There is a rising emphasis on high stakes testing within the Australian educational system and around the world. Accompanying this, there is likely to be an increase in competitiveness among students and schools. For some students, competition can be energising and foster motivation.
However, there are also many students for whom competition evokes stress and test anxiety. Indeed, within classrooms, too much emphasis on competition can reduce cooperation and collegiality—which is not helpful for students’ wellbeing or their overall academic experience.
Because of this, it is important to consider classroom strategies that help students maintain the energising properties of competition, yet at the same time help them focus more on improving their personal performance.
Personal best (PB) goal setting is one effective strategy for achieving this. PB goal setting energises the student because it creates a competitive target for the student to aim for.
At the same time, PB goal setting keeps the focus on personal improvement (rather than outperforming other students) by encouraging the student to compete with him/herself.
Here, we summarise findings from a recent Australian study published in the international journal, Contemporary Educational Psychology, that examined the role of PB goal setting in students’ engagement and achievement at school.
WHAT IS PB GOAL SETTING AND WHY DOES IT MATTER?
PB goal setting is aimed at surpassing a previous best performance or effort. As such, PB goal setting involves students consistently striving for their academic personal best.
More precisely, PB goals are:
specific - the student states exactly what he/she is aiming for,
challenging - the student raises the bar on him/herself, and
competitively self-referenced - the student competes with him/herself rather than with other students.
PB goal setting requires students to focus on their own performance or effort in relation to their past performance or effort.
By implication, they are less inclined to compare their performance to that of other students.
Encouraging PB goal setting in the classroom is an effective strategy for de-emphasising between-student competition, because it encourages students to compete with themselves rather than against others - all the while promoting personal academic excellence.
Our study examined 1,481 high school students from nine independent and systemic catholic high schools across Australia (NSW, VIC, WA).
The study included two time points of data collection, so we were able to investigate whether the effects of PB goal setting on academic engagement and achievement lasted from time 1 to time 2 (i.e., it was a longitudinal investigation).
The students completed a survey about their PB goal setting and engagement in their schoolwork, along with a literacy and maths quiz (to assess achievement).
We found that students who pursued PB goal setting demonstrated significant gains in engagement and achievement. These gains occurred beyond their previous year’s engagement and achievement, even after we accounted for students’ background characteristics such as gender, age, socio-economic status, etc.
From this, we concluded that PB goal setting plays an important role in students’ engagement and achievement gains over time.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR TEACHERS?
Teachers may want to consider promoting PB goal setting with individual students and also as a whole-class practice. There are several strategies for doing this:
Teachers may want to consider helping students identify what a PB goal looks like in a specific topic or subject area. For example, focusing on one subject area, teachers might provide examples of PB goals in effort (e.g., showing better workings in one’s mathematics questions) or performance (e.g., outperforming a previous best test result).
Students can sometimes over or underestimate their optimal level of challenge, which can lead to goals that are either too easy or too hard. It is therefore important for teachers to discuss with students what PB goals are appropriate for them and where they would like to improve.
The likelihood of achieving PB goals can be improved with consistent feedback and goal tracking. To increase the chances of students meeting their PB goals, teachers may want to consider providing clear and personal feedback on their students’ goals, as well as providing students with tools to track their progress. For example, keeping a diary has been shown to be an effective practice for maintaining goal progress. Recent research has also led to the development of worksheets for PB goal-setting and templates for teachers to monitor students’ PB progress.
Teachers may also want to consider the social elements of PB goal setting. PB goal setting encourages students to view their teachers and fellow students as collaborators in their goal pursuit. As such, teachers may focus on creating a classroom climate that promotes student collaboration and support while at the same time emphasising a focus on personal growth (rather benchmarks based on others).
PB goal setting helps students focus on their personal academic improvement.
Our study provided evidence that PB goal setting plays an important role in students’ engagement and achievement.
There are various practical strategies that teachers can employ to help students strive towards and achieve their personal best.