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How can you support your students to aim high?

The main responsibility that teachers have is to support students to aim high and be successful in the subject that they teach. As we creep towards the exam period, now more than ever teachers will be looking for ways to support their students to do this effectively.

Setting goals in itself isn’t a new concept, but our understanding of what makes goal setting effective has developed over time. Simply setting a target of getting a 5 in GCSE maths, as many teachers will have experienced, is largely ineffective by itself for the majority of students.

In this blog, we’ll take a deeper look into how teachers can support their students to aim high by setting goals in a way that makes them more likely to be achieved.

What does Aiming High mean?

Aiming high is the ability to set clear, tangible goals and devise a robust route to achieving them. This essential skill is about being able to plan effectively - both in relation to organisational goals, as well as personal development targets. 

Setting effective goals supports students with aiming high

A goal is something that an individual wants to happen, and that they will work towards achieving. Individuals will set goals in lots of different areas of their lives. For example, to learn a new language, score more goals for their football team, or do more exercise. 

Many students make goals with regards to their academic achievement and at this time of year these often relate to achieving certain GCSE grades. Teachers across the country will be working hard to support their students to achieve those goals, often going over and above to do so.

One simple way that teachers can support students to achieve their goals is to make sure they are setting effective goals

Effective goals

Effective goals are those that are in a students’ ‘stretch zone’. These will be goals that are not so easy that they are sure they will achieve them but also not so difficult that they are almost impossible to achieve. By setting goals in their stretch zone, students have the best chance of being successful and learning a lot along the way.

Let’s take the example we started with of getting a 5 in GCSE maths. This goal will be useful for a student who is currently working at a grade 4 or maybe 3. However, for students who are working at a grade 2 or below, at this stage achieving a 5 in their exams may be unrealistic. Unrealistic goals lead to demotivation and students may disengage very quickly when they realise their goals are not achievable.

On the other hand, a student who is already working at a grade 5 will also not benefit from this goal. They may already feel they have achieved it and therefore do less revision in the run up to exams, potentially causing their grades to decrease.

Self-improvement goals

As demonstrated above, one way that students can help themselves with setting goals in their stretch zone is to focus on past achievement. Research shows that goals focused upon improving on past achievement are extremely effective in increasing academic success. These are called growth goals or self-improvement goals. 

Research carried out by Martin and colleagues [1] has demonstrated that this type of goal setting can help to improve students’ perseverance and aspirations with regards to their academic achievement. It can also improve students’ engagement with school including attendance and completing homework.

So again going back to the example that we started with, rather than setting goals such as ‘getting a 5 in my maths GCSE’, a more effective goal might be ‘I want to get a grade higher in my GCSEs than I did in my mocks’ or ‘I want to spend more time revising for my GCSE exams than I did for my mocks’.

Teacher support

Students may benefit from teachers modelling how they use this type of goal setting in their own life, focusing on past achievement and assessing whether a goal is in their stretch zone.

Teachers can also reinforce this way of setting goals in the language that they use in the classroom. For example, by being given improvement-oriented feedback rather than purely corrective feedback, students learn to engage in self improvement goal setting rather than comparative goals, i.e. to do as well or better than others. 

Setting targets

While setting goals is generally about making a high-level statement which describes an outcome, targets help to break down a goal into tangible steps.

SMART targets

An important part of setting goals is creating clear targets, and the best targets are also those that are SMART. This means that they are:

  • Specific – it is clear exactly what you are trying to do.
  • Measurable – you can measure whether the target has been met or not.
  • Achievable – it is in your stretch zone – not too hard or too easy.
  • Realistic – it is something that makes sense to do. 
  • Timed – you know when it needs to be done by. 

By setting targets in relation to their goals, students are much more likely to achieve those goals in the future. For example, a student could create a target of ‘being able to confidently answer problem solving questions on fractions, which I could not do before, by a week before my exam’ to help them to progress towards their goal of getting a grade 5. That student will then be able to assess whether they have achieved this target and their progress towards it quicker and much more easily than they will be able to assess whether they are working at a grade 5.

Teacher support

As demonstrated, putting numbers and deadlines on targets is particularly helpful for students because it means they can see exactly what success looks like and also clearly recognise whether they have been successful. Teachers, again, could model this for the class, coming up with targets towards a goal in their own life. They could also provide students with examples of targets which they could then categorise into SMART or not SMART targets.

Students will need to be given time and support to create their own SMART targets which will help them to achieve their goals. Students can then assess their own targets, or each other’s against the SMART criteria and improve them if needed.

