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Goal Setting and Grade Tracking: How Students can Predict their Performance (Before it’s Too Late!)

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Picture this: it’s finals week. You’ve been tirelessly grading papers, proctoring exams, attending end-of-semester meetings. Keeping an eye on the final grades deadline, you enter that last student’s exam score into your learning management system (LMS) and click submit. Viola! Another successful semester in the books. You are just about to settle into your favorite reading chair with a glass of vino when you hear your email ding. Your heart sinks as you skim a far-too familiar email. A student is shocked and unhappy with the less-than-desirable grade that has just been posted. “How could this happen? I worked really hard. Can you please bump my grade? Is there any way I can complete extra credit?” The “Surprise F Scenario,” as I like to call it, is one that is equally as frustrating for both students AND instructors. We all want our students to succeed, but we cannot provide grades that have not been earned. Instead, we can help set our students up for success by encouraging them to engage in goal setting and grade tracking from the first week of class on, so they can accurately predict their own performance all semester (before it’s too late!).

The concept of goal setting is not new; the goal setting theory has been studied for over fifty years and has been demonstrated as instrumental to success and performance across cultures, contexts, and cohorts (Locke & Latham, 2019). A recent study (Handoko et al., 2019) of over 600 university students in a large online course found that successful completers of the course demonstrated greater skills in goal setting, including setting standards for course assignments, as well as setting short-term (i.e., daily or weekly) and long-term (i.e., monthly or semester) goals. The encouragement of goal setting early in the semester can help students master self-regulated learning – particular in online courses where engagement with course material must be self-directed. Goal setting can also guide time management for students, which is another major predictor of academic success (Basila, 2014).

Goal setting should coincide with regular grade tracking. Handoko and colleagues (2009) also found that successful students engaged in “self-monitoring to maintain what they perceived as a high standard for learning” (p.50). To understand if students are reaching short-term goals, and thus more likely to meet long-term goals, they should be monitoring their assignment scores and current grade in the course each week. Their final grade should never be a surprise; if they are checking their progress on a regular basis, they have a realistic idea of how they are performing and what scores they need to earn to achieve a desired final grade. It is so helpful that Macmillan Launchpad automatically syncs with my LMS, so students can view their Learningcurve and Assess Your Strengths grades, as well as all of their Canvas grades and assignments, in one gradebook.

To really convince my students why they should engage in these practices, I take a “proof is in the pudding” approach. After the first high stakes assessment, such as a unit exam, I calculate and provide students with their own data that supports this claim. I typically do this by providing a table that breaks down Exam 1 grades (A, B, C, D, F, Did not Attempt), and provide corresponding grade averages for the lower stake learning activities (Learningcurve, Assess Your Strengths, weekly attendance/participation, etc.). A pattern almost always emerges that shows as exam grades go down, averages for other class activities goes down. This highlights to students that the weekly goals (and corresponding activities) matter – those achieving those weekly goals are more successful on high stake assessments.

Best practices:

  1. Encourage goal setting during the first week of classes by asking students to complete a goal worksheet with daily, weekly, and monthly goals. Regularly check in with them to update their worksheet.
  2. Post the expected time commitment for each assignment to assist with time management.
  3. Ask students to track their own progress using the Launchpad and LMS gradebook. Research shows simply measuring behavior can improve it.
  4. Many LMS systems allow students to determine how well they need to do on assignments to earn a desired grade such as a What If? Feature where they can enter hypothetical grades for future assignments). Encourage them to set a short-term goal (daily or weekly) and long-term goals using this feature, and regularly monitor their progress in the gradebook.
  5. After a high stakes assignment, show students a breakdown of the high stakes assignment grades with grades on other assignments – this usually showcases a pattern that those who complete/do well on learning activities also do well on larger assessments. Show them data supporting that their effort and performance on low stakes assignments pays off in meeting goals.



Basila, C. (2014). Good time Management and motivation level predict student academic success in college on-line courses. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 4(3), 45–52.


 Handoko, E., Gronseth, S., McNeil, S., Bonk, C., & Robin, B. (2019). Goal setting and MOOC completion: A study on the role of self-regulated learning in student performance in massive open online courses. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 20(3), 40-58.


Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2019). The development of goal setting theory: A half century retrospective. Motivation Science, 5(2), 93–105.