Why Set Goals?
When we set goals, we make a commitment to what we hope to accomplish. Whether our ultimate goal is to complete a history project on time, to improve our grades in Spanish, or to build a business that changes the world, goal-setting establishes our intention, and it is the first serious step towards asserting our agency.
When students learn to set goals as adolescents, they develop the confidence and capacity to plan for the increasingly complex challenges that they will encounter as they make their way through their academic career and then on to the professional world beyond. Goal-setting, when learned at an early age, develops flexibility and resilience. Students will not always achieve their goals, and sometimes their plans will fall apart. When students confront this reality in low-stakes situations, they have the opportunity to practice bouncing back from setbacks and adapting their plans. This learned resilience will serve them well as their plans become increasingly ambitious and consequential.
What is the SMART Framework?
The SMART framework was first developed in 1981 by George T. Doran as a tool for managers to use in setting goals and objectives. Its continued popularity stems from its simplicity and its effectiveness. The acronym S.M.A.R.T. establishes the criteria that makes for a good goal:
S – SPECIFIC. A good goal states precisely what a student hopes to accomplish. It addresses questions of who, what, when, and where. When a goal is specific, a student is able to determine precisely when they have achieved it.
M – MEASURABLE. This is especially important for students, who benefit from progress check-ins. Measurable goals empower students to monitor (and celebrate!) their progress, determine whether they are likely to actually achieve their goal, and adjust their strategy accordingly.
A – ATTAINABLE. It is important that students experience success as they are first learning to set goals so that the process feels manageable and worthwhile. To ensure that a goal is attainable, a student should be able to specify how they will achieve the goal.
R – RELEVANT. When a student is setting goals, it is important to consider whether the goal is actually worth achieving for this particular student. Does the goal seek to address the challenges that the student is facing? Is the goal aligned with the student’s ambitions? If the answer is no, then this goal may become a distraction rather than an opportunity.
T – TIME-BOUND. When students establish a timeframe for a goal, they create a sense of urgency that, when well-managed, makes it more likely that a student will actually achieve their goal. A timeframe for completion can often be shifted if the situation requires, but a goal without a timeline is just a dream.
Where do I start?
One of the biggest challenges students can face when setting goals is that they set goals that are broad and ambitious: “I want to do better in school, I will be a better basketball player this season, I am going to do really well on the SAT.” These are laudable aspirations, and we can set SMART goals that help us achieve them, but we need to start smaller.
Let’s start with the common ambition: “I want to do better in school.”
First, let’s be SPECIFIC. Which classes do you want to improve in the most? What would improvement look like? With these questions, we can shift from “I want to do better in school” to “I want to get better grades in English and Math”. Progress.
Next, let’s make sure our goal is MEASURABLE. What does ‘better’ mean? When we think about measurable goals, we’re really talking about numbers or other quantifiable targets. Now “I want to get better grades in English and Math” becomes “I want to get at least a B+ in English and a B in Math”. We’re getting closer.
The ATTAINABLE part of goal setting is really a matter of being able to articulate how we will achieve our goals, usually by adding a ‘by’ statement. This is often the most sophisticated step in setting SMART goals. Here, “I want to get at least a B+ in English and a B in Math” becomes “I want to get at least a B+ in English and a B in Math by completing all of my homework on time, studying for all of my tests, and going to the teacher’s extra help sessions”. Now we have more than a goal; we have a plan!
Determining whether our goals are RELEVANT is really a matter of referring back to our bigger picture goals. We might ask ourselves, how does “getting at least a B+ in English and a B in Math by completing all of my homework on time, studying for all of my tests, and going to the teacher’s extra help sessions” support our larger aspirations – how does this relate to becoming the person we want to grow to be? This can range from wanting to be successful in school, wanting to become a writer, or wanting to go to college to wanting to be more confident, happier, and less stressed. If you can’t connect your goal to the bigger picture, maybe it’s not the right goal.
Lastly, we need to ensure that our goals are TIME-BOUND. This often comes easily for school-related goals that may be tied to test dates or semester schedules. With this in mind, our final draft of our goal states that “I will get at least a B+ in English and a B in Math this semester by completing all of my homework on time, studying for all of my tests, and going to the teacher’s extra help sessions”.
