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Finally, goals that can be accomplished in the short-term work better than long- term goals. This does not mean long-term goals should not be set, only that long-term goals need to be broken down into short-term goals or subgoals with their own plans of action, if one is to be maximally effective in reaching them. Learning or work accomplishment goals for students seem to work best around specified skills and products, and for time spans of one period to several days rather than over several weeks or months.

A common misinterpretation of this principle is that it means students are picking what they will study (that is, the content). This is not the case. Much more often (and usually, more productively), they are setting goals about speed, quantity, or quality.

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When students get involved in goal setting for their own learning, they learn more.



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Example 1: Speed Goal

Teacher: “Glen, how many of these do you think you’ll get done in the next half-hour?”

Glen: “I think this whole page.”

Teacher: “Really? Do you really think that’s a reasonable amount?”

Glen: “Yes, I’ll do it.”

Teacher: “Okay. Show them to me when you’re done.”

Example 2: Quantity Goal

Teacher: “How many references will you use in researching that, Brenda?”

Brenda: “About six.”

Teacher: “Okay. If you think that’s enough, put it down in your outline sheet.”

There is no particular rate at which the researching must be done (except ul- timately, the deadline of the paper). It is a commitment Brenda makes to do a specified amount. The same kind of goal might apply to how many books students will read for free reading or how many extra credit or supplementary exercises they’ll do.

Example 3: Quality Goal

With these goals, students make a commitment to how well they’ll do some- thing. This can take the form of targeting what aspect of their work they’ll focus on improving. Teachers can give them the assignment to explain what they’re working to improve and perhaps ask for it in writing.

Teacher: “So, Jamie, what’s your quality goal going to be on this paper?”

Jamie: “I’m going to work on improving spelling and punctuation.”

Teacher: “How about you, Tara?”

Tara: “My goal’s going to be to use fewer tired words.”



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By getting students to set goals, teachers do not relinquish their ability to make assignments. They enlist the students in making personal commitments to speed, quantity, or quality. It is possible to have students choose content in some cases—“I want to learn everything I can about frogs,” says Freddy. There are places where it will fit in with curriculum requirements and time available to help Freddy do so (especially if one of the teacher’s goals is to stimulate and support an inquiring attitude). But it may be equally powerful to get students to set quality goals, thus involving them inevitably in self-evaluation to come up with a target for improvement. In our experience, this principle of learning is one of the least practiced in education. If we devoted just a little time and energy to it, we might see big payoffs in student performance and in students’ learning directly about self-regulation and self-evaluation.

Teacher Responses to Student Answers

Art Costa (1985) pointed out that the way teachers respond to student answers is probably more important than the questions themselves. Every time a stu- dent answers a question, a teacher does something. Similarly, if a student re- sponds with silence because he or she can’t answer the question or is slow to think it through, teachers can still do something: give a cue, refer it to another student, or offer to help. It is through these acts—repeated hundreds of times a day—that teachers set a climate about whether it’s safe to open one’s mouth in this class. It is through teachers’ patterns of actions at these moments that they exert a force either to keep students open and thinking or to become a force to restrict thinking and risk-taking.

This arena of classroom life—responses to student answers—is also an arena through which teachers send the three critical expectation messages: (1) “This is important,” (2) “You can do it,” and (3) “I won’t give up on you.”

Knowledge of Results (Feedback)

This teacher skill is more often called “feedback” than “knowledge of results.” Knowledge of results should be specific and timely. Practitioners of this prin- ciple give explicit feedback to students on their work as rapidly as possible after completion. The rationale is that this feedback has optimum corrective impact when most proximal to the student’s engaging the materials and maximum communicative effect when it is both full and specific. Full and complete feed- back is a form of respect by which teachers show students they value students’ work enough to look at it closely. In Chapter 14, “Expectations,” we go into considerable detail about how to give feedback to students in effective ways. Here are two examples of knowledge of results:

The goal setting principle of learning is one of the least practiced in education.



