Target setting to improve learning

Capel Manor College

This project highlighted the importance of keeping a focus on the student. Engagement and independent learning are increased through the personalisation of work and an interest in each learner as an individual. A constant focus on target setting can show students where they need to improve and allow them to stretch and challenge themselves but it is not the only effective method of increasing either engagement or achievement.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway (link pending).


As is the case with many further education (FE) colleges and GCSE retake students, our students frequently have negative attitudes towards English and maths, are demotivated when studying these subjects again and often make little progress (Belgutay, 2019; Higton et al, 2017). Students’ attendance at English sessions is generally poor with them reluctant to take responsibility for their work and achievements. They frequently rely on teachers or support assistant to complete tasks and are generally passive. By working with students to set meaningful learning targets, our project aimed to increase independent learning, supporting and encouraging students to grow in confidence, recognise their strengths and areas for development, and work towards success.

Other Contextual Information

Our action research was part of the Education and Training Foundation’s OTLA 8 programme taking place within the English department of our FE, land-based college. We initially worked with three GCSE groups to explore the effectiveness of student-led target setting activities in promoting engagement and active learning. Additionally, spreading ideas and approaches out into all the English GCSE classes. Our GCSE classes take place both face-to-face and online via Microsoft Teams and using other online tools such as Nearpod. We mainly worked with two mixed level groups online and one Level 1 group which was face-to-face with occasional online sessions.


We followed an action research approach (McNiff, 2017). After initial project team meetings, we used ‘getting to know you’ activities with students so we could link their interests to the lessons to help improve engagement. We built up to target setting slowly, gradually introducing more independent learning tasks.

  • Every English lesson of the year began with a ‘getting to know you’ activity (Appendix 3.1), which encouraged students to provide teachers with information they may need to know and show the group things they were interested in. This was done on a class notebook page for online classes so the teacher could always look back access information.
  • The team attended a training event with Jo Miles which specifically addressed the aims of the project. This brought the whole team together to focus on ideas for improving the project and putting them into place. There was a major focus on growth mindset (Dweck, 2016) and ways of motivating and engaging students.
  • The team visited another college to share teaching ideas and discuss project aims.
  • A Nearpod introduction was used to give students an idea of what the project was about and gauge their initial levels of confidence and views on independent learning. This was done with groups from three different teachers in GCSE English classes.
  • With support, students were encouraged to review the GCSE mark scheme and identify areas they could improve (Appendix 3.2) and further set their own targets using a list of common targets (Appendix 3.3). These targets were regularly reviewed after Mark book assessments, with the team and students analysing whether targets had been met and agreeing on the next steps.
  • We then decided to focus on students who gained a high grade 3 in the November retakes and prepare personalised learning plans for them highlighting the areas where they could pick up extra marks.

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

The project enabled the team to gain useful insights into learning processes and strategies for engaging and motivating students. Through meeting regularly and reflecting on activities undertaken, one of the main things we have learned is the best way to increase engagement and independent learning is through individualised work and creating lessons and materials that reflect the interests of the student and are relevant to their lives. Although time-consuming, this pays dividends in the long run as students begin to engage more fully and take pleasure in their learning. Involving students in the learning process, encouraging and supporting them in setting meaningful targets, enables them to progress in both English and their main subject specialism. Regularly agreeing and reviewing learning targets enabled the development of a more positive ‘growth mindset’ (Dweck, 2016). Furthermore, whilst getting constant feedback from the students allows them to feel appreciated and involved, they are more likely to attend and participate when they see their feedback is being taken on board and actioned, as evidenced in the Case Studies (Appendix 2)

Project team members gained new insights into their practice and strengthened their relationship with students by involving them as partners in the learning process. Rather than seeing students as passive receivers of information, they began to see them as individuals who, with support and encouragement, could become more active and purposeful. As one learner commented:

Having regular 1:1 tutorials meant he felt appreciated, and he was improving because he knew the teacher ‘cared about him passing’ (Case Study 2)

Through attending CPD sessions we were introduced to and then were able to integrate new approaches into our teaching practice.

Organisational Development

One of the main organisational changes to take place is the shift from teaching Functional Skills English and GCSE English to only focusing on GCSE. The college visit and listening to feedback from students highlighted the need for us to focus on progress rather than achievement. Next academic year, all students will do GCSE courses apart from a small group of Foundation Learning students who will take an entry level course in English which is linked to the GCSE course. This change will allow multiple GCSE classes to take place at once so that each group can be focussed on one grade level, studying a scheme of work which aims to progress students to the next grade. Students consider GCSE to be a valid qualification which they need to achieve compared to Functional Skills which was often considered unimportant. Looking at students’ targets with them and highlighting the progress they had made, whether this was in terms of grades or understanding, motivated them and allowed them to see their strengths and areas for development. For example:

A student explained he knew exactly what he needed to do to get the extra marks and he completed extra practice questions at home to make the improvements necessary (Case Study 2).

