Andrew Martin

Personal Best: how setting PB goals can significantly improve student performance

Setting a personal best goal within every-day classroom activities can improve student performance and, significantly, it can be achieved through a very simple change to an existing classroom exercise.

Results of our latest research study on setting personal best goals, by our team from the University of New South Wales and University of Sydney, may have a broad application across all classrooms.

We used classroom-based problem-solving exercises and made just one simple change to instructions given to students. While we used a mathematic exercise in this instance, we believe any teacher of any subject could use this technique in any classroom.

What does setting a personal best goal involve?

Definition of personal best (PB) goals

Scientia Professor and Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of New South Wales, Andrew Martin, has defined personal best (PB) goals as specific, challenging, and competitively self-referenced goals that involve a level of performance that meets or exceeds an individual’s previous best.

Setting goals and our previous studies

Most of the available research on personal best goals has been survey-based. For example, in an earlier study we surveyed 249 high school students twice across a year about their use of PB goals using responses to PB questions (e.g., “When I do my schoolwork I try to do it better than I’ve done before”). We found that the relationships between PB goals and deep learning, academic flow, and positive teacher relationship remained significant beyond their previous scores on these factors. We believe these results support the importance of PB goals in school settings.

More recent investigations have tested the effects of PB goal setting using experimental research methods. In the context of an annual mathematics contest, Professor Martin and professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, Andrew Elliot, invited some students to set a PB goal based on their previous year’s performance, while others were simply reminded of their previous year’s performance. Students in the PB goal condition substantially outperformed the control condition.

Experimental investigations such as this provide strong tests of causal hypotheses (where you can predict what will happen when you change one thing in a relationship). In this case, we could predict that PB goals act to enhance learning processes and/or outcomes for students.

Our latest study

Our latest study aimed to test whether PB goals can enhance mathematics performance in a primary school context, using an existing class activity, SuperSpeed Math, developed by Chris Biffle of Whole Brain Teaching.

In this study, we aimed to boost short-term improvement in arithmetical problem-solving fluency, across a range of arithmetical skills, under time pressure to build number fluency.

Describing how the design of SuperSpeed Math incorporates PB goals, Biffle argues:

Students love to play SuperSpeed Math because they love to strive for goals and to set and break personal records. Players are never competing against each other, but against their own previous best effort. Thus, the learning objective is set at exactly the right level, no matter a player’s ability.

What we did

Our study involved 68 children across Years 5 (35 students) and Year 6 (33 students) who chose to participate. A research assistant worked with each child for approximately 35-40 minutes.

Students began by completing a short paper-based questionnaire to gauge

(a) their prior ability in mathematics,

(b) their use of and the classroom emphasis on Personal Best, Mastery, and Performance (competitive) goals in learning mathematics;

(c) their mathematics self-concept; and

(e) students’ valuing of and interest in mathematics.

Students were then randomly assigned to the Personal Best condition (compete against your own previous Personal Best score on mental maths questions), and a No Goal comparison condition. In the first round of a set of mental maths, students would follow these instructions:

“We’re now going to do some mental maths questions. This is how we’ll work together.

I’m going to give you some sheets of paper with mental maths questions on them. For each sheet of questions, your task is to answer as many questions as you can in 60 seconds.

I’ll give you some feedback on how many you got correct, then we’ll go through that sheet of questions again. Please start with the questions on the top row, going from left to right, then the second row from left to right, and so on.”

For the PB condition, after each initial 1-minute attempt at a set of initial test questions (e.g., on addition), the researcher gave the following instructions:

“OK, your score on these addition questions was [X]. This is your Personal Best score. Now we’re going to do these questions again, and I would like you to set a goal where you aim to do better on these questions than you did before.”

For the students in the comparison condition, the only difference to the experimental (PB) condition was that students in the condition were informed,

“OK, your score on these [addition] questions was [X]. Now we’re going to do these questions again”.

