Lesson Plan: Goal Setting

If, as Socretes said, an unexamined life was not worth living, then I would argue that an unexamined course is not worth taking. By this I mean that I think it’s crucial for learners to understand why they are doing a language course, what the purpose of it is and what they want to get out of it. A vague, nebulous idea like “I want to improve my English” may be true, but unless it is turned into something concrete, the student is likely to be pretty aimless in trying to achieve their aim.

Which means that we teachers need to find ways of focusing our students on personalised and effective goals. Without doing a specific activity with this objective, we can end up in a situation where the students don’t know what they need to focus on to be better users of English, and the teacher doesn’t know what to do to help them get there. I think that we don’t place enough emphasis on goal setting at the beginning of our courses, and with that in mind, I created this lesson plan:

I believe there are numerous benefits to setting goals with our learners. Firstly, it helps the teacher understand the learners that they need to teach. In their research published in Second Language Needs Analysis (CUP, 2005), Chaudron et al found that students learning Korean were there because they wanted to:

  • Communicate better with relatives
  • Understand their heritage
  • Use the language for research
  • Speak with friends
  • Better understand Korean culture
  • Improve their job prospects
  • Teach English in Korea
  • Teach Korean
  • Work in the military
  • Work in foreign affairs or diplomacy
  • Do academic research
  • Work as a dancer in Korea
  • Work as a translator
  • Work as a nurse
  • Work in a Korean restaurant
  • Work in a hotel
  • Work in a bank
  • Work as an office worker

Obviously no teacher can teach a group containing even some of these needs and meet them all fully, but if you are aware of them, you can at least try to adapt some of the activities to help specific students, and exploit and emphasise some other activities in order to help them reach their goal.

The benefits for the students are even greater, in my view. In Motivational Strategies In The Language Classroom, Dörnyei describes the crucial role that goal-setting plays in student motivation. He talks about the importance of short-term objectives, because they provide the learner with constant incentives to keep working, and rewards that can be met at regular intervals. Is the learner whose only goal is “I want to improve my English” ever likely to feel that they have reached it? Maybe, but the amount of time required will mean that they are very likely to suffer a lot, unnecessarily, along the way. 

He also points out that tests and exams can be useful in providing students with ‘subgoals’ in the same way that piano students earn their grades as they improve. I’m not a big fan of testing in general, but I have to concede that he has a point here.

Another advantage that he notes is that it can give purpose to previously demotivated learners. By creating a useful and tangible goal, these students have something to motivate and energise them.

But how do we teach goal-setting? As you can see from my lesson plan above, it involves quite a few steps and takes place within an overall motivational strategy. Dörnyei identifies three stages:

Preactional Stage

  • Setting goals
  • Forming intentions
  • Launching action 

Actional Stage

  • Generating and carrying out subtasks
  • Ongoing appraisal of achievements
  • Self-regulation

Postactional Stage

  • Understanding what worked (and didn’t)
  • Creating standards and strategies

We can summarise this as:

generation > maintenance > retrospection

or as:

“what am I going to do?” > doing it > “did it work?”

My lesson is clearly taking place at stage one, but it’s worth pointing out the importance of those two other stages. If you do goal-setting with your learners, you must enact the two other stages by giving them time to adjust and evaluate their aims and strategies to reach them as the course progresses. This is why the final stage, where the students write their goals down, in my lesson plan is so important. Without this, they have nothing to go back to and reflect on.

In this lesson, I have adapted McComb and Pope’s (1994, quoted in Dörnyei) model for goal-setting. This is the original list:

  1. Define your goal clearly.
  2. List steps to reach this goal.
  3. Think of problems that might come up that would interfere.
  4. Think of solutions to these problems.
  5. Set a timeline for reaching the goal.
  6. Evaluate your progress.
  7. Reward yourself for accomplishments.

In my lesson, we are at the goal forming stage, so it goes like this:

  1. Understand the need for goals.
  2. Reflect on your strengths, weaknesses, threats and opportunities.
  3. Learn how to create effective goals.
  4. Define your goals clearly using SMART.
  5. Think of problems that might come up that would interfere.
  6. Think of solutions to these problems.
  7. Record the goals for future reflection.

The fifth and sixth stages were inspired by the business practice of pre-mortems, which I wrote about here, and philosophical self-reflection.

Overall, the objective is to step by step take our students through the necessary steps to create goals which enable them to become successful and motivated self-directed learners. As Dörnyei says,

“My impression is that this powerful strategy has been largely underutilised in language education.”

and I’m in complete agreement with him. I hope this lesson plan will help you rectify this situation in your classes.


Dörnyei, Z. (2013). Motivational strategies in the language classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Long (ed.), M. (2005). Second language needs analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


3 thoughts on “Lesson Plan: Goal Setting

  1. Thank you very much for this guide, very interesting! I think it’s also important to understand what our life goals are regardless of what society and the thinking of others try to make us believe. We must be sure to choose what we really want and not what others think is right for us. I took this short course on goal setting, there are many downloadable exercises and worksheets to help you define, plan and achieve your goals. Happy to share > https://bit.ly/3qv4IY6

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