The Motivating Power of Goal-Setting to Reverse Summer Learning Loss-Part I

My 13 year-old is out of school for the summer, or so he thinks. The last day of formal schooling was June 5th, the day the school doors closed, a day of long goodbyes to friends and when final report cards were distributed. On that day, the chapter closed on 7th grade and the exuberant anticipation of a three-month period of leisure began. I too look forward to the summer season because, though I work year-round in a full-time job, not having to get him up as early each day and monitor his homework and test preparation amounts to a short holiday for my wife (mostly my wife) and me.

Summer Brings a Lack of Structure

However, we also approach this period with a bit of anxiety because of the lack of structure the summer brings. During the school year, the daily schedules are predictable, and you know the children are in good hands with time- and experience-tested teachers and administrators. And we, like most parents, ensure that my son has a myriad of other activities in which he’s involved, from music lessons to church activities, and from sports teams to household chores. True, our (collective) children are over-scheduled and have less unstructured time than we did when we were their age. (Summers brought hours on my bicycle with friends, or playing pickup games of handball, touch football, or basketball with no refs, gyms, or uniforms.) I learned so much about myself, how to relate to others—negotiate and work through conflicts—and we developed new skills like how to fix bicycles, to build clubhouses and go carts, and ride minibikes (without brakes), all with little parent intervention.

Helicopter Parents

Today, we act like saviors for our children, swooping in to break up arguments and fights, and making sure our children are scheduled by the week, day, and hour. Some argue that by being so “hands on”, we retard the development of their coping skills and other developmental markers about which Arthur Chickering writes.

The Digital Age is Making Matters Worse

On the other hand, if we’re too busy, then we give our children video games, tablets, smartphones and computers to keep them occupied. Nicholas Carr has written extensively about the effect of “screen time” on cognitive development in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. In his book, he presents compelling evidence that the Internet is hindering our ability to think and read deeply. Mark Bauerlain takes Carr’s argument into very provocative territory. In The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30), he claims that those who’ve grown up in the digital era (the “under 30s) are engaging with technology in ways that regresses their learning. I’ve seen the effects firsthand. When I was a freshman advisor and seminar teacher, I had a cohort that was unusually obsessed with video games. This group seemed to use every available minute to play their games—together. Not surprisingly, they were also the class that had the most academic troubles. Coincidence? I think not!

 Summer Learning Loss

With its lack of structure, summer is particularly a precarious season for learning. An analysis done by Harris Cooper[1] nearly 20 years ago found that average “summer learning loss” for most students was the equivalent of losing one month’s instruction in school. In other words, students returning in the fall scored lower on standardized tests than they did when they left school in the spring.

And yet, the study speculated that reading over the summer could limit summer learning loss, and in fact could reverse it.

College students (and even an adults) can experience summer learning loss. The lazy days of summer can lead to a “leaking” of knowledge and skills that we develop over the rest of the year. “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it!”  One way to avoid this loss is to keep reading during the summer—deep reading of novels and other books. (Reading emails and text messages don’t count!)

I’ve encouraged my son to set reading goals at the beginning of the summer. Prior to school ending each June, my wife and I ask him about his summer reading list (that his school assigns) and his own list of books he’d like. Then we set goals for the number of books he wants to read for the summer. Dividing that number by the number of weeks yields a weekly goal. So far—a month into the summer, he’s read three books. An added bonus (critical to learning) is his eagerness to talk about the characters, plots, and story lines over meals.

Goals Motivate Us

While regular goal-setting is helpful for middle schoolers, it’s also a good practice for college students and other adults. Goals compel us to focus our effort. Goals are a prerequisite of motivation and ultimately for developing the deliberate practice about which I’ve written earlier. Some students develop low expectations about their performance in a particular class (“I probably won’t do better than a ‘C’ in this class.”) Researchers called that defensive pessimism.  Other students –the strategic optimists –set high goals for the class and are disappointed if they don’t come close to the high bar they set for themselves. Let me ask you what you’d see if you got to observe the two groups studying—the defensive pessimisms and the strategic optimists. Which group would be more focused and put in more effort? The strategic optimists of course. Motivation and effort are the dividends of goal setting. High, challenging goals keep you focused on the task and lead to better results.

Setting Summer Goals

So, what are your goals for the summer? How many books do you want to read? Is there a musical piece you want to master? How about a class you should take to get ahead (or catch up)? You may set a fitness goal, to run a sub 9-minute mile. Whatever goals you have, write them down, tell someone and get to work.

In my next blog, I’ll give specific advice about how to set and maintain goals—goals that are SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound.

School is Never Out

For my son, school is never out, or at least learning isn’t. He has self-directed his summer learning plan and seems to be managing it well. This is better than summer school. He gets to choose what he wants to read and when. And while we’re tempted to have him draft and rewrite syntheses of the books as he completes them, we chose to let up on the accelerator a bit. After all, it’s summertime.


[1] Cooper, H., Nye, B., Charlton, K., Lindsay, J., & Greathouse, S. (1996). The effects of summer vacation on achievement test scores: A narrative and meta-analytic review. Review of Education Research, 66(3), 227-268. EJ 596 384.