How to use personal learning goals to create critical thinkers

Perhaps the most important — yet too often overlooked — outcome in education is for students to be able to learn information on their own. Just like I would write a paragraph or solve a math problem, I teach this skill in my own classroom through my assignment structure. By helping your students with setting personal learning goals and following through on them, you can teach not just theories but also practical lifelong skills.

The key to creating good personal learning goals is to make them student driven. As a teacher, I can guide a student that is lost, but in general, it’s more powerful if they create their own learning goals. This personalization ensures ownership and gives the student a measurable, practical goal for the topic they’re learning. This is not to say that the student gets complete freedom of choice all the time, but it does mean that they have some choice as to what they hope to learn and accomplish for many topics.

So, how can we use these powerful objectives to improve students’ learning? Let’s find out!

3 guidelines for personal learning goals

Photo credit: patricialacolla

1. Involve students in the process

As mentioned, a teacher should never be the sole driving force in creating personal learning goals for students. Involving students in the process is critical; otherwise, they’re just learning goals and not personal learning goals. The student must be involved from the beginning and be treated as an active stakeholder rather than a passive participant. This does one very important thing: It creates ownership. And when a student owns something, they learn quickly and retain that knowledge because it’s something that they actually care about.

Moreover, the process of creating personal learning objectives should be a discussion, not a lecture. As a teacher, you may find it hard to detach yourself from the mindset of lecturing. I know I had a difficult time letting go of the reins — with all of those standards and state-mandated content to get through, how could I possibly allow the student to have any type of say in what they’re learning? The answer is more simple than it seems, though: Just ask yourself this one simple question: ¨What type of person do I want my student to be?” The answer for me always centered around thoughtfulness, adaptability, and ability to transfer ideas.

When I was able to prioritize what was most important for my students, it made it easier to facilitate personal learning targets. I was a guide, a helper, a facilitator, not the keeper of facts and knowledge. I could use my experience in the world to help a student reach a personal goal centered around a concrete objective in my classroom. Having the flexibility to change my lesson to help students reach their goals made me a much more effective teacher.

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2. Set realistic objectives Adults and students alike struggle to create realistic goals that increase the odds of success. Many times, our goals are so ambitious that they seem unattainable (and often are). I encourage students to dream big, set big goals, and then go for it. But of course, students also need to be realistic — because if they’re not, it will set them up for inevitable failure and disappointment.

By setting a big goal and then breaking that goal into smaller steps or mini-goals, students can see progress more frequently and will be more likely to reach their end target because the motivation of intermediate success will keep them going. But setting the main goal is really just the first step. After that goal is set comes the hard work of determining what needs to happen in order to actually make it a reality. I like to have students set an overall learning goal for the semester; then, along the way, we work on setting smaller learning goals that are targeted toward achieving the bigger goal.

For example, a student might set a complex goal such as, “I would like to learn how to program a computer game.” Depending on the student’s current skills, this goal may or may not be realistic. An important part of this goal-setting process is self-reflection and an honest assessment of the student’s abilities. As a teacher, I would then ask the student to identify what smaller milestones they would need to accomplish before they would be ready to create their own game. These smaller steps would be cumulative personal learning goals that would gradually give the student the necessary skills and abilities to reach their final goal.

Photo credit: Ben Mullins

3. Practice metacognition

Metacognition is the ability of a person to think about their own knowledge and learning. It’s critical for our students to develop metacognitive skills so they can be self-sufficient for a lifetime.

As the old saying goes: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime,” the same is true for our students and how they learn. They spend so much of their day being buckets filled with facts and theories, rather than active participants in their own learning. Personal learning goals allow students to think in terms of what knowledge they lack and how they can go about learning things on their own rather than relying on others to think for them. This is an essential skill that will help them far beyond your classroom — in college, at work, and in life in general.

So how does creating learning objectives help us teach metacognitive skills? Well, for one, it requires a great deal of self-reflection — students need to think about their interests, their abilities, and their background knowledge to create an actionable plan and move forward. The process also teaches students perseverance, giving them the aptitude to acquire necessary skills or knowledge on their own when stymied.

Really, personal learning goals are at the heart of creating critical thinkers who are able to solve real-life problems. And that, after all, is the goal of education.

The big picture

There’s no magic spell when it comes to teaching our students. However, establishing personal learning goals will help students be adaptable, thoughtful, and independent learners. Through collaboration with our students, we can create manageable personal learning goals that give students a purpose for being in school, as well as teaching them how to learn on their own. You can’t ask for much more than that from a simple strategy!

Photo credit: Annie Spratt  /

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