Helping Elementary Students Set Academic Goals Essay

I love the start of a new calendar year nearly as much as I love the start of the new school year each fall. It’s the perfect time to reflect on the past and make goals for the future, all with a clean slate. After returning from holiday break, I normally set aside some time for my students to write goals or new year resolutions for themselves. Based on years of doing this same sort of activity during the first week of the new year or the semester, my takeaway has been that setting specific and attainable goals with third graders is a daunting task. Even with explicit directions and extensive modeling, many of my students still wrote vague and generic goals like I want to get better at math, or I want to learn more about science. To help my students make their goals more meaningful, I decided to take a page out of our staff goal writing handbook and have my students write their very own SMART goals.

SMART is an acronym that often stands for goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-bound. They're written by many organizations to set actionable goals commensurate with the group's vision and mission. While these types of goals have saturated staff meetings around the country enough to make the term a little cringe-worthy among adults, my third graders loved dissecting the acronym, and I found them more highly engaged in writing goal/resolutions than I can remember in recent years. This week, I'm happy to share with you how my students got started writing their new year's resolutions this week. 

Getting Started

My students were already aware of what a goal was in the most simplistic form, so to get started on setting SMART goals, we needed to discuss exactly what it was that made a goal SMART. I displayed the poster I made below on our interactive whiteboard and we talked about what each part of the acronym meant when it came to setting a goal. 


Getting Specific

Next we used the interactive whiteboard to sort goals that would be considered specific or not specific using the vortex-maker found on the SMART Exchange. This was a great game to play as many students were still having trouble distinguishing between specific and not specific. We determined that specific goals tell you the who, when, where, why, and/or how of the goal. 

For our next step, we brainstormed a list of goals on chart paper that were specific. As we did so, we discussed if each goal met the other parameters of a SMART goal, such as being attainable or relevant to their needs. 

As students came up with ideas, the list grew to include both academic and personal goals. I differentiated between these two types by using different colored markers. 

A few students jokingly mentioned that we should make a "not specific" chart as well after several students volunteered goals that weren't very specific. Our Vague Chart was born as an example of a goal that didn't have enough meat to it. The kids had as much fun helping me list vague goals as they did specific ones! 


Writing Our Goals

Using the graphic organizer below made goal setting much easier for my students. Although we talked about how each student's goals were personal and private, my boys and girls readily discussed goals with their classmates while they worked and even helped each other fine-tune their action plans. 

Click on the image above to download and print.


After students created a plan, they used it to make a more succinct goal sheet that we can display in the room as a reminder of what we are all working toward.

Click on the image above to download and print.

Students used the bottom of the sheet to write a second, personal goal.


Why These Are Almost SMART Goals for My Students

First of all, I need to say this round of goal setting was a huge success with my students. They seemed to enjoy doing their best to write specific goals and action plans to go along with them. Second of all, I also must admit that there were still a few third graders who, after much modeling and planning, still weren't quite developmentally ready to delve this deeply into a goal. Some students wrote MART or ART goals that weren't all that specific or measurable, while others wrote SMAT goals that really didn't have a viable or realistic action plan. Regardless, the students still all came away with two things they wanted to work on and we displayed all the goals with pride.

Finally, I believe one of the best parts of being a teacher is when you are able to ignite a spark in a student or help them discover a new passion. I'm constantly telling my students to reach for the stars, do more than you think you can and the sky's the limit. That side of me disliked telling my students they should pick a goal that is realistic and within reach. While SMART goals are a wonderful platform to dive off of for something a student wants to accomplish in the short term, I always stress that these are only one type of goal. The biggest and most worthy goals in life may not always seem realistic or attainable. I'd like to believe the world's greatest inventors, scientists, and explorers were seldom hindered by staying within the realistic box. So while I enjoyed teaching my students how to write a viable, short-term goal, I always hope the goals they hold for their lives go beyond the stretches of their 8-year-old imaginations.  

How do you help your students set goals in the classroom? I'd love to hear from you in the comment section below! 




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Effective Goal Setting for Students

The process of setting goals allows students to choose where they want to go in school and what they want to achieve. By knowing what they want to achieve, they know what they have to concentrate on and improve. Goal setting gives students long-term vision and short-term motivation.

Having sharp, clearly defined goals, which students can measure, will allow them to take pride in accomplishing those goals. They can see clear forward progress in what might have seemed a long drawn out process.

By setting goals students can:

1.improve their academic performance

2.increase their motivation to achieve

3.increase pride and satisfaction in performance

4.improve their self-confidence

Now wouldn’t you like to see your students become better believers of their academic abilities? And remember, goal setting is an ongoing process which can (and should) be done all throughout the school year.

Goal Setting Helps Self-Confidence

By setting goals and measuring their achievements, students are able to see what they have done and what they are capable of. Seeing their results gives the confidence and assurance that they need to believe they can achieve higher goals.

Basics of Effective Goal Setting

Express goals positively: “To improve my spelling” is a much better goal than “Don’t spell with so many mistakes.”

Be accurate: If students set an accurate goal, putting in dates, times and amounts so that achievement can be measured and can be satisfied at achieving it.

Set Priorities: When students have several goals, give each a priority. This helps them avoid feeling overwhelmed and helps their attention to the more important ones.

Write goals down to make them more meaningful.

Keep Goals Small: Urge students to keep their immediate goals small and achievable.

Set Goals Students Have Control Over: There is nothing worse than failing to achieve a personal goal for reasons beyond the students’ control.

Set specific measurable goals: If students consistently fail to meet a measurable goal, then they can adjust it or analyze the reason for failure and take appropriate action.

Start 2010 on the right foot with a greater understanding of how your students can create achievable goals and objectives.

What are you waiting for?

Try it!

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Featured Author:

Dorit Sasson

Dorit Sasson is a New York City native and freelance writer. She teaches ESL (English as a Second Language) reading and writing courses at CCAC Allegheny Community College, and is the creator of the New Teacher Resource Center.

Dorit Sasson has written articles for a variety of journals, magazines, newsletters, and ezines like Reading Today, Essential Teacher, Teacher and Principal Quarterly, the Internet TESL Journal, WAHM Online, and many others.

Dorit holds both graduate and undergraduate degrees in English literature from the University of Haifa. She has taught English language learners in various schools in Israel for the last eleven years and returned to live back in the States in the summer of 2007.

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