By Luke McKenna


How many schools are going through the process of student goal setting right now in order to start the year off on the right foot? How many schools are using effective methods to do so?


There are four parts to goals-

·       Goal setting (writing down what we want to achieve).

·       Goal commitment (caring about or valuing the goal and being committed to particular actions)

·       Goal striving (continuing to do the actions required).

·       Goal attainment (achieving the desired outcomes).

While the first two parts (setting and committing to goals) are necessary, they will most certainly not lead to goal attainment without goal striving occurring. If we don’t repeatedly commit to the action, we won’t achieve the goal.

The truth is, the first part- goal setting- is easy. For those who are motivated and enthused, goal commitment is fairly easy. However, we all struggle with striving for goals that require a great deal of persistence- especially when things get hard, we get busy and “life takes over”. The enthusiasm and motivation can decline pretty quickly. Not all goal setting is equal.

While students are often invited to “dream big dreams”, “shoot for the moon” and “think positive”, rarely does this seem to result in improved outcomes. Goal setting will not work in this context.


A quick look at the research

In a study of students preparing for a high stakes exam, used to determine merit-based scholarships, two groups of students - equal for ability and motivation- were taught goal setting in slightly different ways. Interestingly, it was found at the end of the study that one group actually completed over 60 percent more practice questions than students in the control group (Duckworth, Grant, Loew, Oettingen, & Gollwitzer, 2011). What was the difference in the way they were taught to set goals? The answer is MCII (or mental contrasting and implementation intentions).

Mental contrasting is the process of contrasting our goal, with the obstacles that may stand in the way. Mental contrasting enhances the goal setting stage and strengthens goal commitment. While setting goals and committing to them does not turn them into a reality, the process of mental contrasting has been found to energise individuals into taking action (Oettingen, et al., 2009).

Once goals are set, we must then strive for them. While goal setting and goal commitment is enhanced through mental contrasting, goal striving is enhanced by forming implementation intentions. Essentially, this process requires making “if/then” plans and has been shown to enhance our ability to stay on track with the actions required to bring goals to fruition (Gollwitzer, 1999). This plan can detail when, where and how we will take action. This has been popularised by Gabrielle Oettingen’s WOOP process.


4 steps to applying this for effective student goal setting

At UPP, we have adapted and simplified this process to make it more useful and relevant to students.

It can be summarised by these four steps- T.A.O.P. - Target, Action, Obstacle, Plan.

The key is acknowledging that the obstacles are real, realistic, and likely to happen. If there were no obstacles, most people would have already achieved their targets. However, they do not need to keep us from moving forward.

Students undergo this process by completing each sentence:


ACTION= “The main ACTION necessary to achieve my target is…”

OBSTACLE= “One OBSTACLE that might arise on the way to my target is…”

PLAN= “If …(the obstacle arises) then…(I will carry out this specific action)”.


Get the printable worksheet for your school

If you’d like to grab the printable UPP worksheet “Reaching targets with T.A.O.P”, that shows how schools can support students with goal setting and striving, download it for free here.


At Unleashing Personal Potential, we improve learning and expand lives by providing schools with training and resources that develop growth mindsets, grit, wellbeing and leadership.


For bookings or enquiries, contact us today.


To find out more about the research that informs and supports our work, grab our research reports here.