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SMART Goal Setting With Your Students

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (
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With all that is being written now about "mindset," it is an excellent idea to begin school by having our students set positive goals. More and more K-16 schools are introducing concepts like SMART goals as a way of gradually building students' capacity to tackle the increasing challenges they are facing.

Developing a Specific Goal

SMART goals are:

S = Specific
M = Measurable
A = Attainable
R = Relevant, Rigorous, Realistic, and Results Focused
T = Timely and Trackable

Learning how to frame goals as SMART goals and being willing to adjust them to get SMARTer is an important skill that would help every student get off to a better start and have a better school year, this year and into the future.

Here is a practical example, starting with a typical, but not especially SMART, goal:

I will do better on my report card in the next marking period.

Here is a way to make it SMARTer:

In the next marking period, I will get at least a C on all my math tests, and at least a B on most of my quizzes and homework assignments.

But it's not SMART yet because it has no action plan or benchmarks. Here is a pretty SMART goal:

In the next marking period, I will take careful notes and review them at least two days before tests and quizzes so that I can ask the teacher questions about what I don't understand. I will do my math homework before I do things with friends, and when I hand it in, I will ask the teacher about anything I am not sure about. When I get anything wrong, I will make sure to ask the teacher, or one of my classmates how they got the right answer.

It's not easy to write SMART goals. This skill takes time to develop, and it’s especially important to have in place for students at the secondary level. A goal is an outcome, something that will make a difference as a result of achieving it. It can't be too ambitious to be out of reach, but also not so simple that it does not challenge. A goal has to be realistic with a stretch, requiring effort and focus to achieve it. That's why goals need timeframes and measurable action steps along the way so that we can keep track of progress and make adjustments as necessary.

Setting Character Goals via Peer Interviews

In The Heart of Education, Dara Feldman recommends that students set character goals as a way to show themselves -- and others -- that they have the capacity to live a happy, principled life. She recommends the following interview structure as a way to help students set goals (which can also be framed as SMART goals). I have seen the interview work effectively in grades five and up.

Adapt this to your students' ages and circumstances. For example, you may have to explain about the importance of trust in sharing this information in class.

Begin by orienting your students as follows:

Step 1

At the start of the school year, it's important to set goals. Ask, "What are some things you want to have happen over the course of this year at school?"

Step 2

It's also important to set goals for ourselves, to become better as individuals. This is known as improving our character. We all have the ability to act in what can be referred to as "virtuous ways." Acting in these ways most of the time is good for us and good for those around us. Here is a list of 12 "virtues" (at this point, you can choose to discuss each one, ask students to add to the list, etc., as your time and interest allow):

  • Caring
  • Confidence
  • Kindness
  • Courage
  • Perseverance
  • Courtesy
  • Respect
  • Enthusiasm
  • Responsibility
  • Patience
  • Generosity
  • Truthfulness.

Step 3

As an in-class activity, tell your students, "I am going to pair you up with a classmate (or two) so that you can discuss these virtues and each set a goal regarding a virtue that is most important to you. Once you are paired off (or in trios), please follow this set of interview or conversation questions."

  1. Who is someone you admire, either in your life or in history, and what is the core virtue that you think they have followed?
  2. Find one of your own virtues on the list and share a few words about how you try to live this virtue.
  3. What is a virtue that you would like to work on to improve your life?
  4. What are some ways that you can show this virtue?
  5. How can I help you to do this successfully?
  6. Reverse roles in the interview.

Step 4

Make a list of the student pairs and the virtues they are working on. You may choose to share these with your class, or not. At the end of each week, have the pair check in with one another about how they are progressing on their chosen virtue. Encourage them to problem solve any difficulties. Consider having them join with other pairs working on one of the same virtues to expand the problem-solving pool. You can also assist as needed.

Step 5

At the end of each marking period, encourage students to self-evaluate their progress on enacting their virtue, seeking feedback from their partner. You can provide feedback as well. Perhaps this can be integrated into the report card process.

Step 6

Provide direction for the next marking period. You can change pairs, allow for additional virtues to be adopted, or other creative adaptations that might occur to you.

Please share your adaptations of these activities with us!

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Inspiring Student Engagement

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (

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Edna Francis's picture

Great informative article , really learned a lot. I think Sports can also be the part of smart learning.

Beth's picture

I really like this idea of Smart Goals and the steps in the process. Thank you, I will use this in my Independent Study classroom.

Pablo Coppola's picture

I really the idea of peer to peer character interviews. As someone who is aspiring to become an academic advisor, character interviews is a great way to collect data within an authentic environment. Has anyone used this exercise?

Latte76's picture

I really like the concept that this article speaks to. Smart goal setting is something that I have used with adult employees and I'm excited to translate it into my classroom setting. Could this be an exercise that I might use with third graders? Or are they to young for this to be effective?

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct Faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

Latte76, I've done SMART goals with third graders in the past and have simplified the goal setting process for my current first and second graders to start them on that page to setting a goal and achieving it. Today I had a second graders set a goal all on his own and while packing up he shouted out "I met my goal!" He has a chewing necklace his mother bought him as he has been chewing on his shirt and had set his own goal to not use it. He hadn't realized he met his goal until he found his necklace inside his backpack. :) I've found that when started in first grade, students can really begin to work with goals and that goal setting can become more involved by the time they reach third grade. They just need help with learning the language of goal setting and guidance setting goals. I begin each year talking about habits and the students choose a habit they would like to change through goal setting. We read the book "Maxwell's Mountain" to kick off the process. Then we move to reading goals that I facilitate during reading conferences. Goal setting is most effective when done school wide as the process builds from year to year, but can still be effective when done in isolation. I started doing goal setting on my own and over time other teachers saw the benefit and began adopting the language and process I use.

Jake Boer's picture
Jake Boer
New teacher, voracious reader, compulsive researcher

This seems like a great way to build familiarity with SMART goals! I like the interview process and the work around virtues. This could be a great way to build a positive classroom environment. Because I work at an IB school, I plan on switching out the suggested list of virtues for the IB programme's list of Learner Profile virtues. I also like the fact that these are weekly, ongoing activities.

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