Student Goal Setting Activity: Find Their "Why" | Facing History & Ourselves
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Create a Goal and Discover Your “Why”

This student goal-setting activity helps students set SMART personal goals for the school year and discover their source of motivation.


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At a Glance

activity copy


English — US


  • Advisory
  • Civics & Citizenship
  • English & Language Arts
  • History
  • Social Studies




One 50-min class period
  • Equity & Inclusion
  • Culture & Identity


Why Is Goal Setting Important for Students?

Setting a goal at the beginning of the school year is a useful exercise that orients students toward success. In fact, when students are provided with instructional time to set personal goals, they demonstrate higher academic achievement and engagement in the classroom. 1

About This Goal-Setting Activity

This activity guides students through a series of reflections to help them set a personal goal, uncover their intrinsic motivation 2 , and brainstorm short-term goals that are aligned with their larger goal. By the end of the activity, students will have a strong understanding of why their goal matters to them and what actionable steps they can take toward accomplishing their goal.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before teaching this lesson, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process.

It’s recommended that you model the steps in this activity on a whiteboard, butcher paper, or anywhere that the whole class can see. Modeling will support students of all ability levels, including those who are visual learners. Furthermore, when teachers model goal-setting, they model a growth mindset and set a positive tone for the activity. Taken together, modeling helps to establish a positive class culture.

Help students achieve their goals by revisiting this activity periodically throughout the year. Consider giving students time to reflect on their progress, achievements, and setbacks and to create a short-term goal that’s achievable.

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How to Implement Student Goal-Setting

To orient students toward goal-setting, share the following quotes by distributing the Quotes about Goals and Your “Why” handout.

  • “If you want to be happy, set a goal that commands your thoughts, liberates your energy, and inspires your hopes.” ―Andrew Carnegie
  • “The tragedy of life doesn’t lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach. It isn’t a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream.” ―Benjamin Mays
  • “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” ―Friedrich Nietzsche

Then ask students to choose a quote that resonates with them and spend a few minutes responding to the following questions:

  1. What do you think this quote means?
  2. Why does the quote resonate with you?
  3. To what extent do you agree or disagree with the quote? 

After students have had enough time to reflect, ask them to share their ideas with a partner, and then elicit responses in a class discussion.

Explain to students that in today’s activity, they will set a personal goal that they want to achieve by the end of the school year and reflect on their reason for pursuing this goal. They can think of this reason as their “why.” Discovering and remembering your “why” is an effective way to keep yourself motivated.

Distribute the goal-setting handout Create a Goal and Find Your “Why” and read aloud the directions for Step 1: Create a Personal Goal. After reading the instructions, ask students to create a personal goal based on one of  the following categories. Remind students that their goals are personal and they will not be required to share with their peers.

Types of Goals

  • Positive Choices: Make choices that have a positive impact on others and the school community.
  • Belonging and Inclusion: Expand your sense of belonging or build others’ sense of belonging. 
  • Wellness: Advance your physical and mental wellness, including managing your emotions, eating nutritiously, and/or getting sufficient sleep (at least seven hours a night). 
  • Academic: Improve on your performance or participation in class.
  • Extracurricular: Engage in activities outside the classroom, such as sports, clubs, or student government. 

According to research, students are more likely to achieve a goal if it is relevant and specific. 1   2  Read aloud the instructions for Step 2: Revise Your Goal to Make It Specific and Realistic on the goal-setting handout and ask students to refine their goals.

  • 1E. A. Locke, K. N. Shaw, L. M. Saari, and G. P. Latham, “Goal setting and task performance: 1969–1980,” Psychological Bulletin 90, no. 1 (1981): 125–52,
  • 2R. D. Arvey, H. D. Dewhirst, and J. C. Boling, “Relationships between goal clarity, participation in goal setting, and personality characteristics on job satisfaction in a scientific organization,” Journal of Applied Psychology 61, no. 1 (1976): 103–05,

Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” In this next step, students will write a series of short reflections in order to discover their intrinsic motivation by identifying their “why” for pursuing their goal. Read aloud the directions for Steps 3 to 5 on the goal-setting handout. Remind students to use the sentence frames from the handout to construct their responses. The way responses are structured influences each step in the activity.

The prompts in this final reflection draw on goal-setting research to help students build persistence in pursuing their goal. The first two prompts invite students to consider the characteristics they aspire to adopt, 1 the third helps students make short-term progress toward their goal, 2 and the final prompt helps students build accountability. 3 Read the directions for Step 6: Identity Reflection: Who Will You Become? on the goal-setting handout.

  • 1James Clear, “How Your Habits Shape Your Identity (and Vice Versa),” Chapter 2 in Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones (New York: Avery, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2018).
  • 2Teresa Amabile and Steve Kramer, “Small Wins and Feeling Good,” Harvard Business Review blog,
  • 3Howard J. Klein, Robert B. Lount Jr., Hee Man Park, and Bryce J. Linford, “When Goals Are Known: The Effects of Audience Relative Status on Goal Commitment and Performance,” Journal of Applied Psychology 105, no. 4 (2020): 372–89,

Debrief the activity with students by asking the following questions. 

  • What did you like or dislike about this activity?
  • What happened the more you asked yourself why you chose the goal?
  • Why might it be helpful to know the “why” of your goals?
  • Are there other ways to address your “why” along with the goal you set earlier?

Extension Activities

Encourage students to create a poster with their “why” and post it in their bedroom. They could make a poster by hand or use an online tool like Canva.

When goals are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (S.M.A.R.T.), they’re more likely to be achieved. Encourage students to create a short-term S.M.A.R.T. goal aligned with the one-year goal they set in class. Prompt students to create a goal that can be accomplished in a short amount of time, such as a week.

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