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Growth goal setting –
what works best in practice
A practical guide for schools
NSW Department of Education
Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation
Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation
The Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation (CESE) was created in 2012 to
improve the effectiveness, efciency and accountability of education in NSW. It is
focused on supporting decision-making in education delivery and development
with strong evidence.
CESE analyses and evaluates educational programs and strategies and gauges
NSW’s education performance over time through its ongoing core data collections
and delivery of analysis and reports. It also monitors national and international
strategic agendas to ensure that NSW is well positioned to provide leadership
CESE’s three main responsibilities are:
1. to provide data analysis, information and evaluation that improve
effectiveness, efciency and accountability
2. to create a one-stop shop for information needs – a single access point to
education data that has appropriate safeguards to protect data condentiality
3. to build capacity across the whole education sector by developing intelligent
tools to make complex data easy to use and understand, and providing
accessible reports so that everyone can make better use of data.
CESE provides sound evidence for educators to make decisions about best practice
in particular contexts and importantly, enables teachers to meet the needs of
students at every stage of their learning.
Anaïd Flesken, Samuel Cox, Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation,
and Andrew J. Martin, Rebecca J.Collie, Emma C. Burns, Keiko C.P. Bostwick,
Universityof New South Wales
May 2021, Sydney, NSW
Please cite this publication as:
Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation (2021),
Growth goal setting –
works best in
practice, NSWDepartment of Education, education.nsw.gov.au/cese.
For more information about this report, please contact:
Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation
Department of Education
GPO Box 33
SYDNEY NSW 2001
+61 2 7814 1527
Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation 3
When students set growth goals, they are more likely to have plans to attend
university, to persevere in schoolwork and to engage with homework. This paper
provides a synthesis of research, including new research from NSW high schools
using Tell Them From Me data. It
explains why growth goal setting is important and
provides practical suggestions for schools and teachers to support their students.
• Research shows that growth goal setting improves achievement and
• Students who set growth goals are more likely to experience gains in aspirations,
perseverance and homework behaviour.
• Growth goal setting supports attendance for students of low
• Growth goal setting bolsters aspirations to complete Year 12, particularly
forstudents with low prior achievement.
• Growth goal setting can be fostered through explicit teaching, provision
offeedback and relevant content.
Student growth goal setting in NSW public schools
Students report on their growth goal setting in the student survey offered
NSW public schools – Tell Them From Me (TTFM)*. TTFM reports on student,
parent and teacher perspectives of school life, and provides data
wellbeing and engagement, as well as the teaching practices
in the classroom. This paper presents ndings on how to
growth goal setting, drawn from a literature review and
of TTFM data in a collaborative study by the Centre for Education Statistics and
Evaluation (CESE) and the University of New South Wales (UNSW).
*Tell Them From Me is provided by, and is the intellectual property of
Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation 4
What works best and growth goal setting
In What works best: 2020 update (CESE 2020), we outline 8 quality teaching
practices that are known to support school improvement and enhance the
learning outcomes of our students. In this document, we outline a teaching tool
that spans and supports several What works best practices: growth goal setting.
The process of setting and achieving growth goals encompasses 4 effective
teaching practices outlined in What works best: 2020 update:
1. Assessment determines where a student is in their learning and helps
monitor their progress towards the learning goal.
2. Learning goals should be challenging, and high expectations explicitly
communicated to students.
3. Explicit teaching practices reduce the cognitive burden of learning new
and complex skills and allow students to focus on the learning goal itself.
4. Effective feedback stimulates reection on learning and motivates
students when they see that their effort has paid off.
Process of setting and achieving growth goals
For more information on What works best, refer to education.nsw.gov.au/about-us/
Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation 5
What is growth goal setting?
Growth goal setting is different from growth mindset; refer to the text box ‘Growth strategies
Goal setting is an effective strategy for enhancing students’ educational
development. Goal setting is not a new idea in education, but in recent years
there has been an increasing focus on growth approaches to goal setting.
Growth goal setting involves striving to meet personally set academic challenges,
aiming to outperform one’s previous best efforts or performance and striving
Why is growth goal setting important?
Research over the past decade has identied many positive effects of growth goal
setting, including improved engagement, learning and achievement (refer to
Martin 2006; Martin et al. 2021). As such, growth goals are an important tool to help
us achieve our goal that every student improves every year.