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Example 1: On completing a worksheet on social changes resulting from the Industrial Revolution, students see answers displayed on an overhead (or re- vealed from behind a rolled-up map). They correct their own papers and then ask the teacher clarifying questions.

Example 2: Students correct their own workbook and worksheet pages from answer books, fixing all individual mistakes and explaining their errors.

Feedback from a teacher to students does not mean this principle is in opera- tion, and finding out how they did on a test is not the principle. Students find out how they did at some point in every class, so there’s nothing special about that. What is special and what empowers learning is feedback that is rapid, spe- cific, and complete. Computer games give instantaneous knowledge of results, though not always with specific information about how to improve.

Teachers can claim they’re using knowledge of results if they’re giving students feedback about how they did very soon after they perform, along with an op- portunity to self-correct or at least see what would have to be done to improve (Butler & Winne, 1995).


A reinforcer is anything that strengthens a behavior and can range all the way from edibles and tokens to teacher statements of recognition like, “You stuck with that hard one until you got it and you didn’t give up!” Verbal reinforce- ment is the focus here because although it is so overworked in the literature and is such a common part of teacher vocabulary, it is astonishing how seldom it is used skillfully. Many opportunities for applying this powerful stimulus to learning are missed. The knowledge base tells us that verbal reinforcement should be precise, appropriate, and scheduled from regular to intermittent.

Precise means that the statement should specify exactly what it is that the learner has done that is good: “You didn’t rush today, and you got them almost all right” is better than “Good work.” The student is much more likely to re- produce the high accuracy rate, which is due to not rushing, if not rushing is explicitly reinforced. When a teacher says, “You finished those problems and then you put your stuff away without my giving you any reminders, and you started on your writing. That’s great,” the student knows what is great.

Appropriate reinforcement is important. If a student doesn’t want it, it’s not reinforcing. Being praised in front of someone else may be embarrassing. Be- ing told his handwriting is “nice” may turn off a sixth-grade athlete and get

What empowers learning is feedback that is rapid, specific, and complete.



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him kidded by his pals. More appropriate feedback for him might be, “John, you’re one of our best ball players and I see your fine motor coordination is just as good as your coordination on the ball field” (Hunter, 1977). It is easy to see why studies of praise and reinforcement that count frequency of the behavior and look for correlations to student achievement never get anywhere. Only ap- propriate use of reinforcement works.

Scheduling is the third important feature of reinforcement. B. F. Skinner dis- covered that behaviors established through operant conditioning become more stable and more durable if reinforcement is delivered with every occurrence of the behavior at first. But then, reinforcement should skip occasional occur- rences at random, and the span of unreinforced occurrences between reinforc- ers should gradually be lengthened. Use of intermittent scheduling to establish behaviors is more in line with a systematic plan for behavior modification a teacher might use to develop hand raising versus calling out or promptness versus tardiness to class.

Although researchers universally agree on the positive effects of intrinsic rein- forcement, a debate has raged for years over whether extrinsic reinforcers ought to be used. Chance (1992) has put the matter in perspective by pointing out the conditions under which extrinsic reinforcers are not only okay (meaning they do not damage students’ motivation to do the activity when there are no reinforcers around) but are helpful to learning. Chance points out that extrin- sic reinforcers include teachers’ smiles, praise, congratulations, saying “thank you” or “right,” shaking hands, a pat on the back, applauding, providing a cer- tificate of achievement, or other behaviors that “in any way provide a positive consequence (a reward) for student behavior” (p. 203). Extrinsic rewards can decrease motivation to engage in a behavior (say, reading) if it is given as a task contingency—for merely participating in an activity, without regard to how well one does at it. But when rewards are success contingent, that is, delivered when students perform well or meet goals, there is no negative effect on engage- ment with the activity later when rewards are no longer given. Indeed, success- contingent rewards tend to increase interest in the activity.

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