Target grades have always been one of my great education bugbear’s, both as a teacher and as a parent. As a teacher, I have also found them to be just as restricting as they are motivating.
My main concerns:
- They are often seen as an end in themselves, encouraging students to become less motivated once they feel they are ‘on target.’
- They demotivate students who, despite high levels of effort, are still unable to reach them.
- They foster a performance goal orientation, in that they encourage students to compare themselves with others, rather than hone their own skills.
- They can negatively impact academic self-concept (the way we view ourselves as learners).
I recall times when my own students would become anxious about how high their own target grades were, or nonchalant about their studies when they had reached their target grade (even if that target grade was very low). By some quirk of statistics, I once had a student who was given an A level target grade of U, meaning that even if he failed, he would still reach the target he was set.
Growth Goals and Personal Bests
I realise that others have become just as despondent and that many schools now choose not to share target grades with students and parents. Psychologically this has many advantages, but a more effective solution is to implement what psychologist Andrew Martin describes as Personal Best Goals.
Martin uses the term Personal Best (PB) to describe the managed attempt to exceed oneself rather than to be “top of the class”. Personal Bests centre on a specific personal challenge (e.g. “I want a B on my next essay because I got a C on my last one”) and the specific steps required to reach the goal – so PB’s are competitively self-referenced – doing better than you did before.
PB’s have been found to increase engagement and academic achievement (Martin & Liem, 2010) as well as promote other skills including self-efficacy, intrinsic motivation and flow. Studies have also found that PB’s are just one way to encourage and promote an incremental mindset (Martin, 2014).
PB’s work by drawing on this incremental philosophy and using a series of small steps to go from one personal best to the next, in the same way an Olympic sprinter aims to shave a second here and a second there off his or her fastest time.
Furthermore, PB’s aren’t confined to specific cultural groups, with PB’s being generalised to non-western contexts (Yu & Martin, 2014).
PB’s encourage students to examine feedback constructively and set out a plan by which route they either maintain their current level or exceed it, ensuring that they take on board teacher comments and identify gaps in either subject knowledge or study skills. In many ways, PB’s are similar to the SMART-type objects used in employee appraisal systems and coaching, in that they provide specific time-bound criteria by which progress can be made without relying on extrinsic factors.
Martin, A. J. (2014). Implicit theories about intelligence and growth (personal best) goals: Exploring reciprocal relationships. The British Journal of Educational Psychology, 1–17. doi:10.1111/bjep.12038
Martin, A. J., & Liem, G. A. D. (2010). Academic personal bests (PBs), engagement, and achievement: A cross-lagged panel analysis. Learning and Individual Differences, 20(3), 265–270. doi:10.1016/j.lindif.2010.01.001
Yu, K., & Martin, a. J. (2014). Personal best (PB) and “classic” achievement goals in the Chinese context: their role in predicting academic motivation, engagement and buoyancy. Educational Psychology, (May), 1–24. doi:10.1080/01443410.2014.895297
Download PB resources here.