Supporting learner ownership and the formulation of authentic goals
With the launch of online Individual Learning Plans (ILPs) at ELATT, our aim was to ensure that learners and tutors had the tools and support they needed to formulate goals and to see value in the process.
You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway (link pending).
Goal setting for adult learners is accepted as key to achievement and progress and is prominent in most Further Education (FE) funder requirements. However, it is also recognised that the specific requirements of the latter can lead to tutor-driven and formulaic goal setting across adult learning, with a loss of authenticity (Hinds, 2021).
Although this had not been an issue at ELATT, the rapid pivot to remote teaching two years ago complicated a paper-based process while tutors were having to adapt to new class dynamics online, all of which impacted upon the goal setting process.
However, with the introduction of an online platform for ILPs we identified the opportunity to go ‘back to basics’ on goal setting. We planned to draw on the experience of tutors who are strong in this area and support those who are less confident.
We aimed to get learners to see the value in goal setting by relating this to their lives and aspirations. This would form the basis for further skills development in supporting learners to break down larger goals into SMART steps.
Other Contextual Information
ELATT is an educational charity based in Hackney. Our model is to support learners in identifying and achieving their life goals by developing skills, knowledge and confidence. Our project reflects the ethos of ELATT and focuses on supporting learners to identify their life goals and formulate the smaller steps needed to develop the skills, knowledge and confidence they need to succeed.
We deliver programmes for adults and also have a small alternative provision sixth form, which has mainly SEND learners. Adult classes are mainly still online, while the sixth form is on-site.
Three sections took part in this action research:
an ESOL L1 class
a sixth form L1-L2 English/PSD class
an L2 Support Work in Schools course for ESOL learners.
A small project team with representatives from ESOL, sixth form English and Vocational was formed; two of the group had supported other tutors previously in goal setting.
See below for an overview of project activities:
Survey of sector specific research into the use of ILPs and goal setting.
Project Team discussed their perceptions of learners’ attitudes to and issues with the existing ILP process to refine aims of project.
Whole staff CPD – a ‘back to basics’ on goal setting.
Trialling different approaches
Development and trials of session plans using tools and texts discussed / introduced initial stage.
Workshop to discuss findings.
Development of further strategies based on this feedback with new team members liasing with the original team.
Evaluating the impact of each approach
Assessment of the impact on learners e.g. understanding of the concepts, development of goal formulation skills.
Tutor reflections (Appendix 3)
Interviews with learners (Appendix 3)
Case studies (Appendix 2)
Sharing the impact of each approach
Whole staff CPD session in which the different approaches are shared so next trial stage with all learners could be rolled out.
External CPD session to inspire next stage.
Training in the use of online ILP.
The three approaches trialled
The first approach used a motivational reading text entitled ‘Establishing Dreams’ by Jim Rohn. This was recommended by an ex-ELATT tutor who is also a life coach and who had used the text effectively with a range of people. The text was used as a reading/discussion activity, sometimes with supporting resources, before leading the learners into personal reflection and goal sharing.
The second approach adopted a journey metaphor based on an idea from Jane Ward’s work (2002). Learners related the metaphor to their own learning journeys and, through discussion, identified and shared goals and obstacles.
The third approach utilised peer and external support to provide the capacity for one-to-one discussion aimed at raising aspirations and stimulating discussion prior to goal formulation. This activity, which took place online, was enabled by volunteers from one of ELATT’s corporate partners. Learners prepared questions for the volunteers to learn about their goals and the volunteers were briefed about the aims of the session. Pairs were then directed into breakout rooms and given drop-in support by ELATT staff.
Outcomes and Impact
Teaching, Learning and Assessment
Teaching, Learning and Assessment
Our learners often failed to see the relevance of goal setting within the classroom setting or as connected to their life goals. The importance of ensuring that their goals reflected their interests and were sufficiently challenging to motivate their continued perseverance (Shechtman et al., 2013) couldn’t be underestimated. Consequently, we felt that we needed to explore the purpose of goal setting in different ways before moving on to activities which focused on breaking bigger goals down into smaller steps
Approaches 1 and 2
The trainer for our initial CPD provided the motivational text which encouraged the learners to identify dreams and aspirations. This text was then used by the project team both in its full form, in a shortened version and an adapted version for lower-level learners (Appendix 3a). One team member additionally created classroom resources to support understanding and vocabulary acquisition alongside goal setting.
