Goal Setting in Academic Success

Football goals (CC0)

At the beginning of last year, I asked the faculty and senior leadership of African Christian College to join me in going through a goal-setting seminar. We used Michael Hyatt’s Five Days to Your Best Year Ever. We met each morning to listen to Hyatt, then individually completed our workbook setting out goals to make 2015 our “best year ever.”

Hyatt built his system using research-based practices in psychology and business management that support goal setting. He moved us beyond “I want to be better” to imagining our future, setting goals, exploring our motivation, and creating steps for completing and assessing along the way.

Goal Setting

Hundreds of academic and popular articles promote the benefits of goal setting. Established by Edwin Locke in the 1960s the theory has been studied, tested, and applied to many fields, especially organisational leadership.

When the necessary components are present – clear, challenging goals; motivation; feedback – significant improvement occurs.

But, is goal setting a research-based practice for educational settings?

Some limit the definition of “research-based practice” to nine practices identified by Marzano, Pickering, and Pollock in their influential book Classroom Instruction that Works: Research-Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement published in 2001.

But I’m going to use a broader definition: a research-based practice is any practice that has been tested and provides evidence that its use improves results in learning or academic performance.

With that definition, goal setting should be considered a research-based practice in educational settings.

Bridging the gap with goal setting

One example of research on goal-setting in higher education can be found in Schippers, Scheepers, and Peterson’s recent publication: “A scalable goal-setting intervention closes both the gender and ethnic minority achievement gap” (2015, Palgrave Communications). Hat tip to David Gooblar’s blog who alerted me to this research last year.

They reference other research in education settings then share results of their goal setting with first year students in a business school in Europe.

In short, their results “highlight the potential importance of detailed, written goal setting for reducing performance inequalities in higher educational settings.”

They believe the goal setting modified student conceptions of themselves and their futures, overriding “gender and structural socioeconomic impediments.”

So what?

Leading students through goal-setting is low-cost and requires minimal time commitment. It also appears to be an easy solution to bridging the performance gap.

At ACC, I’d like to explore goal setting in my Entrepreneurship class this year. Success in this class already requires self-motivation, and it could be a helpful tool to increase their success.

Goal setting could also be implemented among all incoming students. This could prove beneficial for their overall academic performance, future conceptions, and aid in learning a skill applicable for all of life.

A word of warning

How do we get them to follow-through on goal setting so it will have an impact? The authors of this study add this observation:

“We strongly believe, however, that the probability of students participating in the intervention and completing it was increased by the fact that it was a required component of the first-year curriculum itself, complete with deadlines.”

I failed with the Best Year Ever plan last year. Why? I never finished my assignments – there was no one to make me turn them in. That’s another lesson to apply.


Student Mobility in Africa

McDonald Chanda at his 2015 graduation

Today I received an email from an African Christian College alumnus in Kenya. He’s trying to get his degree certified to continue his education, but is having trouble because the process and standards in his country differ from those we are accountable to follow.

His problem is not unique.

The mobility of African students – where one can go to one country to study and return with recognised credentials to further their studies – is a primary concern of higher education reform. This challenge brings to the surface the issue of harmonisation of quality assurance standards, recognition of degrees, transfer of credits, and participation in globalisation. It also highlights technical issues like border control and student visas.

In “Current Trends, Challenges, and Prospects of Student Mobility in the African Higher Education Landscape” (International Journal of Higher Education, 2015), Woldegiorgis and Doevenspeck point out the importance of student mobility to Africa as a participant in global knowledge flow. But they also highlight the current failure at which Africa is keeping up with a warning about brain drain:

“Unless African higher education institutions develop their capacity to attract and retain both African and international students, international student mobility might lead to overwhelming impact of brain drain in the continent. As Dr Lalla Ben Barka Deputy Executive Secretary ECA stated, ‘African governments have a great responsibility to ensure that brains remain in the continent; otherwise in 25 years’ time, Africa will be empty of brains.’”