Growth goal setting is positively associated with:
• educational aspirations (Martin 2006; Martin and Liem 2010; Martin et al. 2021)
• test effort, homework completion and learning strategies (Martin and Liem 2010;
Yu and Martin 2010; Liem et al. 2012; Martin et al. 2021)
• class participation, cooperation and relationships (Martin 2006; Martin and
Liem2010; Liem et al. 2012)
• enjoyment of school (Martin 2006; Martin and Liem 2010)
• higher levels of literacy and numeracy (Martin and Liem 2010; Mok et al. 2014;
Burns et al. 2018).
The association between growth goal setting behaviours and improved academic
outcomes is found regardless of gender or immigration background (Martin 2006;
Martin et al. 2016). Among students with attention decit/hyperactivity disorder, it
is even stronger (Martin et al. 2019).
Numerous randomised controlled trials in schools and universities show that goal
setting has positive effects on student achievement and wellbeing – and that it can
be taught effectively to improve them (for example, Morisano et al. 2010; Travers
et al 2015). For example, in Australia, primary students who set growth goals in
mathematics improved more than students who did not (Ginns et al. 2018).
Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation 6
How does growth goal setting work?
Goal setting affects motivation and achievement through 5 mechanisms (Locke
and Latham 2002; 2006; 2013; Martin 2006; Zimmerman 2008; refer to Figure 2):
1. Focus: setting goals claries what is to be done and focuses students’ attention
and effort toward goal-relevant activities and away from goal-irrelevant activities.
2. Effort: setting goals motivates students to exert effort. Specic and challenging
goals in particular increase effort, compared to vague and easy goals.
3. Persistence: setting goals motivates students to persist with a task for longer,
perhaps because goals make success more accessible.
4. Strategy seeking: setting goals affects achievement because it leads students
to seek strategies that will help them to attain their goals. When faced with
agoal, people automatically apply their existing knowledge and skills to work
towards attaining that goal. If existing knowledge and skills are not sufcient,
they draw on other knowledge and skills they have previously used in related
contexts. If the goal relates to a task that is completely new to people, they
deliberately develop strategies that will enable them to attain that goal.
5. Self-efcacy: attaining goals also affects motivation and further achievement
because it increases students’ sense of self-efcacy.
How goal setting affects student achievement
Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation 7
What is happening in NSW?
Tell Them From Me survey data shows that not every student sets growth goals.
In 2018 and 2019, 61.3% of secondary school students reported that they set
challenging andpersonal-best goals in their schoolwork. Split by scholastic year,
growth goal setting decreases throughout secondary school, with a slight uplift
in the nal years (Figure 3).
Percentage of secondary students with growth goals by scholastic year, TTFM 2018-19
TTFM data also shows that growth goal setting is not evenly distributed across
student groups. More girls than boys and more students from higher than from
lower socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds set growth goals (Figure 4).
Percentage of secondary students with growth goals, by gender and socioeconomic
background, TTFM 2018-19
Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation 8
CESE and UNSW collaboration on
growth goal setting in NSW
CESE and UNSW jointly examined the links
between teaching practice, growth goal setting
and student engagement among secondary school
students in New South Wales (Martin etal.2021).
We found that growth goal setting was
positively associated with large gains in students’
perseverance, aspirations and homework behaviour.
Perseverance and aspirations to complete school
are important indicators of students’ cognitive
engagement. Homework behaviour, as measured
in Tell Them From Me, is an indicator of students’
attitudes towards homework, the extent to which it
supports their learning and their effort in completing it. It is an important
part of developing academic self-regulatory skills (for instance, time
management),particularly for highschool students.
Of these 3 indicators of engagement, growth goal setting had the strongest
effect on perseverance, which refers to the ability to pursue one’s goals to
completion, even in the face of obstacles (Kern et al. 2016). Students with
highgrowth goal setting have 30.5% more perseverance than students with
low growth goal setting. This is important because perseverance has a strong
correlation with academic achievement and school performance (Gregory
In addition to these signicant effects for all students, we also found that
• had an especially positive effect for the aspirations of lower
• decreased differences in school attendance between students from
low-and from high-socioeconomic backgrounds.
How do we measure growth goal setting?
NSW public schools can assess the growth goal setting behaviours of their
students using the TTFM student survey. Students are asked to what extent they
agree or disagree with the following sentences, drawn from research by Martin
(2006) and Martin and Liem (2010):
• ‘I set challenges for myself in my schoolwork.’
• ‘I like to work towards challenging goals in my schoolwork.’
• ‘When I do my schoolwork, I try to do the best that I’ve ever done.’
• ‘When I do my schoolwork, I try to improve on how I’ve done before.’
