Set Students Up for Success with SMART Goals

September 20, 2023
Rachel Fuhrman

At this point in September, most teachers are getting into the groove of the new school year. You’ve probably already gotten to know your students a little bit, started to build relationships, and gotten through some new content. In these early stages of the year, it’s especially important to focus on establishing your classroom culture and considering how you can set all students up for success in the coming months. 

One way you can do this is by setting goals with students that not only focus on individual accomplishments, but leverage the entire class as a team working together towards a common outcome.


Framing the New Year with Goals

The start of the school year can often feel overwhelming for students, especially for those that have historically struggled to find success in a given subject. When I was in middle school, I had seriously struggled in 6th and 7th grade math. When I started 8th grade, I remember walking into class and already dreading the year ahead: I couldn’t see how this year would be any different from before. But then, things did change. I found a teacher that believed in and inspired me—flash forward about 10 years—I was teaching middle school math myself!

One way to help students see that change is possible is by framing the new year with goals. You can invite students to reflect on their previous school year and consider things that went well, and areas for improvement. Students may recognize concrete areas for improvement like completing their homework assignments more regularly, or they may want to push themselves to participate more in class discussions. Some students may be hoping to find connections in their new classroom and feel a sense of community. No matter what it is that students want to work on, framing the new year with goals can help generate a sense of possibility. 

Inviting students to reflect on their previous year either in writing or in small group discussions provides a jumping off point to frame the new year. Once students have reflected, take the time to engage in a whole class discussion about the opportunity a new school year presents: Each student has a clean slate with you. No matter what their previous experience(academic or otherwise), you are ready to help them grow and learn this year. 

You can also share any areas that you are working on to help show students that we are all works in progress! Being open and honest about the fact that everyone has areas for improvement can help students feel more at ease in your classroom and inspire them to take risks this school year. 


Setting SMART Goals

After reflecting on the previous year and beginning to frame the new school year with goals, it's time to take those theoretical areas for improvement and write concrete goals. You’ve probably heard of SMART goals before, but maybe your students haven’t. You want to help them translate their desired improvements into SMART goals so they can hold themselves accountable for growth and ensure their goals are appropriately challenging. 

SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely. When asking students to write SMART goals, begin by explaining the significance of each component. 

  • Specific: Making a goal specific is important because we don’t want to set ourselves up with such a big lofty goal that we can’t achieve it. Choosing something specific can help us identify the most important thing we want to accomplish.
  • Measurable: Goals should be measurable so we know when we’ve achieved them! If we can’t measure the goal, it can be difficult to know if we are making progress. 
  • Attainable: A goal is only going to be motivating if it is something we can reasonably work towards and achieve. 
  • Relevant: Setting a relevant goal is particularly important when you plan to help students achieve it. Guide students to create academic goals that are related to the subject area you teach so you can help them assess progress. If you are a math teacher and your student sets a goal to write a compelling short story with dialogue, it will be harder for you to help them make that happen. 
  • Timely: Lastly, remind your students to set a time parameter on their goal. It can be helpful to have students use either the semester or school year as their time parameter depending on the specific goal. 

As students create their SMART goals, encourage them to write them down and keep them somewhere safe so they can readily revisit them throughout the year. Depending on your individual students, you may want to collect and hold on to all of your students’ goals and then bring them out periodically for students to discuss and reflect upon.  


Using Goals to Build Community

You can use students’ individual goals and create classwide goals to help build community in your classroom. Once students have written their individual SMART goals, you can encourage students to share them in small groups or with the class at large. By sharing their goals openly with one another, students will recognize that they are not alone in their desire to grow and improve. Furthermore, if there are multiple students with similar goals, you can encourage them to be accountability partners for one another to create a sense of shared ownership over goals. 

To create classwide goals that inspire a sense of community and belonging, invite students to brainstorm what they hope to accomplish as a class and how they can work together to achieve it. As a 6th grade math teacher, I taught two cohorts of students that frequently set goals of beating the other cohort in homework completion, average test score, etc. This inherent competition between classes helped my students feel more connected to one another and allowed us to set frequent SMART goals together based on upcoming assignments.


Monitoring and Re-Investing in Goals

One of the keys to successful goal-setting is monitoring progress towards achieving the goal. If you set the goal and forget about it, it probably won’t be particularly motivating. To help students stay invested in their goals, take time throughout the year for students to reflect on their progress and identify any changes they need to make. This can further build community as students talk with one another about their progress or lack thereof. 

For students that have set academic goals, it can be helpful to have them look at rubrics or student self-assessments to gauge their progress. In Fishtank ELA, are many discussion self-assessments and writing rubrics students can use to assess their areas of strength and opportunities for growth. In Fishtank Math, students can use the Pre-Unit Self Assessment and Post-Unit Self Assessment offered in every 3rd-8th grade unit to monitor their progress across the year. This can help students recognize the study habits and classroom behaviors that helped them feel successful in each unit and apply those in the future to achieve their year-long goals. 

There are many ways to help your students feel invested in the classroom and excited about the year ahead, but goal-setting can be particularly impactful as it allows students to take ownership over their success, builds community, and introduces students to the lifelong habit of setting and achieving SMART goals.  


Want more ideas to set your students up for success this school year? Dive into the Fishtank Blog to find strategies for engaging every student, guidance on using Fishtank resources, and the latest on what works in the classroom. Create your free Fishtank Learning account today to access thousands of free, standards-aligned, lesson plans in ELA and Math. 


Rachel Fuhrman is the Curriculum Marketing Manager at Fishtank Learning. Before joining Fishtank Learning, Rachel spent 5 years as a Middle School Special Education Teacher in New Orleans, LA and Harlem, NY. Outside of the classroom, she has been a frequent contributor to multiple education blogs and focuses primarily on student engagement and instructional practice topics. Rachel earned both her Bachelor of Arts in Economics and her Master of Science in Educational Studies from Johns Hopkins University.


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