How to Set Goals for Students: A Step-by-Step Guide


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School is hard work! As a student, you may find yourself having to set goals for yourself, without any guidance from your professors. Goal-setting can help you to accomplish assignments, manage your workload, and develop time management skills that will help to keep your academic anxiety low.

How can students set goals? The first step to setting any goal is to identify what kind of goal you want to set. From there, use the SMART method to articulate your goals, and then plan out how you can change your goal’s words into actions.

Whether you are a college freshman or a seasoned graduate student, knowing how to set the right kind of goals will help you to be a more successful—and less stressed-out—scholar. Follow along with this easy step-by-step guide and start taking control of your learning!

Step 1: Know What Type of Goals You Want to Set

How to Set Goals for Students: A Step-by-Step Guide

There are many types of goals you can set for yourself as a student. Your college or university experience is a lifestyle, and as such, you can set goals that are both academic and personal.

General Types of Goals

Generally, goals are thought of as either mastery or performance-type objectives and mostly fall along with short-term or long-term timelines. These concepts may help you think through your goals and clearly synthesize them.

  • Mastery goals are goals that focus on mastering a new skill. Experts believe it takes about twenty hours to learn a new skill and apply it, but about ten-thousand hours to truly master it. Don’t fret though: as Josh Kaufman explains in this Forbes article, you do not have to set out to become the best at every skill. The point is, if you are setting out to really become proficient at something, you will have to commit to it for a long time.**
  • Performance goals are goals that focus on specific achievements. Finishing a term paper or obtaining a specific grade-point-average (GPA) are examples of possible performance goals. These types of achievement-based goals are easily measurable and usually are associated with deadlines.**
  • Short-term goals are goals that will not take long to achieve. They usually have a very specific outcome in mind and are typically associated with some kind of deadline. Short-term goals are meant to be completed in the near future. Perhaps you will set short-term goals each week, month, or semester.
  • Long-term goals are goals that take a long time to achieve and are maybe more abstract. These are goals that help you decide your path in life or the direction you wish to take with your studies. They might include aspirations that you never truly “achieve” and must continue to strive for even after you graduate. In a career, these are the goals you work towards through continuing education and professional development.

**Note: While this is not always the case, most mastery goals are long-term, and most performance goals are short-term. 

Academic Goals

There are several examples of different types of academic goals you might think about setting for yourself. This list is by no means exhaustive; it is simply meant to help you get your creative juices flowing and ready to brainstorm some possible goal ideas.

Work-habit goals

Work-habit goals are foundational to being a good student. They can include time management, setting aside time to study, and making regular visits to your professor’s office during their open hours. Here are a few examples of the types of work-habit goals that might be useful as a student:

  • Library time: As an undergraduate student, it can be helpful to dedicate an hour or two each day to sit in the library and do an uninterrupted reading. It can help you manage your workload.
  • Setting sub-deadlines: Grad school is usually organized around longer-term assignments like research or dissertations. It is helpful to set sub-deadlines to help pace yourself as you work through chunks of your larger project. Essentially, you are trying to make short-term goals out of a long-term goal.
  • Make flashcards: Commit to making flashcards once a week with any new material that you have to commit to memory. This type of habit is useful in language classes for learning new vocabulary and is also helpful in math and science courses if you need to memorize formulas. It may seem like a juvenile suggestion, but even graduate students shouldn’t see flashcards as beneath them!

Subject goals

Subject goals are goals centered around a certain subject area and may span over the course of several semesters. Some examples of subject goals include:

  • Picking your major: For undergraduate students, an obvious subject-goal would be picking your major, which is basically committing to learning all you can about that particular field or subject area.
  • Picking your focus: for graduate students who already have a deep understanding of a particular subject area, picking the focus of your thesis or dissertation is another type of subject-area goal.
  • Language learning: Language skills are usually measured in the form of mastery, namely fluency. It is possible that this type of long-term goal will take several semesters to complete. Perhaps this kind of goal will be in the form of getting accepted into a study-abroad or language immersion program!

Assignment goals

Assignment goals are specific, proficiency style, short-term goals. For a student, they are quite literally the assignments your professor expects you to complete. What is left for you to decide is how you want to perform on that assignment. For example, you can make it your goal to get a perfect score on the class term-paper or ace an exam.

Knowledge-based goals

Knowledge-based goals are centered around academic skill-sets that you can take with you and apply to other parts of your life. You might consider these goals similar to subject goals, and can be both performance/short-term or mastery/long-term goals. Knowledge-based goals should be something you can apply or incorporate into your general knowledge. Examples include:

  • Developing your critical thinking abilities.
  • Knowing how to use HTML code.
  • Practicing certain art techniques.

