Using Personal Learning Goals to Cultivate Inclusive Teaching

James Braun

Doctoral Candidate & Course Instructor

University of Toronto

Inclusive teaching means meeting students where they are in skill, experience, and motivation. A syllabus standardizes learning goals for the class: what should learners know and be able to do by the last class? But students can approach syllabus goals from very different starting points. Students unsure of their abilities or coming from marginalized backgrounds can find syllabus objectives intimidating. Consequently, they have difficulty seeing themselves included in the classroom, especially if they fall behind.

To bridge this gap, I encourage students to set and reflect on personal learning goals throughout the term. A personal learning goal invests students in the class by providing an intrinsic motivation to learn. It acts as tool to measure their progress and helps them value their learning independent of their grades. It also serves as a point of dialogue between students’ own needs and the formal learning objectives on the syllabus. When students can articulate their own goals for my class, they have something tangible to advocate for their needs. It becomes easier to meet them where they are in relation to the syllabus objectives.

As an exit exercise in our first class meeting, I advise students on setting a learning goal. Their goal must be specific and not reliant on external measurements such as grades. Instead, I encourage them to identify skills they want to improve, a question they want to answer related to the course content, or some other tangible achievement related to class activities. I model potential goals for them by naming goals I had as an undergraduate in their position.

Students submit their goals as an ungraded, anonymous assignment to the class learning management system (LMS). Making the assignment anonymous provides students a level of confidentiality to set a goal suitable to their own learning and motivations. Submitting goals anonymously to the LMS means the assignment acts as a private blog; students can refer to and comment on their goal later in the course.

Without grades or accountability to me, students have little extrinsic pressure to complete this task. But I regularly find over 90% of students participate. The goals they set reveal an investment in the task and in the class itself. Goals most often pertain to participation: students commit to regularly contributing to class activities or reading assigned materials

before each class. Many students also commit to improving oral presentation skills (an assignment in many of my classes). Occasionally, they identify writing skills they want to improve or ask big picture questions about the class topic.

Students revisit their goals midway through the course. I ask them to reflect on progress made and devise a plan to achieve their goal in the remaining classes. If they have already achieved their goal or have realized it was infeasible, I encourage them to set a new goal. Afterwards, they complete a survey on their experience of the class. In the survey, I encourage them to ask for resources necessary to their learning goal.

Midterm reflection and survey feedback further demonstrate students’ investment in their learning. Students comment candidly on initial struggles and successes, and often vow to maintain efforts or explore next steps. Survey responses often contain specific and constructive suggestions about supports and classroom activities which better suit their learning and participation styles. I use their feedback to adjust the class format. I report back about changes that will be made and highlight the existing resources designed to support them.

At our final meeting, students again revisit and reflect on their goal. At this point, I encourage them to assess their progress and consider what led to any successes or obstacles. In most of my classes, this is an ungraded activity. But I am experimenting with incorporating it into a self-assessed participation grade.

Although I cannot point definitively to an effect of these exercises on student feelings of inclusion, I find them a valuable and easy way to build rapport and make more students feel part of the classroom. Since implementing these exercises, student feedback mechanisms have become more constructive and helpful to tailoring my teaching to different cohorts. Student evaluations also consistently report me as more approachable, and my classrooms as more conducive to their learning. Finally, communications with students are focused on their learning and less on their grades. Facilitating students in creating personal learning goals helps me meet students where they are and creates a more inclusive classroom for everyone.