Using writing to promote learning goals: A focused start to a new semester

Daniel Emery

Circumstances have made many of us quick experts on preparing and delivering online and hybrid courses, but the semester’s start gives us a chance to retool and refine our practices. It can help to take a step back from the tools, technologies, and platforms for delivering course content online to consider the foundational learning goals for your course. This tip will provide suggestions for reviewing course and learning goals and thinking of ways that writing practice can support and reinforce those expectations.

Lightbulb on a blackboard

A quick tour of goal orientation and student motivation.

Motivation and goal orientation are well-studied phenomena in educational contexts. Educational research from Dweck and others has helpfully differentiated learning goals related to understanding and intellectual growth (mastery goals) from learning goals associated with external measures of achievement (performance goals). This early work has culminated in recent research on mindsets, which has crossed over from the context of educational psychology into popular press accounts, our everyday discussion of learning, and a best-selling book.

Briefly, performance goals are associated with accomplishment, often understood as an orientation to external measures or social confirmation of success. Students motivated by performance goals seek to be recognized for success and similarly seek to avoid the perception of failure or struggle. Mastery goals emphasize internal measures of success, including perceptions of personal growth and competence. Students oriented toward mastery measure their progress internally (comparing the present self to the former self). Students with mastery goals can view challenge or struggle as evidence of growth rather than evidence of failure (hence the term growth mindset).

Critically, Dweck clarifies that educational contexts often promote performance orientation through high stakes assessment, grades, awards, and recognition. Indeed, professional advancement may require students to focus on external measures of success, whether measured in actuarial science examinations or clinical certifications in health care fields. Students’ orientation emerges from contexts that privilege these external measures and aren’t evidence of a ‘motivation problem’ per se.

While instructors may hope to promote growth mindsets in their students, it may be overly ambitious to ask students to turn away from the performance goals that may have defined their earlier academic success. Instead, instructors can build in opportunities for students to think about mastery goals when considering course design and assignments.

Two writing strategies to promote growth oriented learning goals

Student goal inventory: Early in the semester, even as early as the first day of class, instructors can ask students to identify their own learning goals for the semester. Ask students what they hope to learn in class and how their learning relates to their previous experiences and future plans. By asking students to explain what they hope to know or do after taking the course in relation to their own experience, students may find sources of internal motivation and self-direction. Note: instructors may want to note that goals like “earning an A” or “passing the course” are valid aspirations but that the focus of the activity is on understanding the course’s meaning and value as a part of the students’ lives beyond the class.

Metacognition moments: During the semester, ask students to reflect on their progress toward their learning goals. After any significant assignment or assessment, ask students about their goals and work habits to check the alignment of their expectations and their performance.

Since it is the beginning of the semester, please check out our TWW Blog for previous tips on hitting the ground running at the start of the semester:

The Write Connections: Starting the semester online
All the Help We Can Get: How instructors can work with Student Writing Support
Writing Matters: Crafting a syllabus that supports student writers

Further Research

Examining Students' Self-Set goals for Self-Selected Learning, McCardel, Webster Haffney, and Haldwin
Predicting Gainful Learning in Higher Education: A Goal Orientation Approach, Forsythe, Jellicoe

Further Support

See the Teaching with Writing pages on the Center for Writing website for teaching resources, including sample assignments and syllabi. As many of you know, our WAC program also hosts the popular Teaching with Writing event series. Each semester, this series offers free workshops and discussions. Visit us online and follow us on Twitter @UMNWriting. To schedule a phone, email, or face-to-face teaching consultation, click here.


Good tip, Dan--and I timely one! I wonder whether any of the research you've been looking at documents the impacts of social media on our collective appetite for external affirmation. Tools for one-click liking, loving, hating can build an expectation (and habit of constant checking) that can be difficult to overcome. Thoughts about this?

For people who look at student media use, it was historically true that students viewed "classroom" intrusions into social media (Class Twitter feeds, etc) rather critically and were skeptical of classroom technologies that seemed to try to leverage the 'cool' of social media. I am not sure if COVID and the advent of necessarily mediated interactions have made that line blur. I don't know who might be studying this, but it's relevant to me that many of our undergraduate students are "off" the platforms that 'we' use (Facebook, Twitter) and on to WhatsApp and TikTok.