All students completed 10 sets of two rounds of arithmetic problem-solving, that is 20 rounds in total.


As expected, there were no statistically reliable differences between the two groups on the “pre-experiment” prior mathematics ability test or self-reports on Personal Best, Mastery, and Performance goals.

Our primary research question focused on the number of mental mathematics questions solved by the two groups. We found a small but statistically reliable difference between the two groups in favour of the Personal Best goals group.

Our study shows that setting a Personal Best goal during classroom-based problem-solving exercises improves performance.

What does this mean for teaching and learning?

We believe these results may have broad application in classrooms. Although the effect of setting a PB goal was relatively small, it was achieved through a very simple change to an existing classroom exercise.

John Hattie has argued small effects may still be practically important when considered in context. In our study, we aimed to boost short-term improvement in arithmetical problem-solving fluency, across a range of arithmetical skills, under time pressure to build number fluency.

A large change to such a complex skill-set probably won’t happen through a ‘one-shot’ intervention. Instead, students will engage in such fluency-building activities many times over the course of weeks or even months. We believe the small effect found in our study can be the start of a “virtuous cycle” of enhanced learning and performance. Beyond exercises like SuperSpeed Math, PB goals can potentially play a number of roles in students’ goal-setting and school reporting.

Our study focused on Personal Bests in mental maths, but there are many opportunities to set and strive for Personal Bests in other subjects and skill-sets. For example, students may strive to spell more words correctly in a forthcoming spelling test than they had in the previous test; they may aim to read an extra book or resource for an assignment than they had done before; before a test they may do some revision over the weekend when they previously had done none; or, they may aim to ask a teacher for help when they had previously been reluctant to do so. In all such cases, students are their own benchmark and their own point of reference for self-improvement.

More broadly, these findings are consistent with a “growth mindset”, which holds that every child is capable of learning given the right opportunities, access to productive strategies, effort, and support.


Here is our paper in the Australian Education Researcher Personal Best (PB) goal-setting enhances arithmetical problem-solving 

If you would like to know more about our Growth Mindset work please visit the Growth Mindset site



Paul Ginns is Associate Professor of Educational Psychology in the School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney. Paul uses numerous research methodologies (for example, experimental and survey-based research) and analytic methods, including general linear models, exploratory and confirmatory factor analysis, structural modelling and meta-analysis, to investigate student learning.




Professor Andrew Martin, PhD, is Scientia Professor, Professor of Educational Psychology, and Co-Chair of the Educational Psychology Research Group in the School of Education at the University of New South Wales, Australia. He specialises in student motivation, engagement, achievement, and quantitative research methods.


Importance of social and emotional competence for teachers, for very young children and for at-risk students: latest research

Teachers and researchers are increasingly aware of the importance of social and emotional competence in the classroom and beyond, including for health, education, and employment outcomes into adulthood. Social and emotional competence refers to the skills that help us to interact in positive ways with others and manage our own emotions. These skills are varied and include among others our relationships skills, confidence, coping skills, self-regulation and self-awareness.

Curriculum designed to teach social and emotional competence is known as social and emotional learning. The Australian Curriculum Frameworks emphasise the importance of social and emotional learning from the early years and throughout schooling.

A growing body of research has investigated the importance of social and emotional competence for students and there are promising results for social and emotional learning programs already being used in schools in Australia and abroad. Resources are available for Australian teachers to implement social and emotional learning in their classrooms.

In this blog post we will focus on our recent research work in three areas of social and emotional competence that we believe need more attention: the importance of social and emotional competence in the early years of schooling, for at-risk students, and for teachers.

Developing Social Emotional Competence in the Early Years

During the early preschool years, children are beginning to learn more about social emotional competencies such as self-awareness, self-regulation, and social awareness. Nurturing these skills is important for positive developmental outcomes and there is now a growing body of research seeking effective ways to do so.

