How to Set and Follow Through on Academic Goals; Examples for Success

No matter what grade a student is in, school can be a challenge. Each year presents more intense challenges and new pressures to excel. So, how can students deal with academic increasing challenges?

Setting academic goals is one very effective strategy.

What are academic goals? Academic goals are important performance targets that will help the student forward their overall educational progress. Academic goals serve as leading indicators of student success because they enable the student to establish a roadmap of small and large benchmarks that will guide them on the path to intellectual growth.

Academic goals will help to give the student a clear picture of what they want to achieve, allowing them to determine what steps they need to take to get there.

Setting the right academic goals is not always easy. The following information provides the tools needed to set and follow through on academic goals. Students, parents, and teachers can use these tools to improve the chance of achieving academic success. However, if you discover you need more information about finding and understanding academic strengths, I wrote a helpful article on the topic. 

Qualities Developed By Setting Academic Goals

Those who set academic goals don’t just benefit from the products of the goals themselves, they also benefit from the habits they develop as they learn and grow (source). Perhaps the single greatest benefit of setting academic goals is the development of delayed gratification and impulse control.

These two simple yet powerful traits are associated with several measures of success in life including net worth, career progress, improved health outcomes, and having a greater appreciation for the work it takes to earn something good in life. Students who begin to develop these traits in school and continue to allow them to flourish throughout their lives are more likely to experience positive life outcomes.

Setting academic goals is also shown through research to sustain motivation in students to the degree that they believe they can achieve the goal. The goals that student set for themselves are often aligned with their belief in themselves and their own self-efficacy (source). Students have the opportunity to improve this perception if needed. Strategies for setting academic goals will be discussed below. 

The Importance of Setting Academic Goals

Academic goals are important because they give the student direction and purpose.

Students should think of their academic goals as roadmaps for success. They provide concrete plans to work toward, so the students know exactly what they need to do to get where they want to be.

Academic goals offer the following benefits:

  • Improved focus
  • Increased motivation
  • Higher quality education experience
  • Measurable results
  • Increased academic success

Goals help the student focus on the things that they want to achieve. While it is easy for a student to say that they want to get a better grade, a goal will help them focus on the steps needed to get there.

Setting a goal also helps them stay motivated. When they actively work towards something, the commitment that they put into it makes them more likely to follow through on it. The student will become more motivated to complete the goals that they set when they have specific steps to follow and are supported by their parents and teachers.

Further, the extra time that they put in leads to better education. When they spend more time studying a topic they get more than just a better grade, they gain a better understanding of and appreciation for the topic.

The skills and information that they learn are cumulative and will continue to add up the longer they stay on track.

A major reason for this effect is they will have measurable results, instead of vague wishes. When they track their progress they will see how far they have come and how much they have left to go. Even if they do not reach your goal, the measurable results allow them to better determine where they went wrong.

All these advantages build up to generate increased academic success at any level of education. Whether the student is in fourth grade or their fourth year of college, they can use academic goals to increase their academic performance.

Understanding the Different Types of Academic Goals

As discussed earlier, goals can be short term or long term. Let’s talk a little more about how each of these types of goals contributes to the bigger picture. As mentioned earlier, a short-term goal is something you want to complete soon, while a long-term goal may take an entire semester or several years to complete.

A short-term goal may include:

  • Getting help with a specific topic
  • Getting a better grade on your next project
  • Forming a study group with your peers
  • Asking your teacher for guidance
  • Starting to study for the SATs
  • Creating a consistent study schedule

Long-term goals take longer to achieve and may include several smaller short-term goals. With long-term goals, the student will think about what they hope to achieve by the end of the school year or by graduation, such as:

  • Achieving a specific grade
  • Passing a course
  • Getting a high SAT score
  • Graduating on time

How to Set Academic Goals for Success

Setting academic goals requires more than simply stating striving for a high grade. The goals should include specific details, including the steps needed to achieve the goals and the timeframe for completion.

Using the SMART Approach to Goal Setting

To make sure that the goals are attainable, it helps to apply the S.M.A.R.T. approach. With SMART academic goals, each goal set should include the following characteristics:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Results-focused
  • Time-bound

Determining what the student hopes to achieve helps them set specific goals. Instead of deciding to perform better at school, they may want to obtain a specific grade in a certain class.

Measurable goals allow the student to determine whether they reached your goal. Luckily, most academic goals are easily measurable. Obtaining a specific grade is a measurable result. However, some goals require them to set their own metrics.

For example, if their goal is to spend more time studying, they need to decide how much time to devote to studying each day.

SMART goals are also both achievable and realistic. If the student does not choose realistic goals, they set themselves up for failure. If the student has struggled throughout high school, becoming the class valedictorian may be out of their reach, while obtaining a better GPA is realistic.

The final aspect of a SMART goal is the timeline. Goals require established deadlines to help the student stay on track.

Once the students have some ideas for goals they want to pursue, they can apply each characteristic from the SMART framework. Doing so will give them a structure to follow to ensure that they are making the most effective use of their time and effort.  

Tips for Setting Effective and Realistic Academic Goals

There are additional steps for ensuring that the goals remain effective, realistic, and attainable:

  • Set a goal for each class or course
  • Break long-term goals into several short-term goals
  • Work with teachers or instructors to uncover your problem areas
  • Avoid setting too many goals

To improve your overall academic performance, the student should consider setting one goal for each class or course. They should choose an area where they can improve in each one, such as finally grasping a complicated math formula or learning all of their state capitals.