We will also be focussing on the students’ progress by implementing a ‘Maths and English star of the week’ award which will be given to one student every week who has done particularly well. They will receive an award indicating exactly why they have won and whoever has the most at the end of the term will receive a gift card. This allows all students to be rewarded, shows their progress and motivates them to progress in their maths and English lessons. Petty (2016) concluded that competitions or challenges often produce strong motivation in classes of students. So far, the majority of students have responded very positively to this idea and it has led to an increase in productivity and engagement. However, one student commented that the idea is ‘childish’ and didn’t think it was a good idea.

Learning from this project

What went well

Getting to know more about the students and their interests was very successful in increasing engagement. Teachers were able to link lessons to things that the students enjoyed as well as vocationally linking them. Students reported back they felt appreciated and more likely to attend when they knew their teacher was interested in them as a person. Constantly asking for student feedback on topics, activities and new ideas was very beneficial in finding out how they feel and what motivates them, especially from students who are often quiet and do not participate.

We were able to do a whole team training event with Jo Miles which specifically addressed the aims of the project. This was an excellent way to bring the whole team together, focusing on ideas for improving the project and putting them in place. Additionally, visiting a highly successful college was also extremely productive in improving practice, providing the opportunity to share ideas, discuss what we had done and identify where further improvements could be made.

The independent learning plans created from the November GCSE resit exams were extremely helpful in showing the students where they had done particularly well and where they could pick up additional marks to achieve a grade 4. Students were able to set their targets and create individualised revision plans. (See Appendix 4)

Even better if

Unfortunately, some problems with the admin of the classes at the start of term meant that the project was delayed in getting fully started and some students missed out on the ‘getting to know you’ activity or did it with one teacher and then moved to another group. It would have been more effective if students were in the correct place from the start so that they could form a positive relationship with their teacher and the rest of their class.

Furthermore, if more staff members had been involved, the project would have been even better. At the start, we used multiple groups but this had to be cut down. Often teachers deliver the same things in different ways and we can always learn from each other so having all the English teachers involved would have been more beneficial.

Professional Development

Using the ETF’s Professional Standards for teachers and trainers. Please note, this report refers to the 2014-2022 standards.

  • 1. Reflect on what works best in your teaching and learning to meet the diverse needs of learners.

    The project encouraged team members to constantly reflect on teaching practices and how they work for different students. Some activities worked well with some students but not so successfully with others. We learned a lot about adapting teaching practices to meet different individual and group needs. We extended the range of approaches used, gaining the confidence to use them to support students.

  • 6. Build positive and collaborative relationships with colleagues and learners.

    Involving the students in the research allowed them to feel valued and appreciated and confirmed that their teachers were interested in them and cared about their progress. This built very positive relationships meaning the students felt comfortable in giving honest feedback. Colleagues working closely together on the project also improved relationships and resource sharing See Case Studies, Appendix 2).

  • 17. Enable learners to share responsibility for their own learning and assessment, setting goals that stretch and challenge.

    This was the main focus of our project enabling us to come together and work on strategies to gradually increase the amount of responsibility taken by students for their learning. We gained insight into key reasons for students not wanting to stretch and challenge themselves or even engage in the lessons at all, and to work out ways to reduce these barriers. For example, students often stated that previous teachers didn’t seem to know who they were and were, therefore demotivated, but through 1:1 tutorials they built effective links with their current teachers and began to take more responsibility for their own learning. (See Appendix 2).


Appendix 2: Learner Case Studies

Appendix 3: Learners’ work

Appendix 4: Examples of students’ work and targets

Appendix 4: Examples of students’ work and targets


Belgutay, J. (2019) GCSE resits: 2 in 3 students ‘make no progress’, available, date accessed 05.04.2021

Dweck, C. (2016). What having a “growth mindset” actually means. Harvard Business Review, 13, pp.213-22

Higton, J., Archer, R., Dalby, D., Robinson, S., Birkin, G., Stutz, A., Smith, R., & Duckworth, V. (2017) Effective practice in the delivery and teaching of English and Mathematics to 16–18-year-olds, London: DfE

McNiff, J. (2017). You and Your Action Research Project, London:

Routledge. Petty, G. (2016). Teaching today: A practical guide. Oxford: Oxford University Press.