For example, in one of our studies Investigating Social and Emotional Competence in the Early Years, among children in the four-year-old age group we identified a range of coping social and emotional competencies that young children could implement when faced with challenge or things that worried them. It was then possible to develop visual tools to teach age-appropriate coping social and emotional competencies to children in the pre-school setting such as for situations like saying goodbye to a parent at pre-school and fear of the dark.

It was also possible to identify adaptive and maladaptive social and emotional competencies that seemed to be especially salient in young children’s coping.

Adaptive behaviours are those that help a child adjust to and cope with different situations in their environment, such as at home and at school. So adaptive social and emotional competencies are a set of behaviours that a child would use to help them adjust and cope. Maladaptive behaviours are those that interfere with everyday activities and a child’s ability to cope. So maladaptive social and emotional competencies are a set of behaviours a child would use that interrupt or interfere with everyday activities.

  • In the adaptive dimension children used strategies such as “Play”, “Chat to Friends” and “Work Hard”.
  • In the maladaptive dimension children used strategies considered to be more distressing for the child or caregiver. These included an emotional expression dimension that reflected emotions such as “Lose it”, “Cry or scream”, and “Keep away from other children”. They also included an emotional inhibition dimension that reflected internalised emotions such as “Keep feelings to self”, “Get sick”, and “Don’t let others know how they are feeling”.

It was clear that those who used adaptive coping social and emotional competencies also experienced positive mental health and there was a link between maladaptive social and emotional competencies and some aspects of poor mental health. For example, maladaptive coping social and emotional competencies were linked to anxiety, peer related difficulties, and conduct problems.

Intervention research, research that is designed to assess the efficacy of a particular intervention, has also identified ways to teach adaptive social and emotional competencies such as coping. For example, a five-week early years coping program, COPE-R (COPE-Resilience), was designed to teach social and emotional competencies such as caring for others, communicating openly, politeness, empathy, and sharing in classroom activities.

In our study we found that:

  • children as young as four can articulate a range of coping strategies;
  • children’s social and emotional competencies can be measured through parent reports;
  • children can be taught to use more positive coping skills and fewer negative coping skills; and,
  • social and emotional learning programs of instruction can be utilised to teach both personal coping skills and prosocial skills.

The Role of Social and Emotional Competence in At-risk Students’ Academic Wellbeing 

The bulk of research into social and emotional competence has focused on so-called “mainstream” student populations (e.g., using whole-class samples, whole-school samples, national and international samples). As noted above, social and emotional competence is associated with important personal and academic wellbeing outcomes for these students. Relatively less attention has been directed to social and emotional competence among ‘at-risk’ groups. These are groups of students who are at risk of dropping out of school or experiencing difficulties in their lives as they grow and develop (such as students with ADHD or learning difficulties).

Our research program’s focus on “at-risk” status has examined students with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

In one of our recent studies, ADHD Personal and Interpersonal Agency, and Achievement: Exploring Links from a Social Cognitive Theory Perspective, we investigated social and emotional competencies for students with ADHD. We found that self-efficacy, that is the child’s confidence in their own ability to succeed, and positive interpersonal relationships with teachers were significantly associated with academic outcomes.

Notably, we also found that these two factors played a far more substantial role in academic wellbeing for students with ADHD than for students without ADHD. On the one hand, this was quite an encouraging finding in that it identified specific ways to help improve the academic wellbeing of students with ADHD. On the other hand, however, the finding was of some concern because students with ADHD are typically lower in self-efficacy and have poorer interpersonal relationships, leading to lower academic wellbeing. Taking both together, we identified a clear need to improve these social and emotional competencies among students with ADHD.

