reading. On the other hand, a student with a learning goal of improving their reading comprehension, fluency and prosody is likely to have a much higher increase in their overall literacy level.
That is not to say that performance goals are evil. We live in the world as it is, not the world as we would like it to be. In the world as it is, most school cultures (and the culture outside the four walls of educational institutions) put a high value performance goals - grades, test scores, etc. As you can see, this goal-setting form I use with students does include space for one performance goal, with several other spaces for learning ones. As with most things, it's not a question of either/or. Rather, it's more of a question of where we place an emphasis. Researchers suggest that including a performance goal is fine as long as the person "has the knowledge to attain it."
Teachers can play a key role in helping students choose challenging, yet realistic, goals. However, it's critical that students take the lead in setting their goals because of the effect it can have on increasing intrinsic motivation, its effectiveness in helping them more ably suppress distractions, and its impact on strengthening perseverance.
Recent research suggests that self-perception also plays a major role in accomplishing goals, and that it might be valuable to say, "I am a writer, and will learn the skills needed to write better in English over the next two months" instead of just saying "I will learn the skills needed to better in English over the next two months."
Here is a complete goal-setting lesson plan I use with students, and you can find more information, including lessons and other student hand-outs, at The Best Posts On Students Setting Goals.
Larry Ferlazzo teaches English and Social Studies at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California. He has written eight books on education, writes a teacher advice blog for Education Week Teacher, and has his own popular resource-sharing blog. He writes a weekly post for the New York Times on teaching English Language Learners. Portions of this post were adapted from the forthcoming book, Navigating The Common Core With English Language Learners: Practical Strategies To Develop Higher-Level Thinking Skills, co-written by Katie Hull Sypnieski and Larry.