There was one important additional shift that took place in our final step: “I want to” became “I will”. When we set goals, our final draft should be clear and assertive, a statement of intention rather than mere aspiration.
I have a SMART Goal. What now?
It’s time to get to work! If you have followed the framework, you should have a clear sense of what you need to do to achieve your goal. However, it is important to build in checkpoints along the way. If your goal is time-bound by the end of the semester, decide ahead of time when to check in on your progress and schedule these check-ins in advance. At each check-in, ask yourself if you are on-track to achieve your goal. If the answer is ‘yes’, terrific – keep going! If the answer is ‘no’, ask yourself a few follow-up questions:
- Am I on track to come close, or is this goal no longer achievable?
- Does this goal measure the right thing?
- Am I off track because my strategy isn’t working, or am I off track because I am not sticking to my strategy?
- Did I choose an appropriate time frame?
- Is this the right goal for me?
It is important to remember that you will not achieve every goal you set – if you do, you might be setting goals that are too easy. The real benefit of SMART goal setting is that it helps us to be thoughtful about what we want to achieve, to reflect on our progress, and to consider how our short-term goals intersect with our long-term ambitions. Celebrate the process of setting goals in the first place, and remember that it is the journey towards a goal that provides the growth and learning that makes your hard work worthwhile.
SMART Tips for Middle School Students
Middle school is the perfect time to start practicing goal-setting. The stakes are low, which provides fertile ground for experimentation. Here are a few tips for setting SMART goals in middle school:
- Think short-term. Don’t start with goals that have weeks or months-long time horizons. Try setting goals around specific projects or assignments. This allows for quick feedback that is especially helpful for younger students who are still developing the ability to think ahead.
- Use SMART goals for organization. What goals might a student have relating to using their assignment notebook, keeping their binders in order, or preparing for the school day?
- Start with easy goals. A student is more likely to use SMART goals in the long-term if they see the benefits early on. Start with some easy wins.
SMART Tips for High School Students
High school students are starting to wrestle with complexity, and they are also developing the ability to think further in the future. Here are some suggestions for setting SMART goals in high school:
- Start thinking about semester grades and long-term projects. Consider setting SMART goals before the year begins to practice long-term planning. This is a great way to start thinking about what specific steps a student needs to take in order to be successful.
- Establish a rhythm with SMART goals. Revisit your goals with each progress report, and set new goals with each report card. Once goal-setting becomes a habit, it’s a tool you can use for life.
- Relevance becomes increasingly important. As students begin to think about where they want to go to college and/or what career they wish to pursue, the question of relevance can spur important conversations and help a student to think about their longer-term aspirations.
- It is time to be more ambitious. If a student is easily achieving all of their goals, consider setting some ‘reach’ goals that aim to help a student push beyond their comfort zone.
- Think beyond the classroom! How do SMART goals apply to extracurricular activities or summer plans?
SMART Tips for College Students
The assignments that college students encounter are more sophisticated and require more autonomy than those they faced in high school. Here are a few tips for setting SMART goals in college:
- Use SMART goals to organize big projects or assignments. Rather than thinking really big picture about a whole semester, use the SMART framework to break complex tasks into manageable chunks.
- Set career-oriented SMART goals. Is there a fellowship you want to apply for, a publication you want to be published in, or an internship you’re hoping to land? Use the SMART framework to think strategically about bringing your aspirations to life.
- Use SMART goals for collaboration. Group projects can be frustrating, especially when group members have different expectations or aren’t on the same page. Use SMART goals at the beginning of a group project to ensure that you’re aligned in your vision and working towards a common goal.
The SMART goals framework is an extremely effective tool for both students and adults. However, each person is unique, and so are their goals. After you’ve completed your first few goals using the SMART system, consider what parts of the process work well for you and what you would want to do differently in the future. A good system for setting goals will evolve and grow with you and your ambitions.
Thank you for reading this week’s blog post about SMART goal-setting. To learn more about goal-setting, watch our latest YouTube video here and connect with us on social media @opendoored.