For improving students’ academic self-efficacy, we suggested that teachers:

  • Adapt lessons and activities to maximise opportunities for students’ success—with this success being a basis for building self-efficacy
  • Break lessons and activities into smaller, more manageable sections to optimise opportunities for completion and a sense of competence
  • Individualise instruction and learning activities where appropriate and necessary
  • Develop students’ goal-setting skills that allows students to work towards competence experiences

For improving teacher-student relationships, we suggested that teachers:

  • Implement the “connective instruction” framework that seeks to optimise students’ interpersonal connection with teachers (students better connecting with the teacher him/herself), the substantive connection with teachers (students better connecting to the subject matter and academic tasks and activities), and the pedagogical connection with teachers (students connecting to how the teacher communicates and delivers subject matter)
  • Build students’ awareness of social cues through social skills training
  • Be more patient and tolerant of differences and diversity in the classroom
  • Participate in professional development aimed at assisting at-risk students and their relationships with these students

Social and Emotional Competence and Teachers

Thus far we have focused on promoting social and emotional competencies among students. Alongside attention to students’ social and emotional competencies, we argue that teachers’ social and emotional competence is also crucial. This is because:

Given that social and emotional competence is highly relevant to teachers’ work, what does this mean for schools and teachers?

  • At an individual-level, professional development focused on teachers’ social and emotional competence is an avenue that is gaining support for improving teachers’ wellbeing and their ability to create a more positive and supportive classroom environment. For example, mindfulness-based professional development programs involve training in emotional skills (e.g., role plays to help teachers to recognise and be aware of their emotions), mindfulness (e.g., deliberate practice of present moment awareness), and caring and compassion (e.g., mindful listening to others without judgement).
  • At a school-wide level, it is also important to create an environment where teachers’ social and emotional competence is supported. This lays a foundation for teachers’ own wellbeing and in turn their students’ learning. 

The burgeoning awareness of the importance of social and emotional competence for children is having an effect in our schools, helping our children thrive in their classrooms and beyond. To date, most of this attention has focused on mainstream students. We believe our research and work focusing attention on young children, at-risk students, and teachers, for whom additional attention is important, will further promote positive and healthy individuals and schools.


The research cited here is in an edited volume by Erica Frydenberg, Andrew Martin and Rebecca Collie, Social and Emotional Learning in Australia and the Asia-Pacific, published by Springer Nature in Singapore in 2017 and to be launched today, Wednesday 29th July, at the 2017 Australian Association for Research in Education Conference in Canberra. The authors will be participating in a symposium after the launch.


Rebecca Collie, B.Ed. (Hons), M.A., Ph.D., is a Research Fellow in Educational and Developmental Psychology at the University of NSW. Her research interests focus on motivation and well-being among students and teachers, teachers’; and students’; psychosocial experiences at school (perceptions of school climate, job satisfaction, etc.), and quantitative research methods. Through her research, Rebecca aims to promote positive work environments and experiences among teachers as well as engagement and learning among students. She conducted her master’s and doctoral studies at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, and her undergraduate education at the University of Melbourne. She has also worked as a primary school teacher in Melbourne. For more about Rebecca’s publications visit here.


Professor Andrew Martin, PhD, is Scientia Professor, Professor of Educational Psychology, and Co- Chair of the Educational Psychology Research Group in the School of Education at the University of New South Wales, Australia. He specialises in student motivation, engagement, achievement, and quantitative research methods.




Erica Frydenberg is an educational, clinical and organizational psychologist who has practiced extensively in the Australian educational setting. She is a Principal Research Fellow and Associate Professor in psychology in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education. She is an Honorary Fellow of the Australian Psychological Society. Erica has authored and co-authored over 150 academic journal articles and chapters in the field of coping, developed psychological instruments to measure coping in children, adolescents and adults and authored and co-authored 15 books on topics ranging from early years through to adolescence and parenting. She has received numerous Australian Research Council and philanthropic grants, has been engaged widely as a consultant and has received many awards. For more about Erica visit her website.