Keep in mind that it is also possible for a single goal to fit into multiple of the above categories. They are not meant to limit your goal-setting, but, instead, are there to help you think them through and articulate them.

Find inspiration

When it comes to setting academic goals, we often find it hard to think out of the box and examine WHICH GOALS REALLY HAVE the highest IMPACT.

If that’s your case, too, I highly recommend reading Julian Hosp’s book 25 inspirational and motivational stories for my Younger Self: From professional athlete to medical doctor to serial entrepreneur*

Julian Hosp is a young Austrian serial entrepreneur (mid-30s) who started from scratch and became a millionaire by age 30.

When reading his book, what really impressed me was his capacity to think out of the box. This skill allowed him to study medicine successfully WHILE being a professional KITESURFER and traveling the world at the same time.

For instance, Julian Hosp quickly figured out that he needed practical experience as soon as possible to get better at his studies. So he set a goal to get an internship in his very first year of studies, which was not the norm and quite difficult.

His original view of studies will probably give you some new ideas, so I highly recommend this read.

Personal Goals

It is important to have personal goals in addition to your academic goals. If you are a graduate student, this might be very clear to you already, since you are likely balancing your studies with a serious relationship or even a family or full-time job. However, at any level of scholarship, personal goals are important because they help make sure you are equipped to handle academic stress and set you up to feel fulfilled in life.

Mental health goals

Mental health goals are goals you can set to help you manage the academic anxiety and growing pains associated with being a student. This type of goal focuses on developing coping mechanisms that will help you succeed. For example, you may commit to seeing an on-campus therapist. Most colleges and universities offer students free access to mental health services. Consult your institution’s website to find out more about the services offered to you.

Physical health goals

Physical health goals, as the name suggests, are goals used to help you maintain or improve your general health. Part of maintaining a healthy student lifestyle is to set goals around maintaining your physical health. Try setting goals to maintain healthy habits. Perhaps you can commit to biking to class or picking strawberries over gummy bears as your study snack.

Some schools may require you to take a certain number of physical education credits, but even if they don’t, they usually do offer access to sports facilities and may even have on-staff dietitians to help council students. Some colleges charge students fees as part of their tuition for these services, so take advantage of these while you can. (They start costing more money once you graduate!)

Social goals

Social goals are an important part of college life, as well. Your parents may think your goals at school should be strictly academic, but college is the best time to start forming a healthy work-life balance.

Your social goals will be unique and centered around your interests and passions. Some examples of social goals include:

  • Set a goal to join a campus service club, sports team, or extracurricular activity. Colleges and universities are a hive of activity! It is basically guaranteed that you will find something you enjoy.
  • Try new things! Have you never been rock climbing before? College is a great time to try out new things while you have the support of your peers to fall back on.

Relationship goals

Relationship goals might seem like social goals, but they have a deeper meaning. The friends you make and relationships you foster will follow you out into the “real world.” Set goals to foster relationships with your peers and your professors.

It may seem overwhelming to think about all these different types of goals. Remember, you can go back and revise your goals as you take the time to reflect. The important thing is that you have something that gets you out of bed in the morning and off to those eight a.m. classes!

If you’d like to get inspired or dive deeper into those goals, here are a few of my other articles to get you going:

Step 2: Articulate Your Goals

Now that you know what type of goals you want to achieve, it is time to articulate them clearly. There are several ways to do this. You can journal about them, brainstorm them, or you can use the SMART method.

SMART Goals

SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. It is a great tool for articulating your short-term, performance-based goals, and—with some modification—can be applied to long-term, master-type goals.

The SMART method is currently the preferred professional method for goal-planning.

Delta Airlines has even used it in their interview process in the past!

You will likely come across this method of articulating goals at some point, so it is good to be familiar with it and practice using it.

Use the table below to guide you to practice writing a SMART goal.

S Specific What will be accomplished? This is an articulation of a performance-based goal. (Perhaps it is an assignment goal.)
M Measurable What data will measure the goal? It could be the grade you receive for the assignment or the final product itself.
A Achievable Is the goal doable? Do you have the skills you need to complete it or do you still need to learn something?
R Relevant How does the goal align with a long-term goal? For example, does it help you achieve a subject or knowledge goal?
T Time-Bound What is the timeline for achieving this goal? Do you have a deadline? Should you break it up into sub-deadlines to help pace yourself?

Source: University of California

Note: The University of California’s How-to-Guide is an exhaustive manual on how to write and use SMART goals. It is geared towards students and it is highly recommended that you download it.  

Step 3: Have a Plan

Now that you have your goal in mind and you’ve taken some time to reflect upon and articulate it, it is time to start working towards that goal! Making a plan of action is a great first step forward. Remember that, big goals can be broken up into smaller goals to help you see a clear path forward, and plans can be flexible. You may need to adjust your plan as you move forward, that is perfectly acceptable and normal!

Action Plan

If you did use the SMART Goal activity in step two to articulate your goals, you already have done part of your planning work. You clearly identified your goal, you know what skills you might need to complete it, and you have an idea of what your timeline is!

There are so many action-plan worksheets available on the internet that you can download and use to walk you through the planning process. This one developed by blogger Catherine Beard is fantastic, but if it doesn’t suit your fancy, a quick google search will reveal hundreds more. As you begin to develop your goal-setting skills, you may even develop your own planning process! If that’s your preferred option, you may find valuable tips in my article, How to Make and Use a Habit Journal: The Ultimate Guide.

Your plan, however you choose to do it, should contain a few basic elements. (These are the things you want to look for in a worksheet if you go looking for one.)

  • A list of all the steps you will need to take to complete your goal.
  • A logical order for completing the steps you identified.
  • A way for you to record and track your process.
  • A timeline with milestones for your steps.

It is also a good idea to have a calendar that contains all of your deadlines and milestones. Pro-tip: add your action plan to the calendar on your phone and set up reminder notifications just in case something slips your mind after the initial planning process. 

It can be quite helpful to have one or several planners to help you write down your action plan. If that’s where you’re headed, you can read my other article 6 Reasons to Have Two or More Planners (With Examples).

Contingency Plan

Part of any good plan is a contingency plan for when things go awry. Your action plan is your best-case-scenario; having it separate from your contingency plan allows you to manifest it to the best of your ability. That said, you should have a Plan B ready and in your back pocket in case you need it.

The first step to developing a good contingency plan is to identify your potential obstacles. Ask yourself:

  • What might slow me down? Is the book you need already loaned out to another student? Do you have to wait for a lengthy experiment to run its course in the lab? Do you have to wait for the paint to literally dry?
  • What might complicate things? Do you have an unreliable lab partner? What do you do if your computer breaks?
  • Could you get in your own way? Maybe you struggle with procrastination. Do you need to work on asking for help?

This type of reflection is really helpful to engage in when you are working towards a goal because it helps you to recognize challenges and potentially avoid them entirely, and if not, then at least you are mentally prepared to face them.

These exercises might make you uncomfortable because it’s challenging you to recognize your own personal weaknesses and shortcomings, but you should probably know yourself well enough to know what kind of questions you need to ask and answer. Using the thoughts during your reflection, write a list of obstacles you foresee.

A good way to keep your Plan B handy is to draw up a flow chart using the list of obstacles you identified. You can make one online using this tool or you can simply draw one out by hand. It should be in an “if this, then that” format. For example, if the book you need is already checked out at the institution’s library, then you will check to see if the public library has it.

Now, file away your contingency plan and start making progress on your action plan!

Step 4: Turn Actions into Habits

As was hinted in step one, some goals lend themselves really well to habit-forming. Being able to get into healthy habits is crucial to time and stress management for students and scholars. You can make habit-forming a goal in-and-of-itself or you can use other goals to help shape a habit.

So, let’s go over how to build a habit to give you one more tool to help you set and achieve your goals:

Start small.

You’ll burn yourself out if you don’t ease yourself into a new habit. For example, if you decide to set a goal to “write flashcards for German class,” and you start by writing 150 in a single night, you may find yourself too fatigued to write any more the next day. Turn your goal into a habit by committing to making 10 or 25 flashcards a day.

Reinforce your habit.

Experts have proven that adding a new habit to an established habit will help you shape the new one. It’s called “habit stacking” and is one of the best ways to create new habits, according to James Clear’s book Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones*.

Here is an example:

Hypothetically, you want to set a physical health goal and try to spend some time between classes being active. You already go get a latte after your eight a.m. class, and you spend the next fifteen minutes just hanging out before driving to your next class across campus. To form the new habit, you could commit to getting your latte and enjoying it while you walk to your next class instead.

Leverage your habit.

This is an extreme strategy, but some of us need that—no judgment!  It works by adding extra incentives for success and establishing punishment for failure and goes kind of like this:

Let’s say you want to make it to your professor’s office hours every week, but they are an early-bird and hold their office hours from 8 a.m. until noon. If you get there too late, the line of students outside their office is too long, and you won’t get the extra help you need. That’s a very real consequence, but it just isn’t quite enough to get you out of bed.