The reading was well received by both adult and sixth form learners, with tutors reporting that it was an effective lead-in for prompting discussion, reflection and the formulation of life goals. While adult ESOL classes are approximately 80% female, the reverse is true for the sixth form, so this broad appeal was of interest. One sixth form learner spontaneously commented, “It gives me hope”.
Although, two of the three tutors who used this text reported not responding on a personal level to the text, both said that they would use it again due to its flexibility and universal appeal. Learner engagement with the text was positive. Frequently, our learners find it difficult to recall materials used in class, so we were pleased that when asked 3-4 months later about activities which helped with goal setting, most of the learners were able to remember the motivational text without prompting:
We did discussions and we also did reading [what’s happening] on a newspaper article about dreams.
– Sixth former
We read about our dream/ambition – what do I want to do in the future? We did our target after that.
– Adult ESOL
A delay in the introduction of the new online platform (ProPortal) meant that learners were not able to manage their ILPs independently during the research period. Unfortunately, this limited the ability to assess the effectiveness of the approach with ‘before’ and ‘after’ comparisons which are only now taking place.
The other tool trialled was a learning journey metaphor outlined in Appendix 3a. When comparing staff reflections on which of the approaches were more successful, we found that approach 1, the Jim Rohn text, was favoured as tutors felt that discussions remained focused and led naturally to the learner goal formulation (Appendix 3c).
Learners who took part in approach 1 developed quite strong and specific goals and generally were able to recall life and in-class goals with linkage:
Come in on time and work towards getting GCSEs. Improve punctuating and get credentials for future prospect.
– Sixth former
“My goal is to complete L2 [Level 2] but I also want IT course so I am doing that now. I will do L2 [ESOL] in September. My goal is a part-time job. I am full-time mum. I am looking at supermarket, my local area retail shop. … When I started I can’t speak one sentence, Now I can speak confidently and understand” (Adult ESOL).
One participating class was a group of seven ESOL learners on a 16-week basic teaching assistant course. Within a month of finishing the course, three were in work and another two were close to starting, which is a faster and higher percentage than usual. This cannot be definitively attributed to the goals focus but the same approach is being used for the latest class to see if the results can be replicated.
Approach 3 – 1:1 support
The learners in the group assigned to work one-to-one with volunteer mentors (see Appendix 3b) also responded positively.
It helped to hear the process of establishing and achieving goals verbally.
– Sixth former
I was able to show not only to others but to myself that I am capable.
– Sixth former
The tutor reported that the work undertaken in the workshop not only supported learner goal writing but also provided useful material for learners working on personal statements for further study or work placement applications.
Trials with all three approaches allowed plenty of time for class discussion with structured peer support, either in breakout sessions or as feedback when goals were shared.
Discussions with learners from classes that did not take part in the project provided a useful comparison in how goal aware and motivated the learners were.
These learners were asked about their goals and experience of goal setting. They were found to have clear rationales for joining courses at ELATT and often referenced discussing these with their tutors:
Each of us has a time slot and we do one to one for 15 minutes. We set goals and aims. What we want to do in future. My goal is to work with children and find a job in school. I would like to be a maths teacher.
However, few learners referred spontaneously to individual in-course goals and those that did generally named a specific skill or course component. In addition, while learners regularly referred to supportive online relationships, “it is such a good community, you can ask the others “, these relationships were not referred to in the context of goals, targets or aspirations.
The follow-up CPD session at the beginning of semester two emphasised that sessions on goal setting are a good use of time and can be incorporated into sessions, particularly English and ESOL. In addition to the motivational text and supporting resources, a template that serves as a basis for class discussion and information sheet for learners was provided (Appendix 3d).
One further outcome was that the session plan for pairing sixth formers with corporate volunteer mentors was refocused and the new format received excellent feedback from both mentors and mentees. The aim was for learners to develop goals and work these into personal statements but, as one tutor commented:
Most learners are SEND and/or have anxiety issues, so this made it hard for them to open up. So, in preparation for the session, the learners prepared a list of questions to find out about their volunteer/mentor’s goals, aspirations and journeys.
Previously mentors and learners had often struggled to maintain dialogue but all reported productive and enjoyable sessions.
Learning from this project
The project has allowed us to take our time and really reflect upon the purpose of goal setting and how it should fit in with our ethos as an organisation. Rather than view the process as some necessary administrative task required to satisfy funding requirements, staff have relished the opportunity to revisit and reflect on how goal setting fits into their teaching as can be seen from the comment below.