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Nurturing mindfulness and growth mindset in the classroom

In the same way a gardener cannot force a seed or plant to grow, neither can a teacher simply make a student become more motivated, develop a growth mindset, or perform better at school. Rather, just as a gardener creates optimal conditions to help the seed and plant grow, so too does a teacher create the conditions and climate to cultivate personal and academic growth that can assist a student to flourish. If the academic environment is carefully monitored, maintained and continuously tended to, meaningful growth can occur and students have the potential to thrive at school and beyond. Concepts such as ‘growth mindset’ and ‘mindfulness’ are integral to understanding and promoting students’ growth in the classroom.

Growth Mindset

‘Growth mindset’ refers to a belief that intelligence is malleable and effort is the key to mastery. Students with a growth mindset view learning and personal improvement as more important than outperforming others or ‘looking smart’. They see mistakes as an opportunity to improve. Students with a growth mindset also embrace challenges by viewing them as energising and motivating.

Conversely, students with a ‘fixed mindset’ hold a belief that intelligence is innate and static; they see mistakes and challenges as a threat to their self-worth; they see effort as a sign of low ability that can potentially make them look ‘dumb’ if they perform poorly. With these limiting and restrictive beliefs about intelligence and effort, there is little room for growth.

Not surprisingly, research repeatedly shows that students with a growth mindset, tend to do better at school, enjoy school more, participate more frequently in class, and have more positive aspirations for their future. Just as importantly, students with a growth mindset tend to learn from their mistakes rather than being paralysed or derailed by them.


‘Mindfulness’ is distinctive from a growth mindset. Mindfulness refers to a form of awareness whereby one observes and non-judgementally pays attention to inner states (such as thoughts or feelings) as well as being cognisant of what is happening outside the body in the world. Like any skill, it can be developed through regular and purposeful practice. A mindfulness practice can help loosen the grip of habitual, self-limiting, and ‘fixed’ ways of thinking about and responding to ourselves and our students in the classroom. There are now vast arrays of mindfulness interventions available for implementation in schools for both students and staff (e.g., “Mindfulness in Schools Project .b Program”; “Mindful Schools”; “MindUp”, “Smiling Mind”).

How teachers can cultivate a growth mindset and mindfulness in their classrooms

For students to flourish in the classroom, it is essential that educators not only ‘plant the seed’ (provide the information / present the curriculum), but also cultivate a garden (learning environment / classroom) that values and encourages growth. If students know that a teacher genuinely values effort, learning from mistakes, persistence, and reaching personal bests, then students are more likely to be motivated, have greater reports of self-efficacy, and enjoy and embrace the learning experience.

The way in which an educator uses praise/feedback in the classroom (i.e., informative praise for the specific processes a student used to accomplish something) and the language they use to discuss notions of intelligence, success, and failure can all have a profound influence on the classroom climate and student motivation.

An educator’s mindset also significantly influences the way he/she responds to students. Mindful teachers who adopt a growth mindset tend to be better ‘strength-spotters’ of students. They are inquisitive, observant, and have the ability to bring awareness to, and notice, the ‘blooms’ growing in their garden. Educators who utilise mindfulness develop the ability to bring awareness to any judgmental or limiting beliefs about themselves and their students (e.g., statements such as “he just does not have a mathematical mind”).

Mindful and growth-oriented teachers tend to see themselves and others as positive ‘works-in-progress’. In contrast, teachers who hold a fixed mindset are more inclined to form fixed judgments about students, tend to focus on students’ limitations, and are less inclined to modify their opinions and behaviours when presented with contrary information about a student.

Benefits of growth mindset and mindfulness in the classroom

There is a growing evidence base for the benefits of mindfulness practice. Indeed, when teachers learn and engage in a regular practice of mindfulness, they not only reap benefits such as reduced stress, decreased burnout, increased cognitive performance, and improvements in physical and mental well-being, but their students benefit as well. Mindful teachers organically put a growth mindset ‘into action’ every time they engage in mindfulness practice – thereby modelling a growth mindset to their students. Mindfulness has also been shown to be helpful in building student-teacher connections and a greater sense of relatedness and belonging in the classroom. Promising results are also emerging from research investigating the impact of mindfulness training for young people. This research has shown positive effects on cognitive skills (such as improved attention, visual-spatial memory, concentration), social-emotional intelligence, well-being and lower levels of anxiety and distressed states.