You could either incentivize yourself by setting a reward. Maybe you treat yourself to a sweet treat afterward. Or, you could set an extra punishment for failure to get out of bed: maybe you need to pay your parents $10 for each missed office hour.

Start using a habit tracker.

If you know anything about the bullet journal trend, you are already familiar with what a habit tracker is. (If you don’t, this article will get you fully acquainted with the concept and my article will help you create your own).

Basically, a habit tracker is a worksheet where you record your habits and keep track of your daily successes. It makes for a great source of data and helps you to visualize your path to success. This monthly habit tracker from Evermore Paper Co is free to download.

You’ve probably heard someone tell you that if you do something consistently for 21-days, it becomes a habit. Although that is not exactly correct (How Long Does It REALLY Take To Break A Bad Habit?), it certainly is true that the more you do something consistently, the faster it will turn into an easy habit. As a student, you will have an opportunity to use the things you need to accomplish much and to also build healthy, life-long habits. It’s like setting two goals for the price of one!

Step 5: Achieve your Goal & Celebrate! Then, Reflect.

You have come to the last section of this guide! You have identified your goals, articulated them, made your action plan, developed your back-up plan, and found ways to shape healthy habits along the way. If your goal was to learn how to set goals, you have achieved it. Great job!

Take a bow. Give yourself a pat-on-the-back. Call up your best friend and convince them to be proud of you too. You deserve it!

Perhaps, you’ve caught on, but the final step in any goal-setting is to remember to celebrate when you achieve your goal. If it’s a long-term goal that’s never truly “accomplished,” like learning a second language, then celebrate the milestones along the way!

Time to Reflect

Once you’ve done that, it’s time to be honest with yourself and reflect upon your goal from the beginning to the end. Being able to learn from your successes is just as important as learning from your failures. Let’s be honest—even when we do succeed, there were probably a few things we could have improved upon over the course of our actions.

Take some time once you have completed a goal to do an active reflection. Where could you improve? What did you learn? What did you do really well? And what would you change if you were to do it all over again? This type of reflection will help you when you go to set new goals or revise goals in progress.

Save Your Success for Later

We all have highs and lows in life, successes, and failures. If you are human, the lows and failures will get to you at some point; that’s why it is important to save your success for later! But what does that mean?

Try to hang on to things that make you proud. Did you ace an exam? Keep a copy of your test booklet. Did you write an amazing report? Keep a copy of it. Did you perform in a play and give it everything you had? Try to take a memento with you.

You will be able to look upon these things when you doubt yourself and hopefully remind yourself that you are a successful person! In those moments, you might need to re-adjust your action plan or turn to your contingency plan, but keep your head up.

Keep On, Keeping On

Rinse, wash, and repeat the above guide as needed to make it through your college/university experience. If you need more assistance setting goals and keeping them, there are a plethora of resources offered by academic institutions around the globe. Many host guides, frameworks, and resources online for FREE.

Your own place of higher education probably has many resources for you to take advantage of. We recommend talking to a professor or contacting your campus career center or counseling center to find out what opportunities are available to you. It’s good to know what tools you have in your belt before you end up needing them.

With that, go forth, build healthy habits, set goals, and accomplish them! You have completed the “Setting Goals for Students” 101 course.

Resources:

  • Sweatt, Lydia. “18 Motivational Quotes About Successful Goal Setting.” Success. 2016. Web.
  • Kaufman Josh. “It Takes 20 Hours Not 10,000 Hours To Learn A Skill.” Forbes. 2013. Web.
  • Williams, Melissa. “6 types of learning goals for students. Class Craft. 2019. Web.
  • Barrett, Lindsay. “How to Do Goal Setting With Your Students This School Year.” We Are Teachers. 2019. Web.
  • Amy. “How Setting Goals Jumpstarts Student Achievement.” Bored Teachers. Web.
  • Elias, Maurice J. “A Framework for Student Goal Setting.” Edutopia. 2019. Web.
  • University of California. “SMART Goals: A How to Guide.” UCOP. 2016. Web.
  • Houston, Elaine. “What is Goal Setting and How to Do it Well. Positive Psychology. 2020. Web.
  • Beard, Catherine. “How to Design and Action Plan for Your Goals.” The Blissful Mind. 2019. Web.
  • Edbald, Patrik. “How to Make Good Habits Stick: 7 Secrets from Research.” Live Bold and Bloom. 2020. Web.
  • Crystal. “50 Habit Tracker Ideas for Bullet Journals.” Bullet Journal Addict. Web.

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