Still today, many African students leave the continent to study in the former colonial power. (France being the most popular country for Africans to study.) There’s a history of power connected with this. But today it can also be attributed to the lack of study opportunities on the continent.

In the previous edition of the International Journal of Higher Education, Woldegiorgis with Jonck and Goujon compared Europe’s process with Africa’s: “Regional Higher Education Reform Initiatives in Africa: A Comparative Analysis with the Bologna Process.”

Africa is trying to follow step by step on higher education reform, but with less commitment from the players. To sum up, they wrote:

“Slow implementation in Africa is attributed to factors like poor top-down communication of the policy, excessive dependency on external funding, poor political commitment, fragmentation and duplication of processes, and the less participatory nature of the policy in terms of bringing all stakeholders on board.”

What can African educational leaders do?

Public education leaders must continue to push for commitment, cooperation, and communication among the stakeholders for harmonisation. Private education leaders must also join in the call for progress to be made for student mobility.

At ACC, our response must continue to be seeking pan-African or global accreditation and partnering with institutions outside of Africa that will be recognised within Africa. These efforts provide ways for our students to better side-step the lack of harmonisation.

These issues also highlight the need to develop graduate and post-graduate study opportunities in Africa. We must provide high quality opportunities for them to be educated here.

Implementing Blended Learning Strategies

Hand using computer mouse

Our students are increasingly voicing their desire for new teaching methods, practical experiences, and real-life application beyond studying theory. The marketisation of education has also led to increased focus on professional or practical skills for the marketplace.

There is a rise in blended learning practices occurring at all levels of the education system. Blended learning practices provide instructors with numerous strategies for organising the learning programme for their courses, often using online learning systems.

In “Global Blended Learning Practices for Teaching and Learning, Leadership and Professional Development” (2015), Hilliard examines the growth of blended learning and the necessary infrastructure needed for it to thrive.

Hilliard provides a rationale for expanding blended learning and avoids details about practices. Instead the focus is on what is needed for successful implementation. These include:

  • Effective and competent faculty
  • Professional development for faculty
  • Adequate resources and ongoing funding
  • Blended learning tools and strategies updated regularly (within 3-year period)
  • Student learning outcomes linked to real-world experience and application
  • Meeting demands of diverse learners, including those who are not full-time students
  • Policy development – clear on who, what, when, where, why of blended learning (and deciding who gets to decide)
  • Technology considering issues such as operability, mobility, compatibility, back-up
  • Ongoing technology support
  • Software decisions with faculty users
  • Evaluation plan for blended learning

In addition to the list above, I would also add the hurdle of internet access particularly on our campus in Swaziland, but also throughout Southern Africa. At ACC, we now have reliable wi-fi access across campus, but it is limited data which reduces the ability for it to be used heavily.

Why isn’t ACC doing more online?

I appreciate Hilliard’s focus on these important planning pieces to truly be successful in using blended learning. I often receive comments from those outside and within ACC about why we don’t have an online programme yet, or why we don’t use more internet tools in class.

It’s just not that easy. It’s not easy to start. It’s not easy to continue. And, it’s not all about money.

With adequate funding (also a hurdle) we can address the technology and technology support issues in order to implement tools for blended learning. But even with the right tools, an ill-equipped faculty member can do little good.

As an educational leader and faculty member, my biggest concern is with the faculty development and implementation.

Through a partnership with Abilene Christian University in Texas, we are launching a new blended learning Master of Christian Ministry degree this year. This programme primarily uses online courses with a four face-to-face courses held on our campus.

The great thing for us in the context of this post is that the burden of these infrastructure pieces is largely upon ACU and not us. They provide the technology, support, and equipped faculty. We get to see how it works for African students.

Hopefully the lessons learned and partnership with them will help us to better implement more blended learning strategies in our other programmes.