Interestingly, research investigating the neuroplasticity of the brain reveals that mindfulness training allows the brain to grow – the very premise of a growth mindset. Mindfulness training has been shown to alter the structure and function of the brain (predominately the pre-frontal cortex) by reshaping the neural pathways and connections in the brain associated with executive function and cognitive abilities such as attention, problem-solving, self-awareness, planning, theory of mind, and introspection. Mindfulness training can also decrease activity in those areas of the brain associated with anxiety, worry, and impulsivity. Teachers who are literally changing their brain with mindfulness (the very foundation of a growth mindset) also tend to educate in a way that regards the mind as a malleable learning unit. As a by-product, students start to see themselves as agents of their own brain development – as modelled by their teacher.

Weathering the Storms and Droughts: Personal Best (PB) Goals

As any gardener knows, gardening involves not only setting up the ideal conditions to cultivate growth, but also helping the garden to weather storm and drought (i.e., resilience). When students experience academic setbacks, there can be a tendency for motivation to decline. One way in which educators can help students deal with challenge and setback is by advocating a personal best (PB) goal setting approach to learning. A PB approach to learning refers to a personalised set of goals that allow a student to aim to do as well as or better than their previous best efforts or performance. With the support of a teacher, PB goals allow a student to create a personalised standard of excellence with a specific road map for how to get there.

PB goals are distinctive to general goal setting approaches in three key ways. They are 1) specific (a student identifies precisely what they are aiming for), 2) challenging (a student realistically raises their own expectations of themselves) and 3) competitively self-referenced (a student will compete with him/herself rather than compete with others). Students can pursue ‘outcome’ PB goals (e.g., getting a higher mark in the yearly exam than the half-yearly exam) and/or ‘process’ PB goals (e.g., preparing for an exam on the weekend when previously no study would be done on weekends). Emerging research has shown that PB goal-setting in the academic domain can help enhance student motivation, self-efficacy, persistence, classroom participation, enjoyment of school, task interest, flow, engagement, teacher relationships, and resilience. In line with the growth mindset perspective, PB goal setting helps students to develop curiosity and a locus of control about their learning (for relevant worksheets, visit ‘Download Corner’ on Lifelong Achievement Group.

When teachers engage in mindful and growth-oriented practice, they not only develop the ability to ‘notice’ the potential blooms in the garden, they also develop the ability to savour and appreciate this growth. We therefore encourage teachers to dedicate the time, to pause, and reflect on some key questions – “Am I the sort of educator who creates a classroom climate that allows students to make mistakes free from judgments, to feel comfortable asking for help or feedback?”, “What kind of praise and feedback do I give my students – does it focus on growth and personal bests?”, “What kind of language do I use in my classroom to optimise growth?”. Answers to these questions underpin the ideal climate and conditions for students to thrive at school – and beyond.


Dr Jasmine Green is a registered psychologist and part-time Research Associate of the Educational Psychology Research Group in the School of Education at the University of New South Wales, Australia. She has vast experience working with teaching staff, students, and parents in the education setting as a school psychologist. Jasmine’s doctoral research in educational psychology as well as her clinical experience in the educational setting demonstrates a commitment to working collaboratively with students, parents, teachers, and school personnel to promote a learning environment that achieves the most beneficial outcomes for students.



Professor Andrew Martin, PhD, is Scientia Professor, Professor of Educational Psychology, and Co-Chair of the Educational Psychology Research Group in the School of Education at the University of New South Wales, Australia. He specialises in student motivation, engagement, achievement, and quantitative research methods.



Correspondence about this article can be directed to Professor Andrew Martin, School of Education, University of New South Wales, Australia: