David Gooblar

Columnist at Chronicle Vitae

Telling Their Own Stories

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When I wrote about the benefits of introducing narrative into the classroom, in addition to faculty telling stories, I pointed to a couple of different ways that we might encourage students to be storytellers. Project-based pedagogies like Reacting to the Past and Roger Schank’s Story-Centered Curricula have students research and perform roles in a collaborative narrative over the course of a few weeks or even months. But what if, instead of role-playing, we found ways to encourage students to tell their own stories, with themselves as the protagonists?

As a new semester draws steadily closer, I’ve been thinking of how to encourage students to take the reins of their education. It was in that mindset that I read Anya Kamenetz’s recent article on an intriguing piece of educational research. The researchers looked at the effects of a writing assignment in which students had to articulate their goals — both academic and otherwise — to see if such an intervention would lead to better academic performance. Their results, after conducting the study at a business school in the Netherlands, indeed demonstrated that students who completed the assignment performed significantly better than a control group of students who hadn’t. What’s more, the assignment seemed particularly helpful for the kinds of students who typically struggled academically: It significantly narrowed the gender and ethnicity gap among students.

Why would the writing assignment have that effect? And how might we apply the lessons of these findings in our own classrooms?

The Dutch business students were asked to write about goals both small and large, short-term and long-term. They wrote briefly and informally about things they would like to do better, subjects they would like to learn more about, and habits they would like to improve. They wrote about their ideal future, and the future they would like to avoid. The assignment prompted them to be specific in articulating and prioritizing their goals, anticipating potential setbacks, and strategizing how exactly they would reach their objectives. Students were also required to make a public commitment to what they considered to be their most important goal.

The Netherlands study built on decades of research about “goal-setting theory,” a conception of motivation developed by psychologist Edwin Locke beginning in the 1960s. His theory — much loved in corporate circles — claims that setting specific and challenging goals improves performance, even in the face of obstacles. The act of putting your goals into words — and breaking those goals down into specific, challenging, but attainable subgoals — significantly improves your chances of success.

Why might the same approach help students do better academically? There is a host of research on that. Goal-setting has been shown to increase self-regulation, particularly if the student’s goal is “self-transcendent,” that is, not motivated strictly by self-interest. Breaking big goals into smaller, more easily attainable targets can help foster students’ confidence, allowing them to feel a sense of accomplishment each step of the way. And setting goals also seems to help students avoid uncertainty and apathy, reducing anxiety and avoidance behaviors that can interfere with performance. All of this suggests that we should be looking to bring goal-setting into our classrooms.

If you’d like to try the researchers’ assignment in your own courses, they describe the specifics in an appendix to their article. But even if you don’t want to spend so much time having your students write about their ideal future, a more focused assignment might have similarly positive effects.

In the opening weeks of the fall semester — after you’ve outlined the course and your expectations for the students but before the bulk of their work is due — have your students write about their goals. But ask them to specifically reflect upon their goals for the course. Why are they taking it? What do they hope to learn by the end of the semester? What skills do they want to develop? What grade do they need to attain? What concept do they hope to understand better? Have them brainstorm some broad, big-picture goals, and then write out a plan to achieve those goals through smaller, more easily attainable steps.

By encouraging students to set such goals, you make it more likely that they will buy in to your course objectives. The assignment signals to students that their goals are important — at least as important as the instructor’s. You are essentially asking students to write the story of their progress through the course, from their present state (lacking understanding or skills) to an ideal future state (in which they’ve attained those skills).

With the goals down on paper, you can revisit them throughout the term, monitoring student progress, and adjusting your approach — and theirs — as needed. With luck, your students will become the heroes of their own stories, and you’ll be happy to cheer them on.

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