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What are your goals?  Once upon a time, my goal was to become a legendary global rock star with legions of adoring fans earning zillions of dollars from my record sales and concerts.  Unfortunately, there were a few problems with that goal:  for one I couldn’t play any musical instrument particularly well nor was I a very good singer or had I ever managed to write a song.  If I had approached the goal of being a rock star the way I’m going to describe to you now, who knows—you might have me on your playlist today! 

As silly as my rock star aspirations might sound, many of us have similarly unrealistic goals.  It turns out that if you can think about your goals in a certain way you can substantially increase the probability that you will achieve them—think about them in the wrong way and you will never achieve them!

You need to structure your goals using a mnemonic—a way of remembering—to increase your chances of success.  That mnemonic is S.M.A.R.T.  Each letter stands for an attribute or describing feature of your goals.  S is for specific:  state your goals as precisely as possible.  M is for measurable: you need to be able to determine if you are close to your goal or far away.  A is for achievable:  is your goal even remotely possible?  R is for relevant:  is your goal important to your overall goals? T is for timely: is it tied to a specific time?





















So what might have happened if we had used this mnemonic for my goal of becoming a rock star?  To begin with, instead of a “global rock star” I could more specifically aim to become one of the top 10 rock recording artists in the world.  How might I measure that?  Perhaps I could aspire to be one of the top 10 musicians in terms of downloads.  That is clearly measurable.  Is my goal achievable?  Certainly not while I’m musically illiterate!  Maybe the achievable aspect of my goal is to identify an instrument, let’s say ukulele, that I would then start to learn in earnest.  For timeliness I might set my goal with a 5-year time horizon—learn to play the ukulele in years 1 to 2 and then start playing gigs and recording in years 3 to 4 and achieve my goal in year 5.

Although my goal may not be something that you want to do I hope you can see that using S.M.A.R.T. has made it more achievable and turned it from a daydream or fantasy into something that I might actually be able to accomplish.

Another aspect of goal-setting I want you to use is Personal Projects Analysis that I discuss in the section on procrastination.  Dr. Brian Little’s methods should be combined with S.M.A.R.T. goals by doing the following:

  1. Write down your goal in a way that is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely.

  2. Identify what will help and what will hinder progress towards your goal.

  3. Identify the sub-goals, the things you need to do in order to achieve your goal. 

  4. Track your progress. 
























Unless your goal is really really simple (like “eating lunch”) then you need to write it down.  Just trying to remember it will be a recipe for failure.  Write your goal in something that you can anticipate reading again in a year or 5 years.  Date it, and use the Personal Projects Analysis to regularly monitor your progress.  If you don’t, then I suspect it really isn’t a goal you seriously want to achieve.  That begs the question: What are your goals?

What are your goals?

I cannot possibly know what goals you might have set for yourself.  However, in the list below are some reasonable goals that you might set for yourself in your first year of university or college that deal specifically with your success in school.  Some of them may be more difficult for you, some may be too easy.  I would like you to pick one or two and use the S.M.A.R.T. rubric and the Personal Projects Analysis to make them happen!


                              1. Set yourself a grade target for your most difficult course.                   

                              2. Set yourself an overall grade target for the semester.                   

                              3. Be among the first to post in one of your course’s online discussion board.                   

                              4. Find and use one particular note-taking method for one whole semester.



                              1. Develop a study schedule and use it for at least 1 month.

                              2. Develop a time “budget” for all of your assignments for the semester.

                         3. For one of your courses complete and submit a major assignment before the deadline.

                         4. Add 2 exercise/workout or 2 meditation sessions per week to your schedule without sacrificing your academic                                            performance.



                         1. Ask or answer a question in one of your classes.

                         2. Attend one of your professor’s office hours (virtual or otherwise).

                         3. Introduce yourself to one of your Teaching Assistants.

                         4. Join one of your school’s clubs or organizations.



                         1. Attend one of your university’s workshops on improving your writing, time management, or your Learning Management                                System.

                         2. Identify one of the potential careers that might result from your major.  Find two people who are working in that field and                              interview them.

                         3. Write a letter to yourself about your entry to university and then put it away.  Read it again on the day you complete                                    your degree.

                         4. Write your resume.


                         1. Find a way to introduce yourself to one person in each of your courses.

                         2. Plan and execute a study session with at least two other students.

                         3. Attend at least one social event organized by your university.

                         4. Buy yourself one piece of clothing “branded” by your school and wear it once a week.


If none of the above catches your imagination, develop one big academic goal for yourself for the school year.  Use the S.M.A.R.T. and Personal Projects Analysis methods to make it happen.


Want to know more?

Anderman, E.M., & Gray, D. (2015).  Motivation, learning, and instruction.  International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences (2nd Edition), 928-935.


Beetham, H., McGill, L. and Littlejohn, A. (2010) Learning literacies in the digital age. Joint Information System Committee. Retrieved from


Deci, E.L., & Ryan, R.M. (2015). Self-determination theory. International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences (2nd Edition), 486-490.


Ryan, R.M., & Deci, E.L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions.  Contemporary Educational Psychology 25, 54–67.

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