This action research has changed the way I teach. I think more about how the learners learn, how to make them independent. It is something I have changed. I do a lot more on study skills and critical thinking. Goal setting – and everything else – now takes more time but it pays off. The learners know that achieving their goals is ultimately up to them and I cannot do it for them.
– LS Tutor
Feedback from both staff and learners has confirmed the need to adopt a more reflective approach in which learners are encouraged to focus on their long-term goals and aspirations as swiftly as possible. One of our sixth form tutors observed that their learners were:
.. familiar with the concept of goal setting through formal reviews, course targets and ad hoc goals, often around attendance and behaviour. However, it often (took) at least a year at ELATT for (them)to gain the confidence to express aspirations and plan steps to achieve (them).
We found that the same was true of many of our adult learners, who arrived at ELATT with firm goals, combined with an understanding of the goal setting process. This applies particularly to those who have mental health issues/other disabilities or those who have little experience outside the home. This is the learner quoted previously who is now looking for part-time retail work and who was described by her initial contact as ‘shy and isolated’:
I want to more better my speaking and listening. It is all thanks to ELATT.
As a result, we acknowledged that goal setting support has to be iterative – and success needs to be tracked over the long term. This finding was supported by Dr Marcin Lewandowski, whose PhD subject was learner goals, and who attended a February tutor meeting to share his experience.
Learners share their smart targets.
Goal setting in general, and specific, measured, achievable, realistic and timed targets (SMART) in particular, can be powerful tools which equip learners to progress on their courses and towards life goals. But forming SMART targets is not instinctive and may require considerable scaffolding. The example above is by a student who has been with ELATT for more than a year and is in his third iteration of SMART goal setting. Effective scaffolding in this area would be a further research activity.
An additional finding was that, prior to the research, we had assumed that tools and resources for adults and sixth formers would be different due to life experience, language and SEND factors but we found that the same resources and tools were largely effective. This very welcome finding has resulted in the different departments being motivated to collaborate and share resources.
The professional standards strongly linked to this project are:
Professional Standard 13: ‘motivate and inspire learners to promote achievement and develop their skills to enable progression’
Professional Standard 17: ‘enable learners to share responsibility for their own learning and assessment’.
We wanted learners to take control of, and responsibility for, their own learning. The project was designed to take into account the fact that this would come more easily to some learners than others, depending on their previous educational experience, expectations of education, levels of confidence, as well as life experience. We also recognised that while our tutors are universally committed to their learners, there was variation in confidence and understanding of best practice in goal setting.
This project gave us the opportunity to investigate the current experience of learners across the organisation, trial tools and approaches, as well as develop expertise and understanding within the project team. Most importantly, the resources and activities were devised to scaffold both learners and tutors in goal setting and have the flexibility to be accessible and engaging across the range of experience.
There were also positive benefits in bringing together tutors from the Life Skills, English and Vocational teams (although the Vocational team participation in the project fell outside the scope of the ETF OTLA). This took the form of joint CPD, a workshop and regular team meetings to share activities, progress and findings, as well as to discuss the principles underpinning our research.
A further professional standard was also relevant to our research project:
Professional Standard 15: ‘promote the benefits of technology and support learners in its use’.
This related to the introduction of Pro in 2021-22 across the organisation. A delay in the introduction of the learner platform meant that tutors had to input goals on the learners’ behalf during semester 1 through screen sharing (online classes) or side-by-side (in person).
In semester 2, CPD combined technical support in a ‘walk through’ from the learner perspective and a discussion with resources (Appendix 3d) which could be adapted and shared with learners to support independent goal setting.
Learners then completed the ‘About Me’ section with information about their life aims and collaborated with the group to develop relevant and targeted in-class goals. Learners still had the opportunity to adapt or form their own in-class goals in discussion with the tutor but in practice, the class discussion resulted in goals which were chosen by most learners. Because of the delay in implementation, we have not yet had a chance to assess progress fully, but a learner sample can be found in Appendix 3d.
Rohn, J. (no date). ‘Establishing Dreams and Goals by Jim Rohn’ [online]. Available at: https://www.getmotivation.com/motivationblog/2012/06/establishing-dreams-and-goals-by-jim-rohn/ [accessed 30.3.22].
Shechtman, N., DeBarger, A. H., Dornsife, C., Rosier, S., & Yarnall, L. (2013). Promoting grit, tenacity, and perseverance: Critical factors for success in the 21st century. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Technology.
Ward, J. (2002). ‘Learning Journeys: Learners’ Voices: Learners’ Views on Progress and Achievement in Literacy and Numeracy’. LSDA.
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