apple Goal Setting

“A dream is just a dream; a goal is a dream with a plan and a deadline”

Helping learners to set realistic, relevant and achievable short and long-term goals is critical to motivate learning and therefore to retain learners. The Ontario Literacy Coalition’s “Seeing the Need; Meeting the Need” research report found that having specific goals to work towards were key factors in retention.

Student goals should be at the forefront of all literacy activities. Students should be active partners in the goal-setting process so that they feel a strong sense of ownership and commitment towards their goals.

A useful, easy way to think of goal setting is to help students to set “SMART” goals: goals that are Specific; Measurable; Attainable;Realistic and Tangible. As well, helping students to set short-term goals where they can quickly experience success is a useful retention strategy.


In terms of overall, broad goals, statistics from the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities’ Information Management System for the period of April 1, 2004 to March 31, 2005 showed that there were a total of 38,462 adult learners enrolled in literacy programs in Ontario. For these learners, their stated overall training goals (all sectors and streams) were as follows: further education/training (55%); employment (29%) and independence (16%).

Naturally, within these broad goals, adult students have a wide variety of long and short-term goals such as preparing for a specific college or training course, writing and reading for specific purposes (letters, forms, work-related documents), personal budgeting, preparing an effective resume, and personal reasons such as reading to children, or understanding their child’s report card, etc.

Goal Setting and Assessment

Goal setting begins with an effective assessment process. Assessment is an ongoing process that begins the moment a learner enters the program. The assessment process is an important tool for retaining students as it gives practitioners the chance to understand and support the learning goals and needs of each adult.

For more information, please read MTCU’s “Goal-Directed Assessment: An Initial Assessment Process” at: 

Effective assessment ensures that students are placed at the right learning level. Placement at either too high or too low a level is harmful to retention as instruction will either be too hard or too easy. If placement is too high, student progress will be slower and therefore de-motivating to the student. If placement is too low students may become bored and not fully engaged in learning.

Effective assessment also ensures that the adult student is placed in the right literacy program to meet their needs. Many communities in Ontario have several different types of literacy organizations (community literacy agencies, school board and colleges). Each may offer different programming options geared to different levels and needs of students: one-to-one tutoring, small groups and classroom-based learning. It is critical to place learners in the type of programming that will be most effective in helping an adult reach their goals or learners will be at high risk for dropping out.

As well, the training plan can be a powerful tool for encouraging learners to remain in a literacy program as it clearly outlines the steps learners will need to take to achieve their short and long-term goals.


Goal Setting Resources

“A Dream That Walks: A Goal-Setting Workbook” (written by Myrna Hanna for Action Read Community Literacy Centre) is a highly recommended resource. This workbook is designed to help adult students set goals and work toward their dreams. It is available from Action Read’s Garlic Press at:

Action Read Community Literacy Centre has also produced “A Dream that Walks II: Planning for Change” (written by Anne Moore). This resource includes a workbook and CD for adult students who want to set goals and plan for change in their lives. The workbook has specific sections on developing goals in the areas of independence, employment and education. It is available from Grass Roots Press at:

Laubach Literacy Ontario’s “Training Post” has some valuable information on goal setting at:

The “CABS Literacy Quick Screen” (Common Assessment of Basic Skills by Judith Fox Lee and Rose Strohmaier, Literacy Link Eastern Ontario) can be found at:

“Go For the Goal: A “Winning” Approach to Learner-Centered Goal Setting in Adult Literacy was written by Lin Baer and Suzanne Knell for the Illinois Literacy Resource Development Center.

Questions and Activities for Reflection

  1. How can we best encourage and support the dreams and goals of students while also helping them to be realistic and set reasonable timeframes?
  2. How does your agency’s goal-setting process help with learner retention? How could you improve upon this?
  3. For many learners, setting concrete short and long-goals is a new skill. How do you teach this skill to learners in your program?
  4. Not all practitioners are skilled at helping adults to set concrete and achievable learning goals. How does your agency teach practitioners to do so?
  5. Does your agency respond to learners with different goals by using different learning resources and approaches? If yes, why? If not, why not?
  6. Research suggests that the more individualized and personalized the approach, the better the likelihood of retention. How does your program address the need for an individualized and personalized approach?
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