Teaching in English

Afghan students learning in English (courtesy of Wikipedia)

At African Christian College, English is our only common language. Even students from the same country have different mother tongue languages. This is why we are able to attract and teach students from throughout (the former English-ruled parts) Africa.

As Chapple writes in International Education Studies (2015):

“The use of English as the lingua franca medium of instruction at higher education institutions across the globe is today considered the most significant trend in educational internationalisation.”

Why English?

In Chapple’s context in Japan, using English for instruction is built on an assumption that students attending courses in English will improve their English language skills and further prepare them for our shrinking world. (Plus the financial incentives in attracting students who only speak English.)

His publication title reveals his results: “Teaching in English Is Not Necessarily the Teaching of English.”

Students may have conversational skills in English, but this does not adequately prepare them for academic work. So they frequently found themselves left unable to keep up or comprehend. Instead of improving their English through the course (which wasn’t significant), they failed to learn the content of the course they were in. Oops.

This is true even when with English proficiency requirements in place before enrolling.

Instead of recommending elimination of English as a medium of instruction altogether, Chapple recommends abandoning using content courses to increase English proficiency.

Chapple offers suggestions “to incorporate intercultural discussion opportunities and activities as well as linguistic enhancement activities throughout a course.” Give texts in English and the local language; and stop lectures to consider what is being communicated in both languages.

He also points out that using English as the medium of teaching to non-native speakers requires support for students and also support systems and skill development for instructors.

What can we do at African Christian College?

There is great value in mother tongue instruction. Many of our faith heritage’s diploma-level schools in Africa teach primarily in local languages. But our students come from over a dozen different tribes and language groups across Africa.

English may be our only path to providing quality, Christian higher education in Africa.

The option of removing English as our medium is not viable given our current diversity and vision. Adding competent lecturers to teach all subjects in the mother tongue of our students is also not an option for the near future.

Here are some questions we should be answering:

  1. How can we help our students meet expectations of becoming ‘excellent communicators’ in English without expecting it to ‘just happen’ by attending class in English?
  2. How can we increase the use of intercultural dialogue in our classes and help students apply what they are hearing and learning to their own contexts?
  3. What new things – aside from our English language courses and Writing Support Centre – can we do to help students with their English proficiency?
  4. How do we better prepare our African and non-African faculty around this issue?
  5. English proficiency is already an entrance qualification, but what other measures might be used to ensure students can use English beyond conversation?

Remember me?

I laughed out loud when I looked at the archive dates on the blog. It seems I have a two-year pattern for when I post. Post for a while. Wait two years. Then post a little longer.

Well, I’m back. At least for a while.

If you don’t remember me or don’t want to continue receiving the RSS or email updates to my blog, you won’t hurt my feelings to use the unsubscribe feature.

If you want to stay, then that’s great, too.

This month I am beginning a doctoral program in Educational Leadership through Lamar University. I’m excited and overwhelmed. But you may see more things come up here as I post for my classes, portfolios, and projects.

Like the next four posts below which are all part of my portfolio for Trends & Issues in Multicultural Education.


“The text does not exist that we may gain information.  Instead it directs us to a King and invites us to join up with a collection of people who gather to follow that King.” – from dangerandgrace.wordpress.com

The above quote is from a great reflection on how we read the Bible — context of our community, the Bible’s context, and its application to life today:

Scattered Thoughts About a Text (dangerandgrace.wordpress.com)

Thought you might enjoy as well. Kudos to @scotmcknight for sharing.


God has made known the mystery of his will – Botswana Lecture 2

Yesterday I posted the opening keynote from the 2014 Southern Africa International Lectureship for the Church of Christ that was held in Botswana over Easter.

Here is the sermon text for my second presentation which focused on diagnosing the real problem the church is facing today. I’m among those who often say the problem is poor leadership, but I believe we’ve been wrong. The real problem: poor followership.

This was influenced heavily by research and thinking about ACC and its role in the church, and by Leonard Sweet’s I Am A Follower.

Download the sermon: God has made known the mystery of his will (PDF)

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