For each question, students rate themselves on a scale of disagreement
Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation 9
Implications for teaching and learning
Teach students how to set and strive for growth goals
Students can benet most from growth goal setting when they are taught how
to set and work towards achieving effective goals. Strategies on setting effective
classroom goals and on how to discuss goal setting with students are outlined in
the next section.
Adapt growth goals to the learning process
Different stages in the learning process require different types of goals (Table 1).
When a task is entirely new, students benet from being exposed to strategies
to complete it, either through explicit teaching (refer to CESE 2017; 2020) or by
attaining learning goals. In the next stage, students can then focus on applying
learned strategies. Here, process goals that encourage practice are most effective.
Once the new skill becomes automatic, product goals that encourage improved
efciency are most effective.
Adapting growth goals to the learning process
Experience Goal Description Example
New to task Learning goal Discovering strategies
‘Find 3 strategies to reduce the
number of words in a sentence.’
Practising task Process goal Applying a learned
strategy to complete
‘Focus on applying the strategies
you have learned to reduce the
number of words in eachsentence.’
Task automatic Product goal Completing a task ‘Reduce the number of words in
Provide effective feedback
Effective feedback is a central element of growth goal setting. Reviews of effective
feedback (for example, Shute 2008) emphasise the importance of:
• being prompt and timely with feedback
• ensuring feedback is concrete, clear and specic
• delivering feedback that is accurate, unbiased, objective and ideally
• focusing corrective feedback on the task, more than on the learner
• providing corrective information that is also forward-reaching, aimed
atenhancing learning and instilling student optimism
• presenting feedback in manageable segments
• providing feedback that is as simple as possible (based on learner needs).
Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation 10
Make learning relevant
Relevant content and tasks contribute to effective growth goal setting. Content
and tasks are relevant if they are personally meaningful, useful and interesting.
Strategies to enhance relevance include (for example, refer to Martin 2003):
• developing connections between students’ prior and current learning – this
demonstrates meaningful links across content
• developing connections between what students learn and major issues in
theworld outside of school – this develops authentic links to the world
• developing connections between what students learn and aspects of their
ownlives – this develops personal meaning
• arousing curiosity to optimise a student’s connection to instruction and
• looking for opportunities for fun learning activities to build an emotional
connection to instruction and subject matter
• personalising language and tasks where possible – for example, providing
instructions such as: ‘Your goal in this task is to …’ leads to more personally
meaningful learning than instructions such as: ‘The goal for this task is to …’ – and
individualising tasks (where feasible) to provide a sense that the task is aligned
Target growth goals for academically at-risk student groups
Students from low-SES backgrounds and students with low achievement are
found to particularly benet from growth goal setting. A growth goal setting
strategy may be one part of a multifaceted approach to assist academically at-risk
or otherwise disadvantaged students in the classroom.
Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation 11
Characteristics of effective goals in the classroom
Effective growth goals have 3 core attributes: they are focused on self-improvement
(Martin 2006), they are specic and they are challenging (Locke and Latham 2002;
2013). In the classroom, several other goal attributes are also important: effective
goals are positive, time-bound and measurable.
Effective goals focus on self-improvement
Self-improvement goals, more than competitive goals, are effective in
the classroom. A competitive goal compares a student’s achievement to
that of others, while a self-improvement goal compares it to a student’s
own, earlier achievement.
Competitive goals tend to be effective while students are succeeding but
can become counterproductive if they perform poorly (Covington 2000).
Growth goals, or personal-best goals, in contrast, have been shown to be
effective more generally (Slavin 1980; Martin et al. 2014; Ginns et al. 2018)
and may work particularly well for students from disadvantaged groups
(forexample, Martin et al. 2019; Martin et al. 2021).
Self-improvement goal: I will complete more tasks correctly in this week’s
test than in my last test.
Competitive goal: I will complete more tasks correctly in this week’s test
than any other student.
Effective goals are specic
Goals can be either general, with the aim to ‘do your best’, or more
Specic goals are more effective because they make it easier
to focus on
goal-relevant activities and to track progress against the goal
2008). Students with specic goals have been shown to
improve their skills
at a higher rate than students with general goals, and
to be more condent
in them (Schunk 1983a).
Specic goal: I will complete at least 3 more tasks correctly in this week’s
test than in my last test.
General goal: I will try to do better in my tests.
Effective goals are challenging
Difcult goals are more effective than easier goals (Locke and Latham
2002; Schunk 1983b), but they also need to be attainable. Failing to achieve
overly ambitious goals can be counterproductive (Zimmerman 2008).
