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Focus On Basics

Volume 4, Issue A ::: March 2000

The Effects of Continuing Goal-Setting on Persistence in a Math Classroom

by Pamela Meader
I have been a math teacher for Portland Adult Education (PAE) in Portland, ME, for more than 15 years. For the last three years, I have been Maine's practitioner research and dissemination leader for the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL). One of my responsibilities as leader was to conduct a practitioner research project that relates to one of the ten research projects being sponsored by NCSALL. I was interested in John Comings' research on learner motivation and retention (see page 1). In this research, Comings and his research team surveyed students who were successful in completing their objectives. They found that these students felt that setting goals helped them in their persistence. I decided to observe what effect continuing goal-setting in a math class would have on learner persistence.

We at PAE have worked hard to make our program accessible, and particularly to make our math courses interesting and inviting as they have evolved over time. Ten years ago, we offered math in a lab setting: students worked individually. We provided no group work or teacher-led lectures. As our program grew and we began to learn of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics' standards, we decided to offer math classes that covered a range of math disciplines. [For more on NCTM, see Focus on Basics, Volume 3, Issue B,] We incorporated teaching strategies such as cooperative learning, the use of manipulatives, and journal writing and reflection. We also gave math inventories before we placed students into math courses to ensure that students would feel prepared. The inventory we used was the Math Pre-GED form CC test, with teacher-made inventories for more basic math students.

All of our courses, including math, were free for General Educational Development (GED) and high school diploma candidates; all others paid a fee of $40 to $50 per course plus book purchase or were provided with a fee waiver of $50 if they met income guidelines. We provided transportation for those who lived on the school bus route, and the city bus had a stop at our school. Our program had childcare for eligible students in daytime classes. The only mandatory attendance was for the high school diploma students: to receive high school credit for a course, they could not miss more than three classes. Attendance was not mandated for the other students, but was necessary if they wanted to receive a grade. Despite the services PAE provided and the efforts we made to make the class atmosphere less intimidating, our dropout rates were more than 50 percent in our math classes.

I teach four math classes, each of which meets twice a week for two-and-a-half hours each session. In this article, I will share the findings from my two Math Concepts classes. Math Concepts is a course designed to help GED students pass the GED math test; it also serves as a pre-algebra course for learners who need a stronger foundation before entering into an algebra class. We had found earlier that combining pre-algebra and GED-bound students in the same class has had a positive effect on persistence. The GED students witness the college aspirations of the pre-algebra students while the pre-algebra students support the GED students as they prepare to take the test. Most of our pre-algebra learners have their high school diplomas, but sometimes some are taking the class for high school credit. My morning Math Concepts class consisted of 21 students and my evening Math Concepts class consisted of ten students. Of the 31 students total, 13 were pursuing their GEDs, eight of whom were English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) students; four were taking the class for high school credit; and the remaining 14 were college preparatory students.

Gathering Data

During the first class, I explained that NCSALL's learner motivation research found that students who persisted in an adult basic education course attributed this persistence, in some measure, to goal-setting. I had the learners fill out a goal-setting questionnaire based on a survey Conquering Math Anxiety (Arem, 1993). It included questions about the barriers and positive forces that might exist for them as they pursued their stated goals. They then listed the action steps they considered important to pursuing their math goals. I gave students a week to work on this and then collected the questionnaires. I responded individually to each person's work.

Barriers to Persistence in Math Class

Barriers to Persistence in Math Class - Chart 1

In the past I had observed that the initial loss of students occurred within the first four to six classes, so I decided to have the learners revisit their goals during the fourth class, reviewing what they listed as barriers and positive forces. As a group, we discussed whether any positive forces had been working for them and if any new barriers had occurred that they had not listed. I also asked them to consider which action steps they were doing consistently and which they thought they needed to work on. In about four weeks (eight classes later) I asked them to revisit their goals once more. I also asked if they thought, with only 11 classes remaining, that they would persevere to the very end. Many responses were more like affirmations: "I feel I will. I didn't say at times it may be a struggle, but I am sure that I can manage through, it's only 11 more!!!" "Most definitely, if I was going to quit, it would have been earlier in the class."

At the end of the course, I asked the students who remained to fill out one more questionnaire rating the factors that kept them attending, the factors that kept them connected, and the factors that made it difficult to continue in the course. I also asked them to rate the effect goal-setting had on them completing the course.

The Findings

When I started this project, I assumed that my GED students would have difficulty articulating their goals. I could not have been more wrong. The Math Concepts (GED) learners gave heartfelt testimony to what they perceived as their goals, barriers, and positive forces. "My mom sent me up here to finish my schooling and to better myself in many different things so I am going to achieve my goals and make my mom and the rest of my family proud of me and to be proud of myself," one learner said. My second surprise was the list of barriers and positive forces. NCSALL's learner motivation project was not specifically focused on math. Those researchers found work, childcare issues, and transportation to be some of the barriers to persistence. The primary barrier that inhibited learners completing my math class, however, was dealing with various math difficulties and phobias.

