In the last post, I looked at issues concerning self-pacing in personalized language learning programmes. This time, I turn to personalized goal-setting. Most definitions of personalized learning, such as that offered by Next Generation Learning Challenges (a non-profit supported by Educause, the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, among others), argue that ‘the default perspective [should be] the student’s—not the curriculum, or the teacher, and that schools need to adjust to accommodate not only students’ academic strengths and weaknesses, but also their interests, and what motivates them to succeed.’ It’s a perspective shared by the United States National Education Technology Plan 2017 , which promotes the idea that learning objectives should vary based on learner needs, and should often be self-initiated. It’s shared by the massively funded Facebook initiative that is developing software that ‘puts students in charge of their lesson plans’, as the New York Times put it. How, precisely, personalized goal-setting can be squared with standardized, high-stakes testing is less than clear. Are they incompatible by any chance?

In language learning, the idea that learners should have some say in what they are learning is not new, going back, at least, to the humanistic turn in the 1970s. Wilga Rivers advocated ‘giving the students opportunity to choose what they want to learn’ (Rivers, 1971: 165). A few years later, Renee Disick argued that the extent to which a learning programme can be called personalized (although she used the term ‘individualized’) depends on the extent to which learners have a say in the choice of learning objectives and the content of learning (Disick, 1975). Coming more up to date, Penny Ur advocated giving learners ‘a measure of freedom to choose how and what to learn’ (Ur, 1996: 233).

The benefits of personalized goal-setting

Personalized goal-setting is closely related to learner autonomy and learner agency. Indeed, it is hard to imagine any meaningful sense of learner autonomy or agency without some control of learning objectives. Without this control, it will be harder for learners to develop an L2 self. This matters because ‘ultimate attainment in second-language learning relies on one’s agency … [it] is crucial at the point where the individuals must not just start memorizing a dozen new words and expressions but have to decide on whether to initiate a long, painful, inexhaustive, and, for some, never-ending process of self-translation. (Pavlenko & Lantolf, 2000: 169 – 170). Put bluntly, if learners ‘have some responsibility for their own learning, they are more likely to be engaged than if they are just doing what the teacher tells them to’ (Harmer, 2012: 90). A degree of autonomy should lead to increased motivation which, in turn, should lead to increased achievement (Dickinson, 1987: 32; Cordova & Lepper, 1996: 726).

Strong evidence for these claims is not easy to provide, not least since autonomy and agency cannot be measured. However, ‘negative evidence clearly shows that a lack of agency can stifle learning by denying learners control over aspects of the language-learning process’ (Vandergriff, 2016: 91). Most language teachers (especially in compulsory education) have witnessed the negative effects that a lack of agency can generate in some students. Irrespective of the extent to which students are allowed to influence learning objectives, the desirability of agency / autonomy appears to be ‘deeply embedded in the professional consciousness of the ELT community’ (Borg and Al-Busaidi, 2012; Benson, 2016: 341). Personalized goal-setting may not, for a host of reasons, be possible in a particular learning / teaching context, but in principle it would seem to be a ‘good thing’.

Goal-setting and technology

The idea that learners might learn more and better if allowed to set their own learning objectives is hardly new, dating back at least one hundred years to the establishment of Montessori’s first Casa dei Bambini. In language teaching, the interest in personalized learning that developed in the 1970s (see my previous post) led to numerous classroom experiments in personalized goal-setting. These did not result in lasting changes, not least because the workload of teachers became ‘overwhelming’ (Disick, 1975: 128).

Closely related was the establishment of ‘self-access centres’. It was clear to anyone, like myself, who was involved in the setting-up and maintenance of a self-access centre, that they cost a lot, in terms of both money and work (Ur, 2012: 236). But there were also nagging questions about how effective they were (Morrison, 2005). Even more problematic was a bigger question: did they actually promote the learner autonomy that was their main goal?

Post-2000, online technology rendered self-access centres redundant: who needs the ‘walled garden’ of a self-access centre when ‘learners are able to connect with multiple resources and communities via the World Wide Web in entirely individual ways’ (Reinders, 2012)? The cost problem of self-access centres was solved by the web. Readily available now were ‘myriad digital devices, software, and learning platforms offering educators a once-unimaginable array of options for tailoring lessons to students’ needs’ (Cavanagh, 2014). Not only that … online technology promised to grant agency, to ‘empower language learners to take charge of their own learning’ and ‘to provide opportunities for learners to develop their L2 voice’ (Vandergriff, 2016: 32). The dream of personalized learning has become inseparable from the affordances of educational technologies.

It is, however, striking just how few online modes of language learning offer any degree of personalized goal-setting. Take a look at some of the big providers – Voxy, Busuu, Duolingo, Rosetta Stone or Babbel, for example – and you will find only the most token nods to personalized learning objectives. Course providers appear to be more interested in claiming their products are personalized (‘You decide what you want to learn and when!’) than in developing a sufficient amount of content to permit personalized goal-setting. We are left with the ELT equivalent of personalized cans of Coke: a marketing tool.


