Goals. We hear a lot about goals, and for good reason. Goals provide a target, something to shoot at. Without goals, we tend to wander. Just think about a teenage kid you know. When that young man or woman has a goal, they (usually) accomplish good things. When that person doesn’t have a goal, the best outcome is mediocrity and the results are usually worse. The same is true in other life contexts, both professional and personal. We set revenue goals, prospecting goals, exercise and dieting goals, investment goals, project goals, time goals, and so on.
What about learning goals? Why not set goals for what to learn? Yes, we should set learning goals, but do you understand the relationship between your learning goals, practice at what you’re learning, and the feedback you get on your efforts? Understanding that connection is vital for success in your learning goals.
For the past several weeks, I have been exploring insights from How Learning Works, which presents a research-based but highly practical exploration of 7 principles regarding how people learn. In this article, I continue the discussion by sharing one of the insights from chapter 5, which digs into how practice and feedback supports learning. That insight is the important relationship between goals, practice, and feedback. (Click here to see a list of other articles in the series presented below.)
Knowing the purpose and the evident value of setting goals in general, it’s no stretch of imagination or logic that we should apply that to setting goals for learning. They might be big picture. (I once set a goal to earn a masters degree and then I set a goal to earn a doctorate. I achieved both). Learning goals might also be more focused. (During my doctorate studies I set a goal to find one practical principle to take from each course for use in personal or professional life. That was very successful, too.)
I set learning goals and they played a part in my learning success. However, because I did not understand the relationship between goals, practice and feedback, I was not able to take full advantage of any of the three.
Let’s look closer at these connections.
In the diagram below, you’ll see that Ambrose et al. (2010) recognized what I’ve described above, that learning goals direct practice activities. That is, the goals we set for learning have a guiding effect on what we need to practice. This link is more apparent with focused goals (e.g. my goal is to learn how to repair 19th-century mantel clocks) vs general goals (e.g. I want to study horology). Goals help determine the scope and nature of what we need to practice in order to achieve the goal.
What is not given much attention, though, is that goals also impact the process of feedback. This process includes observed performance and targeted feedback.
Observed performance needs to be tied to goals. If my goal is to learn how to repair 19th-century mantel clocks, I should be engaged in activities to practice those repairs. If my mentor or teacher is observing my bookkeeping skills (which would be important in running a clock repair business, but is not relevant to my immediate practice of repairing the clocks), the resulting feedback will off base. It will not be targeted feedback that supports my practice at repairing clocks.
In addition, if my practice activities are tied to the repair of these clocks, and the teacher is observing these same activities (which is good), but the feedback I get is regarding how I manage my time (which may be peripherally related), I will not have sufficient guidance on future practice.
As noted in the diagram:
- Goals direct practice,
- Goals help us evaluate observed performance, and
- Goals shape targeted feedback.
When goals are the foundation of these practice and feedback activities, then:
- Practice will lead to…
- Observed performance that allows for…
- Targeted feedback that guides further…
- Practice that leads to… and so on
Goals, though, are the cornerstone of this effective practice and feedback loop. Remove goals and the whole system is dramatically weakened. We’ve all been in learning situations where the goals were unclear. As a result, we weren’t sure exactly what behavior would be monitored (so we didn’t know where to focus our practice). The feedback, too, was not helpful, because we didn’t understand how that was relevant to whatever it was we were trying to accomplish. (In fact, in situations lacking goals or having vague goals it is not uncommon to get little or no feedback. That’s even worse!)
The next time you embark on a learning project, one in which you are the student or the teacher, make a chart that identifies, first, your goals. Then make lists that articulate:
- How those goals inform what practice activities needs to be pursued,
- How those goals will help evaluate observed performance (and what performance needs to be observed), and
- How those goals shape targeted feedback.
With this plan in place, your learning, or your students’ learning, will be better supported and you will be creating a better atmosphere for learning.
Other Articles In This Series
Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at]LeadStrategic.com with your questions.
Photo “Stone Arch Bridge – Minneapolis, Minnesota” by Doug Kerr. Available at Flickr.com.
1: Susan A. Ambrose, Michael W. Bridges, Marsha C. Lovett, Michele DiPietro, and Marie K. Norman. How Learning Works: 7 Research-based Principles for Smart Thinking (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010), chapter 5.