For teachers who have little time to plan a goal setting session with their students, there are teaching resources available on Skills Builder platform ‘The Hub’ as well as teaching guidance on the Universal Framework.

Setting more effective goals by prioritising tasks

When working towards a target, students will need to think about the tasks that need to be done to achieve it. Achieving targets and ultimately goals can require the completion of many different individual tasks, especially with mid and longer term goals, so organisation is key. 

If students are serious about achieving their goals, they need to be able to break those goals down into targets and then the tasks needed to achieve them.

Identifying key tasks

For example, if a student wants to improve their confidence in answering fractions problem solving questions, they may set themself tasks such as; identifying what fractions-related skills they have the most difficulty with, watching videos relating to these skills, completing simple practice questions, and finally attempting problem solving questions as part of them working towards this target.

Prioritising tasks

To plan their time effectively students will also need to be able to order and prioritise these tasks. There are several ways to do this:

  • Dependency: It might be that some tasks can only be completed in a particular order. In the example above, there is a logical order in which to complete those revision tasks, as each one depends on the previous one being completed.
  • Priority: In some cases, when tasks are not dependent on each other, it helps to think about which tasks are most important or will have the most impact. For example, a student might set tasks like reading through their maths book as well as watching revision videos online. If they don’t think they will have time to do both they will need to prioritise the task which will be most helpful for increasing their understanding (they may need some help deciding this).
  • External dependencies: It might be that some tasks rely on something or someone else out of your students’ control to complete them. For example, students might need to get results from a practice exam before deciding which topics to focus on in their revision. In this case, they could create a revision timetable ready to be filled in with the topics that need to be revised.
  • Parallel tasks: In some cases, it might be possible to work on more than one task at a time. For example, after revising a topic, students may want to complete a mix of basic and problem solving questions so they get practice of both.

Teacher support

Students should use the principles outlined when setting goals. This will help them to arrange tasks needed to achieve the goal into the order that makes it most efficient to complete them. 

They are likely, however, to need support in identifying the tasks which are key to achieving goals. Teachers could use revision sessions to model this, and provide students with a set of possible tasks that they can use or adapt to suit their goal.

Within this session they should also think about how long tasks are likely to take, so that they can put them on a timeline or in a timetable, and work out how long achieving a goal is expected to take as a result.

Securing the correct resources is another important part of setting goals

Resources are those things that we need to use to complete a task. Lots of things can be described as resources, and they can be divided them up into different categories: 

  • Human Resources: These are things that humans bring to complete a task. These include: the time and effort of people who can complete tasks, as well as their knowledge, skills and experience. 
  • Physical Resources: These are tangible things that we might need to be able to complete tasks. These include: machines, technology, buildings or physical spaces.
  • Financial Resources: This is the money that we might need to pay for things we might need to complete the tasks.
  • Natural Resources: These are the materials that we might need to complete the task like water, gas and minerals. 

Students may need a variety of different resources to complete the tasks linked to their goals.

Identifying and obtaining the resources needed

It is important that students are given the time to think about what resources they will need and how they will secure them. For example, a student may need access to a computer or the internet (physical resources) to watch revision videos. If this is not possible from home, teachers may want to support students to make plans to stay in school for a revision session, or visit the local library to use a computer.

Students may also benefit from completing revision with a teacher or another student present (human resources) and so they will need to ask for this help and organise their revision plans around the relevant people.

It is also worth reminding students that if they can’t obtain particular resources, there might be other ways of achieving their goals without them, or by changing some of the tasks they have decided to carry out.

Teacher support

Again, modelling will help students to be successful with this. A teacher could model how a goal can be broken down into tasks, and then identifying the resources that would be needed to complete them. They may then want to set learners a team challenge on an unrelated task, so that they can practise identifying the tasks and resources needed to achieve a goal. 

Teaching resources that include these types of activities are also available on the Hub, should you wish to use them. 


Overall, aiming high by setting effective goals, prioritising tasks and securing relevant resources is likely to see those goals reached more successfully. Students will be more motivated when goals are effective and relevant to them, and related to SMART targets which enable them to more efficiently track their own progress. 

To learn more about aiming high and how to build this skill, visit our Universal Framework pages for Aiming High.

  1. Martin, Andrew & Burns, Emma & Collie, Rebecca & Bostwick, Keiko & Flesken, Anaid & McCarthy, Ian. (2021). Growth Goal Setting in High School: A Large-Scale Study of Perceived Instructional Support, Personal Background Attributes, and Engagement Outcomes. Journal of Educational Psychology. 114. 10.1037/edu0000682.