The Motivating Power of Goal-Setting- Part II


When I taught a freshman seminar, each fall I would help my students set goals for the semester and the year. In my own life, and with my students, I discovered that setting goals seemed to compel us to focus our efforts and bounce back more quickly when we suffer setbacks or failures. For my students, they also motivated them to develop the “habits of mind” necessary to be successful in college. After all, if you set a goal to finish a class, a semester, or a project with a certain grade, you’re more likely to seek out best approaches to achieve it, but only if you’ve set challenging goals in advance. It was the former president of Morehouse, Dr. Benjamin E. Mays who said, “…the tragedy of life doesn’t lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach.”

I previously blogged about the importance of setting goals for the summer to minimize summer learning loss, the phenomenon that occurs when certain students forget some of what they’ve learned during the school year. As I noted, studies show that younger students, especially,  forget the equivalent of one month of learning during the lazy days of summer. While not much is known about whether the finding holds for college students (and adults), I remember that it often took my advisees two to three weeks to get back into the flow at the beginning of each semester. Setting and pursing goals, including (and especially) during breaks, will help you jumpstart your semester and avoid having to play catch up later.

How do you set goals, and what type of goals should be set?

Goals Should Be SMART
First, you don’t want to set a goal that says, “I want to be a better student.” How do you measure “better”? Study better? Get better grades? Make better use of your time? It could be all of the above, or none of the above. Rather, goals should be SMART, an acronym borrowed from Paul Meyer in his book, Attitude is Everything. He says goals should be:

Specific: That is, they should not be general as the example I gave, but should clearly state what you want to accomplish. For instance, I will finish the year with a grade point average above 3.4 for the semester.

Measurable: There must be concrete criteria against which the goal could be evaluated. A 3.4 GPA is a measurable goal, “becoming a better person” is not.

Attainable: Setting a goal to safely and successfully ski down the hardest trail for the first time on skis is not “”attainable” unless you want to die. Likewise, your goals should be realistic and yet reachable. They must stretch your abilities and not too easy and therefore meaningless.

Relevant: As a student, your goals should pertain to your academic and career-oriented experiences. Setting a GPA goal, improving your typing speed, and giving three public speeches are relevant goals toward to your college and career success.

Time-bound: Your goals should have a timeline, deadline or a target date for completion. Doing so will increase your focus and cause you to double down on your efforts as the deadline approaches.

Goals Should Be Shared
Good goals are shared with others who can hold you accountable for achieving them. What good is it if you set goals then keep them to yourself? It’ll be easy to go back on them if no one but you knows about them. Rather, if you share them, “I’m going to get a 3.4 GPA this semester”, then they can call you on it. So, once you have your goals set, make sure someone you trust knows about them.

Goals Must Be Revisited
What good is it to establish goals and never reviewing how you’re doing or did to achieve them? Doing so is like training for a marathon but never recording your training time.

Goals Must Be Revised
It’s possible that your goals were too ambitious, not ambitious enough, or they were just right but you accomplished them. At the beginning of each semester, I recommend that you review and revise your goals. Set new goals if you’ve achieved the ones that you set. If you achieved that 3.4 GPA, then revise the goals for the next semester to 3.6. If you can get through 25 pages of a book in an hour, then set a 30 page per hour goal. The purpose again is to keep you focused and motivated, and to stretch your capabilities. By revising your goals, you’re experiencing the fruit of the growth mindset.

My freshmen advisees, all of whom were minority males of color, had nearly a 100% success rate in college over the five-year period I taught the seminar. (One student transferred to another university and is working on his PhD.) One young man, a recent graduate, wrote me recently to share how he still sets goals at critical life junctures. To stay on top of your game, set SMART goals and tell someone about them!