The "fear of failure" appeared in many responses; frustration with mathematics and embarrassment at not knowing a particular concept also were evident. As seen in the bar graph on page 8, math difficulties were the barrier that students perceived as keeping them from finishing a class. Study strategies was the positive force most emphasized. Strategies such as asking questions of the teacher and classmates, listening, studying, attendance, and completing homework were some of the more numerous responses listed by the participants at both levels. Psychological and academic barriers were at work here, not situational barriers such as transportation.

The exit survey yielded additional interesting data. I asked the learners to indicate if they were male or female so I could compare the responses by gender. In answering the question, What factors kept you coming to class?, the top four responses to that question for men, in order of importance, were 1) the need to understand the math, 2) goals, 3) the teacher, and 4) friends. Women had as their top choices: 1) the need to understand the math, 2) the teacher, 3) goals, and 4) to get a GED. I also asked the exiting students to assess what factors made them feel connected to the class. Again the responses were different for men and women. I was surprised that the men rated reviewing goals as the most important factor in helping them feel connected while the women had the teacher as first. This might be because I am a woman math teacher and women tend to focus on connectedness. I also recognize that I was biased. I thought that men were probably not comfortable talking about goals or might feel that the goal-setting exercise was not necessary. I learned that goal-setting was very important to this group of men.

I asked the learners to rate the factors that made it difficult for them to attend class, even though this group did complete the course. Again the responses were different for the men and women in my classes. The men placed work as their barrier and the women placed being ill as their number one barrier. Each of these pieces of data provided me with information about persistence and attendance, but my initial question was directed at seeing if retention was affected by placing emphasis on goals. The graph below displays persistence in four Math Concepts classes, two held during the day and two held in the evening. In the classes of similar makeup and size where we engaged in goal-setting more students stayed longer before dropping out.

In the day class that utilized goal-setting, the retention rate was 71 percent compared to 45 percent for the group that did not set goals. In the evening class the rates were relatively the same: 70 percent for the goal setters compared to 73 percent without goal-setting. And notice that learners in the goal-setting group dropped out later in the course: there was 100 percent retention in the goal-setting class for nine classes compared to 93 percent in the non-goal-setting group. By the 18th class, the retention rate for the goal-setting group was 80 percent while the non-goal-setting group had dropped to 73 percent. In fact, the retention rate for the goal-setting group remained at 80 percent until the last class. This merits attention because the longer we can keep GED students attending class, the better their chances are of success on the GED math test.

Conclusions and Implications

My primary reason for conducting this research was to see how effective goal-setting was to student retention in a math class. I learned about much more than that. I found that for some of my Math Concepts students, goal-setting was an important part of their commitment to succeed while others were less enthusiastic. One GED student stated, "I think these goal sheets are really good and they help you." Another said, "Almost every night I reaffirm it [goal] in my journal that I will get to class and complete my assignments." However, another learner commented, "They haven't really had any effect on my commitment to this class."

Comparing Persistence of Learners in Classes With Goal-Setting Versus Classes Without Goal-Setting

Chart 2


For goal-setting to be effective, it must be continuing. For me, this meant incorporating this practice into my lesson plans so that my students and I were consciously aware of the process. In addition, I learned that retention is affected by many factors, not just goal-setting. I discovered the importance of dealing with math anxiety. Before my research project, our math staff had made a conscious effort to address fear of math through journal writing, lab activities, group work, and tutoring. We also tried to establish a community of concerned students who looked out for each other. It is clear we should continue to do even more. In fact, this past semester we asked all our math students to think about the barriers that would keep them from completing a math course. At all levels, from basic math through algebra, math anxiety was the compelling negative force.

We are now collecting data from our students who have persisted through a course to see if their attitudes about math have changed and what contributed to this change. Of 40 students polled in December, 12.5 percent said they hated math and 32.5 percent were afraid of math when they began the math course in September. When leaving the math course, this improved to 0 percent hating math and only 2.5 percent fearing math. Also, at the beginning of the courses 0 percent loved math; exiting, 25 percent indicated a "love of math." Our next project will be to try to locate students who did not persist to see if their math attitudes changed.

This was the first time that I participated in a practitioner research project. Although I was hesitant at first, practitioner research has transformed me. I found it a valuable tool to "quantify" a "gut feeling" that I had. It also raised more questions. I am now using the practitioner research model with students by requiring my algebra students to research a question they have and use their graphing skills to analyze their data.

My research has convinced me that emphasis on goal-setting is worthwhile. I also realize that goal-setting must be a continuing process, not just an introductory activity at the beginning of a course. And, as one research question is answered, others surface. What effect would an orientation for all students have at which goal-setting issues are discussed? Would weekly discussions of goals be more effective than monthly? How can we better address the problem of math anxiety? This research raised many questions and concerns and certainly merits our attention.


Arem, C. (1993). Conquering Math Anxiety. Boston: Brooks/Cole Publishers:.

About the Author

Pam Meader, a former high school math teacher, has taught math in adult basic education settings for more than 15 years. She is the New England representative for the Adult Numeracy Network, NCSALL's Practitioner Research and Dissemination Network (PDRN) leader for Maine, and recently was awarded Maine's Adult Education Teacher of the Year award. She is passionate about mathematics and seeks to instill this passion in each of her students.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL