Setting SMART Goals

I recently interviewed a very impressive young woman for a Teaching Assistant position with Achieve. Throughout her academic career, she has excelled at the highest levels, and her interest in educating urban youth brought her to our program. Our conversation touched on many different areas, but the piece that stands out most clearly in my mind centered on goal-setting.

After hearing about this candidate’s many accomplishments, I asked her, “It strikes me that you’ve always been very driven and motivated, and that you’ve encountered a lot of success at each stage of your academic career. How do you help young students, who may not necessarily possess the same degree of motivation, or who may not be finding much academic success, achieve at a higher level?”

She answered (and I paraphrase), “Well, I personally set lots of goals for myself. They’re not always big goals, but they allow me to track my progress as I work through an assignment, project, or larger undertaking. So I encourage students to do the same thing. The challenge is to set appropriate goals so that they can meet those goals and experience success. Even if the students are taking little steps, they’re always getting closer to the end. And what I find is that they develop more confidence and motivation when they see that they’re making progress and that they’re capable of getting the work done.”

Her response reminded me of an exercise we complete with our Achieve students several times a year, though on a larger scale: we help our students set SMART goals. Though SMART, as an acronym, can stand for several different combinations of words, we use the following designations.

Specific: This criterion applies to the remaining four categories as well, but requires students to answer questions such as: Who is involved? What does accomplishing the goal actually look like? Why is this goal important to you? Why does this goal matter? When will you accomplish this goal? The more specific the goal, the easier it is to determine how much progress one is making, and when one has attained the goal, marking the need to set a new goal.

Measurable: This criterion pushes the student to think about assessing his or her own progress in trying to meet the goal. Again, specificity is key. “Participating more in class” is neither specific nor measurable. “Participating at least twice each day in Spanish class” is better.

Attainable: When students set a goal that is too big, they often lose confidence and motivation because the target is too far away. Want to play in the NBA? Okay, but let’s focus on making your high school varsity team first. Want to become a doctor? That’s great, but what kinds of grades must you earn in high school and college? This is not to say that attainable goals should not, or cannot, be big goals. Students must strike a balance between setting a goal that is large enough to provide motivational value, but not so large that they feel helpless. This is one place where adult input and guidance is important!

Relevant: A goal’s relevance affects how much effort a student will dedicate toward ensuring the goal’s attainment. Why does this goal matter? How will accomplishing this goal help the student meet other goals that s/he may have? If a goal is relevant, the student will be more likely to work toward it, especially when things become challenging.

Time-targeted: Students need to think about the timeline along which they will work toward their goals. This keeps them on-task and gives them another criterion against which they can measure progress. Time-targeted goals can specify intermediate checkpoints as well, particularly for larger goals that require more time and effort.

My conversation with this teaching candidate reminded me that we should help students set SMART goals at all stages and levels of their academic undertakings, whether thinking about studying for a math test, writing a long-term research paper, or thinking about applying to independent school. Goal-setting should be a regular part of our conversations with students, and as adults and mentors in their lives, we play a dual role: helping our students create SMART goals, holding them accountable for the goals that they set.

Our next post features some of the SMART goals that our students created earlier this year. Given that several months have elapsed since that exercise, it’s about time we reassessed those goals to see how much progress the students have made!

And in case you’re wondering, the answer is yes. The candidate I interviewed will be working with us at Achieve this summer!

~Eric Nguyen, Acting Director


About Eric

I have been an educator at several independent schools in the Boston area since 2004. Currently, I teach math, create the master schedule for our middle school, run the outdoor program, design and lead international service learning trips, and coach soccer and wrestling. My personal and professional experiences have led me to value mission-driven schools distinguished by a strong focus on character, high academic standards, and broad co-curricular offerings. I am drawn to organizations that are open to self-evaluation and opportunities for growth and improvement. In my relationships with colleagues and students, I strive for mutual trust, respect, and support; open and honest communication; the frequent exchange of ideas; and clear delivery of feedback. As a school leader, I strive to empower my colleagues, cultivate shared vision, encourage passionate teaching, and create inspiring and transformational experiences for students.
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