Put together, this suggests that a goal should be challenging, since this
description encompasses both the difculty and attainability ofthetask.
Students should be explicitly told that they can attain a goal. Students
who have teachers with high expectations and who think that they
can attain a goal are more condent and motivated to work towards
it(Schunk 1983; Dweck 2000; CESE 2020).
Challenging goal: I will get at least 10 questions right.
Easy goal: I will get at least 3 questions right.
Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation 12
Effective goals are positive
The framing of a goal is also important. If a goal is perceived as a threat
rather than a challenge, it may adversely affect achievement (Dweck
2000; Roney and Lehman 2008). Goals should be framed in positive
terms to encourage effort andmotivation.
Positive goal: I will complete at least 7 out of 10 tasks correctly.
Negative goal: I will not make more than 3 mistakes when attempting
Effective goals are time-bound
Short-term goals are more effective than longer-term goals because they
provide more specic guidance on the actions required for success and
more immediate feedback on progress. Such goals may be especially
useful for young children who cannot yet imagine outcomes in a distant
future (Schunk 2003). Research shows that students with short-term
goals become more interested and skilled, and are better able to judge
their skills (Bandura and Schunk 1981).
Longer-term goals can also be helpful as they can motivate learners over
time. It is best to combine both approaches by breaking down long-term
goals into short-term goals (Zimmerman 2008). Young children or
students struggling in their learning mayneed help making a larger goal
more manageable, particularly when they are not able to judge why or
how they are struggling.
Short-term goal: I will complete one page of problems by the end
Longer-term goal: I will nish the book by the end of the term.
Effective goals are measurable
For goals to be effective, they need to be measurable. Measurement
allows for regular monitoring and feedback that shows students their
progress towards their goal. Feedback achieves 2 things: rst, it serves as
error management to show if the student’s actions have led to progress
towards the goal (Locke and Latham 2002). Second, seeing their efforts
pay off motivates students to put in further effort (Zimmerman 2008).
Students who receive feedback on their goal progress improve more
(Schunk and Swartz 1993), are more condent in their skills (Schunk and
Rice 1991) and are more accurate in assessing their abilities (Gaa 1973;
also Bandura and Cervone 1983; 1986). And feedback does not necessarily
need to come from others: self-monitoring progress has similar effects
(Zimmerman and Kitsantas 1997; 1999).
Measurable goal: I will complete 3 practice questions a day.
Non-measurable goal: I will study more for the next maths test.
Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation 13
How to help students set growth goals
To implement growth goal setting in the classroom, it is important that students
know what growth goals are, what growth goals to set and how to strive for
Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation 14
Growth strategies in education research
The educational research literature on growth focuses on 3 concepts, which can
be seen as different parts of students’ growth orientation (Figure 5).
1. believe that growth is possible (growth mindset)
2. strive for growth (mastery orientation)
3. adopt learning strategies to attain their goals (goal setting).
Three major growth concepts in education research
Students with a growth mindset believe that their intelligence and skills are
changeable. They believe that their skills can be can be improved through effort,
and that achievement in school reects the effort put in. Students with a xed
mindset, in contrast, tend to believe that their intelligence and skills are xed,
and that achievement in school reects this innate talent, rather than effort
(Dweck 2000). Having a growth mindset is consistently linked to higher
academic achievement (for example, Dweck2000; Blackwell, Trzesniewski and
Dweck 2007; Claro, Paunesku and Dweck 2015). However, it is not yet clear
whether teaching growth mindset can increase academic achievement (refer
toYeager et al. 2019; Education Endowment Fund2019; Sisk et al. 2018).
Students with a mastery orientation engage in learning to develop or acquire
new knowledge or skills, rather than merely to full or beat some performance
standard. Having a mastery orientation is also linked to improved academic
achievement: students with a mastery orientation are more interested in
the learning material; spend more time on learning activities; learn more
strategically; and show greater persistence in the face of challenges than
students without a mastery orientation (refer to Ames 1992; Covington 2000;
Meece et al. 2006; Morisano 2013). However, few studies have examined whether
mastery orientation can be effectively promoted in the classroom (refer to Van
Yperen et al. 2015).
Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation 15
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Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation 16
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Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation
GPO Box 33, Sydney NSW 2001, Australia
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Please cite this publication as:
Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation (2021), Growth goal setting – what works best in practice,
NSW Department of Education, education.nsw.gov.au/cese.