The problems with personalized goal-setting

Would language learning products, such as those mentioned above, be measurably any better if they did facilitate the personalization of learning objectives in a significant way? Would they be able to promote learner autonomy and agency in a way that self-access centres apparently failed to achieve? It’s time to consider the square quotes that I put around ‘good thing’.

Researchers have identified a number of potential problems with goal-setting. I have already mentioned the problem of reconciling personalized goals and standardized testing. In most learning contexts, educational authorities (usually the state) regulate the curriculum and determine assessment practices. It is difficult to see, as Campbell et al. (Campbell et al., 2007: 138) point out, how such regulation ‘could allow individual interpretations of the goals and values of education’. Most assessment systems ‘aim at convergent outcomes and homogeneity’ (Benson, 2016: 345) and this is especially true of online platforms, irrespective of their claims to ‘personalization’. In weak (typically internal) assessment systems, the potential for autonomy is strongest, but these are rare.

In all contexts, it is likely that personalized goal-setting will only lead to learning gains when a number of conditions are met. The goals that are chosen need to be both specific, measurable, challenging and non-conflicting (Ordóñez et al. 2009: 2-3). They need to be realistic: if not, it is unlikely that self-efficacy (a person’s belief about their own capability to achieve or perform to a certain level) will be promoted (Koda-Dallow & Hobbs, 2005), and without self-efficacy, improved performance is also unlikely (Bandura, 1997). The problem is that many learners lack self-efficacy and are poor self-regulators. These things are teachable / learnable, but require time and support. Many learners need help in ‘becoming aware of themselves and their own understandings’ (McMahon & Oliver, 2001: 1304). If they do not get it, the potential advantages of personalized goal-setting will be negated. As learners become better self-regulators, they will want and need to redefine their learning goals: goal-setting should be an iterative process (Hussey & Smith, 2003: 358). Again, support will be needed. In online learning, such support is not common.

A further problem that has been identified is that goal-setting can discourage a focus on non-goal areas (Ordóñez et al. 2009: 2) and can lead to ‘a focus on reaching the goal rather than on acquiring the skills required to reach it’ (Locke & Latham, 2006: 266). We know that much language learning is messy and incidental. Students do not only learn the particular thing that they are studying at the time (the belief that they do was described by Dewey as ‘the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies’). Goal-setting, even when personalized, runs the risk of promoting tunnel-vision.

The incorporation of personalized goal-setting in online language learning programmes is, in so many ways, a far from straightforward matter. Simply tacking it onto existing programmes is unlikely to result in anything positive: it is not an ‘over-the-counter treatment for motivation’ (Ordóñez et al.:2). Course developers will need to look at ‘the complex interplay between goal-setting and organizational contexts’ (Ordóñez et al. 2009: 16). Motivating students is not simply ‘a matter of the teacher deploying the correct strategies […] it is an intensely interactive process’ (Lamb, M. 2017). More generally, developers need to move away from a positivist and linear view of learning as a technical process where teaching interventions (such as the incorporation of goal-setting, the deployment of gamification elements or the use of a particular algorithm) will lead to predictable student outcomes. As Larry Cuban reminds us, ‘no persuasive body of evidence exists yet to confirm that belief (Cuban, 1986: 88). The most recent research into personalized learning has failed to identify any single element of personalization that can be clearly correlated with improved outcomes (Pane et al., 2015: 28).

In previous posts, I considered learning styles and self-pacing, two aspects of personalized learning that are highly problematic. Personalized goal-setting is no less so.


Bandura, A. 1997. Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company

Benson, P. 2016. ‘Learner Autonomy’ in Hall, G. (ed.) The Routledge Handbook of English Language Teaching. Abingdon: Routledge. pp.339 – 352

Borg, S. & Al-Busaidi, S. 2012. ‘Teachers’ beliefs and practices regarding learner autonomy’ ELT Journal 66 / 3: 283 – 292

Cavanagh, S. 2014. ‘What Is ‘Personalized Learning’? Educators Seek Clarity’ Education Week

Cordova, D. I. & Lepper, M. R. 1996. ‘Intrinsic Motivation and the Process of Learning: Beneficial Effects of Contextualization, Personalization, and Choice’ Journal of Educational Psychology 88 / 4: 715 -739

Cuban, L. 1986. Teachers and Machines. New York: Teachers College Press

Dickinson, L. 1987. Self-instruction in Language Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Disick, R.S. 1975 Individualizing Language Instruction: Strategies and Methods. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

Harmer, J. 2012. Essential Teacher Knowledge. Harlow: Pearson Education

Hussey, T. & Smith, P. 2003. ‘The Uses of Learning Outcomes’ Teaching in Higher Education 8 / 3: 357 – 368

Lamb, M. 2017 (in press) ‘The motivational dimension of language teaching’ Language Teaching 50 / 3

Locke, E. A. & Latham, G. P. 2006. ‘New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory’ Current Directions in Psychological Science 15 / 5: 265 – 268

McMahon, M. & Oliver, R. (2001). Promoting self-regulated learning in an on-line environment. In C. Montgomerie & J. Viteli (Eds.), Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications 2001 (pp. 1299-1305). Chesapeake, VA: AACE

Morrison, B. 2005. ‘Evaluating learning gain in a self-access learning centre’ Language Teaching Research 9 / 3: 267 – 293

Ordóñez, L. D., Schweitzer, M. E., Galinsky, A. D. & Bazerman, M. H. 2009. Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting. Harvard Business School Working Paper 09-083

Pane, J. F., Steiner, E. D., Baird, M. D. & Hamilton, L. S. 2015. Continued Progress: Promising Evidence on Personalized Learning. Seattle: Rand Corporation

Pavlenko, A. & Lantolf, J. P. 2000. ‘Second language learning as participation and the (re)construction of selves’ In J.P. Lantolf (ed.), Sociocultural Theory and Second Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 155 – 177

Reinders, H. 2012. ‘The end of self-access? From walled garden to public park’ ELT World Online 4: 1 – 5

Rivers, W. M. 1971. ‘Techniques for Developing Proficiency in the Spoken Language in an Individualized Foreign Language program’ in Altman, H.B. & Politzer, R.L. (eds.) 1971. Individualizing Foreign Language Instruction: Proceedings of the Stanford Conference, May 6 – 8, 1971. Washington, D.C.: Office of Education, U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. pp. 165 – 169

Ur, P. 1996. A Course in Language Teaching: Practice and Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Ur, P. 2012. A Course in English Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Vandergriff, I. Second-language Discourse in the Digital World. 2016. Amsterdam: John Benjamins

  1. Hi Philip,
    Another cracking post – I’m sure I’m not the only person who is so grateful for the work you’re doing on the blog. It matters.
    I was wondering about effective language learners like yourself and the community of polyglots who exemplify autonomous learning. It’s not that they don’t attend classes with teachers or sign up to even less personalizable courses and apps; it’s that these decisions are their own. They set their own goals independent of the resources to hand (learn 1000 words by August, reach B2 in a year) then work with what they have. Successful learners tend to approach their language learning from a number of angles, experimenting with different packages, be they gamified apps or dry grammar manuals from the 1940s, and they develop systems that work for them.
    It seems to me that our roles as teachers, and the training and development that gets us there, have to adapt to take into account our learners’ English language lives outside the classroom and the huge wealth of opportunities available to them. From this point of view, perhaps we need to see what we do less like teaching and more like coaching. Would you agree?

    • philipjkerr says:

      Hi Dan
      Thanks for your comments.
      I think that it is relatively uncontroversial to argue that it makes sense for a language teacher to see their work primarily in terms of motivating learners to learn outside of classroom contact hours along with providing help about how to do this. The mathematics of vocabulary learning (the number of items that need to be learnt divided by the number of classroom hours that are available) makes this very clear. But I’m not sure this always means the same as ‘coaching’. I’m not sure because I don’t know enough about coaching (even though I follow the blog that you write with Duncan Foord – I can see that there are contexts where a coaching approach is appropriate, but it seems to me there are others (a very traditional high school environment, for example, with very clear imbalances of power) that make it very difficult to promote any kind of autonomy.

  2. Arthur says:

    Student Centered – A Rose is a Rose – no matter who the consumer is! Why are we still discussing the importance, nay the absolute requirement, that individual learner needs are the ONLY focus that works? We must do ONLY that which is in the best interests of EACH individual client, student, customer, or whatever name we give to those who look to us to help them! Within that dictum, preparing them to be independent, life-long learners, and successful in life, career and college, i.e., – Teach them how to fish! – are almost always most important.

    Let’s get on with it! Enough talk! Do it! Action!

    • philipjkerr says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Arthur. I’d add, though, that the history of language learning is littered with failed attempts to implement more student-centred modes of learning. Sometimes, this was because institutional constraints made it impossible to determine and respond to individual needs. Sometimes, the pedagogical intervention was simply not adequately thought through in advance. We’re a long way from knowing how best to prepare learners to be independent, life-long learners. I hope by making relevant research more well-known that we will have a better chance of taking the right actions.

      • Arthur says:

        We are, indeed, caught in a LOOP! Persistently spreading the Gospel of truly individualized education may – hopefully, will – help, in time. A major hold-back is that education evolved from the opposite paradigm of instructor first and the mandated ” you WILL learn what I tell you”

        Perhaps technology, especially Mobile Micro-modules, will break through to learners having control. That is where we see the future, and we plan to be a player with our direct to consumer, mobile system of English micro-lessons. Not ready, yet. But, we ARE in start-up.

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