Using personal best goal-setting and values driven action

Ask any teacher or parent of an adolescent and they will tell you, these years are fraught with challenge and frustration. Reports of lagging motivation and poor study habits are commonplace. Indeed, as psychologists working and researching in schools, we are all too familiar with motivation and engagement problems. It is therefore the case that we sometimes refer to these years as ‘the motivation wilderness'.

Adolescence - the motivation wilderness

Our research in schools has clearly shown that adolescents tend to be lower in positive aspects of motivation such as self-confidence, valuing of school, persistence, planning and learning focus – and tend to be higher on negative aspects of motivation such as anxiety, fear of failure, helplessness, and disengagement (Green, Liem, Martin, Colmar, Marsh, & McInerney, 2012).

In some ways, these findings come as no surprise to anyone working with young people. Students at this point in their lives are in the midst of significant physical, psychological, social, and emotional changes associated with the gradual transition from childhood to adulthood. Thus, after students move from primary to high school, they can begin to become more negative about school and themselves. In many cases, this is accompanied by a slight decline on various academic outcomes such as task completion and achievement. However, for some students, there are more worrying outcomes such as school avoidance, chronic underachievement, school drop-out, and mental health issues.

So, what can educators and parents do to help navigate students through this difficult terrain? Here, we explore an approach that draws together two cutting-edge concepts that are showing promise – personal best (PB) goal-setting and valued action.

Personal best (PB) goal-setting

A PB approach to learning is when a student aims to do as well or better than their previous best efforts or performance. PB goals are distinct from general goal setting in that they are specific (a student identifies precisely what they are aiming for), challenging (a student raises the bar on him/herself), and competitively self-referenced (a student competes with him/herself rather than competes with others). Thus, simply telling a student to ‘do their best' without any guidance, direction, or feedback is too vague and does not meet the PB criteria.

PB goals can also be classified as ‘outcome' goals (e.g., getting a higher mark in the yearly exam than the half-yearly exam) or ‘process' goals (e.g., preparing for an exam on the weekend when previously no study had been done). PB goals are about creating a personalised standard of excellence with a specific road map for how to get there. Emerging research has shown that PB goal-setting in the education domain can help enhance student motivation, self-efficacy, persistence, classroom participation, enjoyment of school, task interest, flow, engagement, teacher relationships, and resilience (Martin, 2011).

Academic PB goals are effective because they maintain the energising properties of competition (because a student competes with him/herself), they reduce the counterproductive effects of excessive comparison with others, they motivate the student to close the gap between where they are now and where they want to be, and they are accessible to all students (whereas only one student can top the class, potentially all students can achieve a PB goal).

Values that light the way for personal best goals

As new directions in educational research and practice unfold, we are exploring different ways to implement PB goals in the classroom and individualised student plans. Drawing on the recognition that personally-valued goals are more likely to be successful, we have explored the idea of ‘valued action'.

According to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), valued action is a goal pursuit that is considered meaningful and connected to one's values. ACT seeks to help people to not only identify and clarify their values but to also activate their behaviour in valued directions. ACT promotes committed valued action (as opposed to avoidant based actions) because it is believed that this is what leads to psychological flexibility and a life that is rich and meaningful (a main aim of ACT).

Indeed, in our own work in schools, we have seen time and again the importance students place on linking their goals to something that is personally meaningful. We found this is especially important for those students who have ‘lost their way' and are in the motivation wilderness.

Our approach encourages students to adopt a PB goal that is meaningful and connected to their values. According to ACT, values can be thought of much like a lighthouse. Values can illuminate, provide direction, and help one to keep on track. They also keep students focused on why they are taking specific action and striving for a specific goal. A lighthouse (value) lights the way in the dark (when motivation is low or when a student experiences a setback). Notably, whereas most goals can be completed in the short- to medium-term, values are never quite ‘finished' in that they are always evolving.

With regards to the education domain, on any given day, a student can choose to act on or move towards their educational values (starting their assignment rather than procrastinating) or move away from their values (continuing to procrastinate and delay starting their assignment). With ACT, failures or missteps do not automatically cancel out values; rather, one can always return to the path illuminated by values.

Values-based reflections and discussions with a trusted adult can help students to clarify their PB goals within different life domains. In a student's academic life, values-based reflections and discussions encourage a student to ask questions such as: What is learning for? What do I want my school life to stand for? Deep down inside, what is really important to me? What will a good Year 12 result really enable me to do that is truly meaningful in my life? What kind of person do I want to be? What do I care about?

With the help of a trusted adult either in school or at home, once students know what they care about (values), then they can place their energy towards that direction (goals). This means their decisions or actions are based on things that are personally relevant to them ­– a major factor in successfully striving and meeting one's goals. Put simply, values help determine which PB goals become salient.

Key steps to help students develop a values-driven PB goal

  • Step 1: Select the area of life for discussion. In school, education or a particular subject may be the key focus.
  • Step 2: Identify guiding values by asking questions such as those listed above. For example, Sally may say that getting a good grade is important to her. But why does she say this? Perhaps she wants to gain entry into university to study psychology – but there are more to values than just this. What is this long-term goal in service of? What will this enable Sally to do with her life that is meaningful to her? Through discussion and reflection, Sally may identify values such as ‘expanding her knowledge', ‘curiosity' or ‘caring for others'. These values can therefore light the way for Sally's PB goal-setting towards studying psychology at university.
  • Step 3: Set an outcome and/or process oriented PB goal
  • that is specific, challenging and competitively self-referenced.
  • Step 4: Identify the benefits of achieving this PB goal (always encouraging the student to be mindful of the identified value, purpose, and meaning behind the goal).
  • Step 5: Plan for, or identify, the potential difficulties or obstacles that might get in the way of reaching the PB goal and what Sally will do if this happens.

As you can see from these steps, values-driven PB goal-setting is an evolving and ongoing process. As one PB is attained, the student reflects on their values and what is personally meaningful to identify the next PB goal. Working in this way, we have found that students connecting to their values is satisfying and motivating in itself. Committed action tends to flow naturally out of value identification.

So, the next time you notice a student who seems lost in the motivation wilderness, challenge yourself to see them in a different light and see that no-one is truly unmotivated. Rather, this student is probably, and often unknowingly, behaving and pursuing values counter to their academic wellbeing at this point in time.

When young people have support from an adult to help them identify academic values that are both educationally valid and personally meaningful, they gain greater insight into their own behaviour and from there they can set PB goals that are relevant to them.


Ciarrochi, J.V., Hayes, L., & Bailey, A. (2012). Get out of your mind & into your life for teens: A guide for living an extraordinary life. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

Green, J., Liem, G.A., Martin, A.J., Colmar, S., Marsh, H., & McInerney, D. (2012). Academic motivation, self-concept, engagement, and performance in high school: Key processes from a longitudinal perspective. Journal of Adolescence, 35, 111-1122

Martin, A.J. (2011). Personal best (PB) approaches to academic development: Implications for motivation and assessment. Educational Practice and Theory, 33, 93-99.

As an educator, how might you help students set and strive for values-driven PB goals to enhance their motivation at school?

How might you help a student find their lighthouse and roadmap in the motivational wilderness?