Goal Setting with Teenagers in the Economics Classroom

One of the reasons I love teaching economics is because the concepts can be applied to nearly everything. Since economics is the study of scarcity, students can immediately understand the pressure to make good choices with limited money, time, and energy.

I enjoy harnessing the power of teaching about choices and opportunity costs to help students not only understand current events and the world around them, but also to make better decisions in their everyday lives. Economics isn’t just about memorizing definitions — it’s also about putting these fundamentals into action. This semester I refined a lesson on goal setting, framed around better use of our limited resources.

Me with my students

Inspired by the cultural expectation of the “New Year’s Resolution,” I asked students to find a place in their lives where they can make better use of their scarce resources. To set up the lesson, I employed several steps:

Economics Lesson Plan: Goal Setting

  1. Student Brainstorming

As a class, we developed a list of broad goals students might find worthwhile. I kept a running list as students volunteered ideas such as:

Get more sleep

Be healthier

Be a better student

Learn something new

Be a kinder person

Be less wasteful

Be more relaxed

Be a better friend

Be a better child/sister/brother

  1. Narrow down the choices

From the larger list, we voted on six of the most popular options. I have six large tables in my classroom, so we put dry erase boards on each to represent one of the class broad goals.

  1. Small Group Brainstorming

In groups of 4-5, students wrote down at least two ideas for small actions students could take each day in order to work toward the overall goal. Students came up with some wonderful suggestions! Some examples students suggested they could do each day:

Sleep with phone outside the bedroom

Read for 20 minutes

Learn one new word

Put papers in binder/folder at the end of every class

Drink 64 ounces of water

Text a friend a compliment

Take a walk

Offer to clean up after dinner

Pack lunch instead of buying (and using plastic utensils at school)

Watch a TedTalk

Wake up 30 minutes earlier to relax before school

Eat breakfast with their parents

After the student group developed two suggestions, they rotated to the next table to add more ideas. After repeating this cycle, students now had several sources of inspiration to develop their own goals. I gave students a few minutes to walk around the room and return to each board to see the additions from their classmates.

  1. Refining personal goals

I assigned students “homework” to think about their goal focus. What choices would bring them the most utility and be a better use of their limited resources? The prime objective is for students to choose something manageable and meaningful to them.

The next day, students developed their personal overall goal (i.e. being healthier) and chose two actions they could do each day. I emphasized the idea of creating small habits to track in class (and give them an excuse to make a change in their lives for the better!).

I always like to model for my students whenever I can, so I told them I would also share my progress. I made the overall goal of “being more relaxed in the morning” and promised them I would try to take two actions at the start of the school day:

  1. Complete a meditation session on my app (I use the free app UCLA Mindful)
  2. Drink a cup of tea without distractions during my planning period

(And I’ll be honest — reporting my progress to students made me more committed than I would have been otherwise! Kind of like how my students kept me accountable for investing more.)

I encouraged students to set alarms to remind them of their actions, find a buddy for accountability, or to try “habit stacking.” (Habit stacking refers to linking the new behavior with something your already do each day. I gave them an example I practice in my life — Since I always “forgot” about flossing, I now floss in the shower. Stacking the two habits together, helps me be more successful flossing each day).

5. Track the actions each day

I gave each student a worksheet with a calendar on each side to track each of their two actions. Students are expected to update their progress before we begin class each day. Students record whether or not they completed each of their two actions as well as a note about their progress (i.e. Why did you struggle to complete your action? How did you feel before/during/after? What changes have you made to help you be more successful?).

I emphasize to students that it’s ok to not complete the actions everyday — I expect progress instead of perfection. But if students miss the mark multiple days, it’s time to make some changes to be more successful. I ask students to evaluate their overall goal — is it really worth it to them? If not, we change it. If it is, how can we revise the actions or reminders?

6. Share progress

I provide opportunities for students to share their progress and struggles with others in class. By mixing up student groups and setting up small discussions about their goals, I find students enjoy sharing with others and really learn from each other. On several occasions, students altered their own actions because of ideas and suggestions from their classmates.

Students also share their progress with me. Informally, asking students about their goals is a great way to have an easy conversation with those who arrive to class early or finish their work before others. I also asked students about their progress in a Google Form and gave them credit for a thoughtful reaction after attempting their actions for a week.

This simple goal setting activity is an easy way to connect with students and have them apply economics concepts to their own lives. We discuss whether or not they want to add fines or incentives, if there are any sunk costs they need to address, or if they are taking their marginal costs and marginal utility into account.

Lessons like these can help build community and provide opportunities for social-emotional learning. And as so many of us teachers struggle with time constraints, it’s a relatively quick way to develop relationships with students and have them recognize how economics plays a role in their own lives without sacrificing too much class time.

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