Can collaborative target setting raise attainment in writing in year three?

Rebecca Turvill was an NQT in a 3 form entry primary school in a South London Borough when she undertook this action research which was completed in 2005.  She writes ‘I undertook a collaborative target selection process with children, where they identified their own writing targets reflecting an aspect of writing they wanted to work on. As a result, the children’s attitudes to writing improved and their understanding and use of targets increased significantly. In addition to the children selecting their own writing target they were provided with oral and written feedback regularly in respect to their individual target. Whilst successful in raising the standards of writing, I also found individualising the target setting process improved the quality of the teacher feedback and the quality of the pupil-teacher interactions.’


The main project findings
There research followed three key hypotheses and the outcomes are presented in relation to these three areas: Intrinsic Motivation, Raising attainment and managing the process.

Intrinsic Motivation
An unexpected outcome from the research was the manner in which the interviews were so powerful in providing a voice for the children. Rather than simply revealing the mechanisms by which the children used (or didn’t use) their targets, they revealed a wealth of information about their opinions on target setting. The children were very keen to use this opportunity to share their opinions, which made me realise that such an opportunity to engage with the children was powerful in itself. As a consequence of this I have always used an individual conferencing approach to set targets with children.

Allowing children to select their own targets was very popular with the children and revealed differing motivations for selecting specific ones. Some children chose one which they felt was “right” for them, whereas others selected targets which they felt they could quickly achieve and tick off. Individual selection validated each of these positions and allowed children the opportunity to genuinely have a personal say in the target. This was radically different to the previous approach of being “given” a target. In some instances, children began to compose their own targets which were usually highly relevant to the children’s stage of writing – this reflects the self-directed learning behaviours (Watkins 2003) associated with effective learning. Attitude scales used as a measure of pupil motivation revealed a more positive disposition by pupils following the action research period. A causal relationship cannot be established; however, during the period of the research in general the class adopted a more positive attitude to learning generally. Comparable classes also undertook the attitude scales, whilst not participating in the research. In those classes no changes were observed in attitudes over the same period.

One major success for me as a teacher was that the diverse range of targets present in the classroom as a result of personal choice in fact increased the focussed nature of my feedback to children. As each child had specific targets, I was forced to consider the specific element of writing they were working on and engage with them in personal feedback around this. A major concern I had about this approach was that it would not provide a “manageable” solution in a busy classroom environment. In fact this was not the case, as is discussed below.

I express concern throughout the study that individualising the target process would be unmanageable predominantly due to the individual feedback required. However, having different targets for each child was found to enhance the quality of written feedback in comparison to group targets where the feedback often became repetitive and generic rather than focussed on a child’s specific learning needs.

Recording written feedback against children’s targets was undertaken on individual target cards kept inside each child’s book. It did require an extended marking session to ensure each child had an effective next step prompt recorded on their target card. However this time investment was considered valuable as it became both a dialogue between child and teacher and a record of improvement. Schools notoriously find it difficult to track the targets children have been given and this method simply achieves that whilst providing high quality individualised feedback. The target cards become a record of progress which is also available to scrutiny by other staff members and for discussing with parents.

Raising attainment
I undertook this research in a year three class in a junior school. Historically this year group made little or no progress in year three with some children occasionally regressing reflecting national transitional difficulties (Galton et al, 1999). Through this action research project the children involved improved their writing attainment by the end of the year – against previous trends.

Research such as Galton et al (1999) suggests that children do not follow a linear trajectory through their education and that regular assessment should allow children to be tracked. Intervention is then possible at times when children are not making expected progress. The school in which I worked at the time of this research did indeed undertake such measures, however only twice each year. The immediate nature of this target setting approach provided a dynamic way of ensuring children were making progress and noticing when children were not.

In addition, the individual target and personalised feedback ensured that children were always working on an aspect of learning which was suitable. Even when children chose targets they wanted to meet quickly, they were able to do this and then move onto a more suitable and stretching choice. In a cohort-wide system where groups of children work on similar targets this is not possible and a child may be kept for three weeks working on a target they could demonstrate in one session was well accomplished. This reflects a key point of AfL – that teachers should identify the specific point a learner is at and furnish them with the necessary next steps to move on (Black & William, 1998). That was the power of this research for me – every child working at their own personal point of development. The impact of this was clear with the class making progress in their writing scores, bucking the usual school trend at this point.

Concluding thoughts
Whilst the specific target setting practise was so effective in this setting, it has been widely adopted by the schools I have worked in since; a further key outcome for me was the power of action research. By considering an aspect of my practice and truly reflecting on ways to improve it, powerful change resulted. As a consequence I endeavour to look at teaching and learning in new ways, and regularly undertake such an approach in the classroom.

Rebecca Turvill can be contacted on


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