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Setting and communicating learning goals with special education students — February 2017


What does the research say about the use of setting and communicating learning goals with students in special education?


Following an established REL West research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports as well as descriptive study articles on the use of setting and communicating learning goals with students receiving special education services. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, and general Internet search engines. (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response. We offer them only for your reference. Also, we searched the references in the response from the most commonly used resources of research, but they are not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist.

Research References

Agran, M., Blanchard, C., Wehmeyer, M. L., & Hughes, C. (2002). Increasing the problem-solving skills of students with developmental disabilities participating in general education. Remedial and Special Education, 23(5), 279–288. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Although skill in problem solving is critical to success in school and the community, as well as to promoting student self-determination, problem solving remains a neglected curriculum area for students with developmental disabilities. Using the self-determined learning model, 4 students with mental retardation or developmental disabilities were taught problem-solving skills to achieve self-set goals. A multiple-baseline-across-participants design was used, and the instruction was provided in general education content classes. Target behaviors included increasing appropriate touching, increasing contributions to class discussion, and increasing direction following. Data revealed immediate and dramatic changes for all participants, with performance levels maintained at 10096. Anecdotal social validation data supported the findings. The implications of these findings in respect to promoting self-determination and inclusive practice are discussed.”

Danneker, J. E., & Bottge, B. A. (2009). Benefits and barriers to elementary student-led individualized education. Remedial Special Education, 30(4), 225–233. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “An important task of special educators is helping students with disabilities develop their self-determination skills. Considerable evidence suggests, however, that the goal of providing these students with the motivation and sense of independence that leads to self-determined behavior has not often been achieved. A multiple-case design was used in this study to describe the experiences of four elementary students with disabilities who were taught how to communicate their goals and identify appropriate accommodations at their individualized education program (IEP) meeting. Observations of the IEP meetings and follow-up interviews with parents, teachers, and students revealed that elementary students were capable of contributing important information about their disabilities and suggestions for accommodating them. The potential for promoting greater self-reliance in young students with disabilities is discussed.”

Lee, S. H., Palmer, S. B., & Wejmeyer, M. L. (2009). Goal setting and self-monitoring for students with disabilities. Intervention in School and Clinic, 44(3), 139–145. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This article provides teachers with practical tips and ideas about how self-monitoring works in conjunction with goal-setting strategies to support students to set and achieve different types of academic goals. In addition, specific examples of academic goals and self-monitoring forms are provided to give teachers an example of such goals. To provide teachers with practitioner-oriented information about how to use these strategies, practical tips and ideas are addressed in the following sequence: (a) how to support students to set school-related goals, (b) how to support students to develop action plans for student-set target goals, (c) how to create a self-monitoring sheet that matches the self-set goals, and (d) how to evaluate the targeted goal.”

Schunk, D. H. (1985). Participation in goal setting: Effects on self-efficacy and skills of learning-disabled children. Journal of Special Education, 19, 307–317. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This experiment tested the hypothesis that participation in goal setting enhances self-efficacy and skills. Subjects were sixth-grade children who previously had been classified as learning disabled in mathematics. Children received subtraction training that included instruction and practice opportunities over several sessions. Some children set proximal performance goals each session, others had comparable proximal goals assigned, and children in a third condition received the training but no goals. Although proximal goals promoted motivation more than no goals, participation in goal setting led to the highest self-efficacy and subtraction skill. Implications for teaching are discussed.”

Shogren, K. A., Palmer, S. B., Wehmeyer, M. L., Williams-Diehm, K., & Little, T. (2012). Effect of intervention with the Self-Determined Learning Model of Instruction on access and goal attainment. Remedial Special Education, 33(5), 320–330. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Promoting student self-determination has been identified as best practice in special education and transition services and as a means to promote access to the general education curriculum for students with disabilities. There have been, however, limited evaluations of the effects of interventions to promote self-determination on outcomes related to access to the general education curriculum. This article reports finding from a cluster or group-randomized trial control group study examining the impact of intervention using the Self-Determined Learning Model of Instruction on student academic and transition goal attainment and on access to the general education curriculum for students with intellectual disability and learning disabilities. Findings support the efficacy of the model for both goal attainment and access to the general education curriculum, though students varied in the patterns of goal attainment as a function of type of disability.”

Taylor-Ritzler, T., Balcazar, F. E., Keys, C. B., Hayes, E., Garate-Serafini, T., & Espino, S. R. (2001). Promoting attainment of transition-related goals among low-income ethnic minority students with disabilities. Career Development and Transition for Exceptional Individuals, 24(2), 147–167. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “The Choices-in-Transition Intervention was designed to promote students’ attainment of transition-related goals through person-centered goal-setting, help-recruiting skills training, and case management support. Participants were 41 low-income, predominantly ethnic minority high school students with disabilities. The study assessed the types of transition-related goals participants set and their goal attainment outcomes. In addition, the study assessed students’ help-recruiting skill development, help-seeking behaviors, and the help received during goal pursuit. The researchers predicted that participants’ help-recruiting skills would be positively related to their help-seeking behaviors, help-seeking behaviors would be positively related to the help students received, and receiving help would be positively related to students’ goal attainment. Results revealed significant increases in students’ help-recruiting skills. In addition, 34% of participants sought help with their goals, 90% received help with their goals, 85% met at least one of their goals, and predictions about helping were supported. Implications for transition services are discussed.”

Wehmeyer, M. L., Palmer, S. B., Agran, M., Mithaug, D. E., & Martin, J. E. (2000). Promoting causal agency: The self-determined learning model of instruction. Exceptional Children, 66(4), 439–453. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Teachers seeking to promote the self-determination of their students must enable them to become self-regulated problem-solvers. This article introduces a model of teaching, The Self-Determined Learning Model of Instruction, incorporating principles of self-determination, which enables teachers to teach students to become causal agents in their own lives. This model was field-tested with students with disabilities. Students receiving instruction from teachers using the model attained educationally relevant goals, showed enhanced self-determination, and communicated their satisfaction with the process. Teachers implementing the model likewise indicated their satisfaction with the process and suggested that they would continue to use the model after the completion of the field test.”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • Learning goals and special education students
  • Goal setting and special education students

Databases and Resources

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences. Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and PsychInfo.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the Publication: References and resources published for the last 15 years, from 2002 to present, were included in the search and review.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations, and academic databases, including ERIC, EBSCO databases, JSTOR database, PsychInfo, PsychArticle, and Google Scholar.
  • Methodology: Following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types – randomized controlled trials, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, etc., generally in this order; (b) target population, samples (representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected, etc.), study duration, etc.; and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, etc.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the West Region (Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory West at WestEd. This memorandum was prepared by REL West under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-00014524, administered by WestEd. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.