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Students engage positively with reflection and planning exercises, a study found.

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Picture this: A student is working diligently in a class, understanding and engaging with the material—but not turning in assignments. The student’s rationale: “I’m never going to be good at time management.”

It’s a story that educators have heard before—students expressing they’re stuck or caught in a fixed mind-set. David Woods, an associate professor in the computer and information technology department at Miami University in Ohio, wants to break his students out of “I can’t” and into “I’m trying,” or a growth mind-set.

His solution: implementing SMART goals into his curriculum.

What’s SMART? A SMART goal functions as a driver toward a larger achievement and has five components.

The goal must be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-based. A poor example of a SMART goal Woods will see is “My goal is to get an A in the class,” which might be true, but it doesn’t allow for measurement or examination prior to course grades being served. Instead, Woods encourages goals like “I’m going to check the learning management system twice a week.”

Study: Students React Favorably to SMART Activities

Woods and four fellow professors published a study in August 2021 to understand students’ perceptions of implementing SMART goals into the classroom.

  • The five faculty members added goal-setting, planning and reflecting exercises to their information technology courses in fall 2019 and spring 2020.
  • At the end of the semester, students participated in a voluntary survey measuring the value, effort and enjoyment of setting SMART goals.
  • The study concluded that, in general, students saw the added value of the activity, learned about goal-setting and enjoyed it, but there was marked effort in participating.

The how-to: Woods introduces SMART goals in his first class of the semester and asks students to write two paragraphs, first identifying problem areas in their past habits and then creating a SMART goal. The students give updates every three to four weeks throughout the course, adjusting their goals as needed.

The assignments are worth 10 points each, a little more than 1 percent of the overall course points available, but Woods grades them on depth of response and if the student correctly modeled a SMART goal. He also allows students to resubmit the assignment and earn back their points, if so desired.

“I don’t care what their goal is or if they accomplish it,” Woods says, but instead he’s focused on student’s habit-building skills. “Grading this is not about ‘you did it wrong’—it’s ‘Great, you’re trying, let me give you some tips to help.’”

The response: Woods has used SMART goals in his classes for the past three years, and generally students show a growth mind-set and make good progress toward their goals, he says.

Most students elect a goal that has to do with time management, self-care or study skills, Woods found.

Some students are very diligent with their goals. Woods recalls an introverted student setting a goal to add two meaningful contributions to class discussions each period. During the monthly update, the student provided a spreadsheet with record of each comment made during class and a self-scored evaluation of her contribution.

Woods says he doesn’t look for that level of detail, but it’s common for students to provide pages of response in their SMART goal updates.

“Sometimes assignments in courses, I’m not looking forward to grading, but this one I look forward to,” Woods says. “It gives me energy back.”

The added bonuses: using SMART goals has benefited Woods and his classes beyond the skills students target. The exercise has created deeper relationships between Woods and his students, particularly in his online, asynchronous courses.

In his in-person classes, Woods also creates SMART goals for himself and shares updates alongside his students.

Consider sharing your own academic success tip, such as a way of teaching, structuring a course or working with students. Contribute here.

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