How to Set SMART Goals

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Research has shown that goal-setting can “positively influence an individual’s motivation, effort, persistence, and ultimately performance” (Sorrentino 2006 --- Bowman, N.A. et. al). By setting thoughtful goals, students can clearly identify what they want to achieve, the pathway to get there, and resources they can use along the way as well as a plan to manage obstacles they may encounter. The acronym “SMART” provides a framework for which to create an achievable goal. 

The SMART acronym encourages users to create goals that meet the following criteria:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Realistic
  • Time-Bound

Ambiguous goals such as “I want to get good grades” do not identify how you define good grades or how you will accomplish the goal. However, a goal such as “I aim to earn an 85% or higher on each of my homework assignments in BIO 101 by attending each class, starting the homework the same day as class, turning the assignment in on time, and asking for help when needed” follows the SMART acronym in that it is specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound. It will also allow time for periodic evaluation of success in order to make necessary adjustments. 

So why is the second goal more helpful than the first? Here are a few reasons:

  1. The goal clearly identifies a specificmeasurable action over the course of a period of time. Homework assignments allow students to practice and apply concepts that are discussed in class and found in course readings. Implicit in this goal is the commitment to completing all of the homework assignments, which, in and of itself, is a helpful academic practice.
  2. The goal states an attainable, and realistic grade. Of course, it would be great to earn 100% on each homework assignment (and hopefully you will!); however, building in some grade flexibility can help you achieve your goal.
  3. Midway through the semester, it may be valuable to evaluate the goal to see if it should be adjusted. Are you able to adjust your goal to earning 90% on each homework assignment based on past success?

After identifying your SMART goal, consider what obstacles you may encounter and create a plan and available resources to overcome the challenges. For example, could time management make completing your homework difficult? If so, block off weekly time on your calendar to complete the assignments. In the beginning, it might be helpful to overestimate how much time you will need to finish the assignment so build in some scheduling flexibility if it takes longer than you initially thought. Also consider what resources could be valuable to your success. You could plan to attend your professor’s office hours for questions, schedule time to go to the library with a friend to work on the assignment independently (unless your instructor allows you to work with other students), sign up for tutoring, or stop by the Center for Academic Success for more strategies. 

Now that you have accomplished your goal, be sure to revisit what went well and what you could do differently next time. You will be able to apply what you have learned to a future course. Your reward will be successfully learning the material!

Bowman, N.A., Jang, N., Kivlighan, D.M. et al. The Impact of a Goal-Setting Intervention for Engineering Students on Academic Probation. Res High Educ 61, 142–166 (2020).

“Within an educational setting, goal-setting theory assumes that students who set goals tend to perform at higher levels than students who do not set goals (Friedman and Mandel 2009). Goal-setting is theorized to positively influence an individual’s motivation, effort, persistence, and ultimately performance (Sorrentino 2006).”