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Short-term goal setting

For short-term goals (those that span a week, a month, or a semester) a common piece of advice is to set SMART goals. SMART is an acronym for the following elements of goal-setting.

Goals must be:

S = specific; M = measurable; A = attainable; R = realistic/relevant; T = timely

Sometimes it can be challenging for students to put down effective goals because it's easy for goals and/or action steps to be too vague or general. Let's see through an example why it's important to incorporate the SMART elements in goal-setting.

Maybe a student wants to improve their GPA this semester. The student will need a short-term goal statement, a plan, and specific ways to evaluate their progress. The student includes these details:

GOAL: get better grades
PLAN: study harder
SELF-EVALUATION: improved GPA at the end of the term

Are these SMART goals?  No. The statements are too vague. Is the goal to get better grades in every class or just some of the classes? For that matter, “better” than what?  Better than what was earned in high school or better than last semester?  Better than the student's friends? Due to a lack of specificity, while the goal is easily measured when grades come out at the end of the semester, such a general statement of intent doesn’t allow the student to assess whether the goal is attainable or realistic and such a vague plan doesn’t provide any accountability as the student works through the semester. 

Let's restate the goal, plan, and self-evaluation in a way that addresses the points of the SMART goal system:

GOAL: I will raise my cumulative GPA by the end of the semester. 

  • Go to every class, every day
  • Study every day, during the day (MSU recommends for every course credit, study 2 additional hours per week, ie. a 12-credit course schedule = 24 hours of studying per week in total across all courses)
  • I will review my notes before class starts and I’ll review my notes as soon as possible after class
  • I will attend instructor/TA office hours weekly
  • I will visit the help room weekly
  • I will meet another student in each class
  • I will review each exam carefully so I know where I’ve made mistakes


  • I will learn how my grade is calculated so I’m always aware of how I’m doing
  • I will get to know the instructor/TA so I can get their feedback on my progress

Check to see if this goal-setting is SMART: 

  • Is the goal Specific? – the desired outcome is state clearly.
  • Is the action plan is Measurable? – since the specific steps are listed, it’s easy to check that they are being followed.
  • Is the goal Attainable? – there are daily and weekly goals that lead to an achievable semester goal.
  • Is the goal Realistic/Relevant? --  the steps chosen come from current research on the best ways to be academically successful.
  • Is the goal is Timely? – it’s something that can begin immediately that will move toward a desired end.

Try the SMART Goal System on your own: NatSci Goal Setting Action Plan Worksheet