When setting long-term goals, they should divide them into smaller short-term goals. For example, they may set a long-term goal of earning a better grade. Then, they can determine what smaller goals can help them achieve that goal, such as:

  • Studying for a half hour each day
  • Starting a study group
  • Hiring a tutor
  • Reviewing mistakes after each test

Once these goals are set, the student can create a checklist for these smaller goals and cross them off as they are completed. With each item that is checked off, they will gain additional motivation to keep working toward their goals.

Another helpful tip is to work closely with teachers set or reach goals. Educators are often the best equipped to help point out the areas where help is needed. They may even provide additional tips or resources for accomplishing goals.

Finally, the student should avoid setting too many goals. The additional pressure of trying to accomplish too much at once eliminates the purpose of setting attainable goals.

Pursuing A Vision Through Academic Goals

Academic goals may either be long or short term. Short-term academic goals are things that will be completed in a relatively short time frame, such as within the next few weeks or the current marking period. For example, the student may want to get a high score on their next assignment or get help understanding a specific topic.

Long-term academic goals may include something they want to achieve by the end of the semester, school year, or before graduating. Long-term goals are often performance-based, such as achieving a better grade, qualifying for an advanced class, or getting into a particular college.

The positive effects of achieving short-term goals build upon each other to put the student in a position to be successful in the long run. As they take each step down this path, they get closer to achieving their long-term goals, which also generate compounding benefits. As the student begins to see these results become their new reality, they will develop a deeper appreciation for the power for setting and pursuing academic goals.

Examples of Academic Goals

What are some examples of academic goals? Examples of academic goals vary based on grade level. Academic goals for elementary students will be very different from the goals for high school students or college students. Students who begin to set an academic goal early are more likely to use them in the future. It is never too early to start setting goals.

Examples of Elementary School Academic Goals

During elementary school, students learn important concepts that provide a foundation for their education as they get older. If they get off to a great start, they can begin to develop the skills and habits that will help them to become successful as they get older.

Some examples of academic goals in elementary school include:

  • Improving Reading Skills
  • Improving Math Skills
  • Improving Writing skills
  • Improving Focus & Concentration
  • Improving Listening Skills
  • Progressing to the Next Grade
  • Learning extracurricular skills, like swimming or piano

In elementary school, it is important for parents to work with their children to set goals. This includes extracurricular goals that are shown through research to improve focus and concentration. Their guidance will serve as the primary driver of the student’s motivation. This is the time for the parent to plant seeds in the child’s mind. Doing so will enable them to begin to develop an important life skill very early in their young lives.  

In some cases, parents may need to get the teachers involved. For example, when a child has difficulty with a specific topic in class, the teacher and parents should work together to find solutions to the challenges the child is facing. This may involve additional tutoring or a more creative approach to the topic depending on the circumstances of the situation

Examples of Middle School and High School Academic Goals

As the year’s pass, new challenges will arise. The student’s middle school class schedule will include a more diverse selection of topics, more homework, and will require more study time.

Along with the examples listed above, academic goals for middle school and middle school students may include:

  • Completing assignments independently
  • Studying with specific goals in mind
  • Receiving a high score on the SATs
  • Completing a college application essay
  • Qualifying for a scholarship or grant
  • Increasing their grade point average
  • Being admitted to the college of their choice

In middle school, students should continue to work on their core skills, such as reading, math, and science. However, it also becomes more important to start developing positive study habits.

High school students that plan to attend a college or university should begin thinking of their college education early. In fact, many guidance counselors encourage students to start planning for college as early as their freshman year of high school.

When preparing for college, additional goals will need to be set, such as preparing for and taking the SATs. Students may also need to visit colleges, apply for scholarships, and complete admission essays. Without setting the smaller goals that will put them on the path to these larger goals, it will be easy to fall off track or miss the mark completely.

Examples of Academic Goals for College Students

After graduating from high school, college brings even more pressure to succeed. The types of goals that students need to set to succeed will change, as the little things that they could overlook in high school will now have a significant impact on their academic outcome in college.

A typical list of academic goals for a college student often includes more specific goals, such as:

  • Achieving and maintaining a higher grade point average
  • Overcoming past failures
  • Participating in class discussions more frequently
  • Getting over a fear of public speaking
  • Reading more books
  • Taking on more extracurricular activities
  • Maintaining a scholarship or grant

College goals tend to focus on specific areas of education that contribute to the completion of the academic program. It’s important to note that less than two-thirds of college students enrolled at four-year colleges complete their degrees.

In many cases, students drop out due to the increased pressures of college life. Unfamiliar classes, new settings, hectic class schedules, more coursework, and more independence can lead to stress and difficulty staying on track.

Setting realistic goals for each term helps students to keep up with their responsibilities, increasing the likelihood of finishing college or university.

While the goals may vary based on current grade level, the principles discussed so far can apply to any student.

Reading more books can help elementary students increase their vocabulary and knowledge. Getting over a fear of public speaking may be something to address in high school, where extracurricular activities like drama can help significantly in working through this fear.

Tips for Following Through on Your Academic Goals

After setting academic goals, the student must work hard to accomplish them. They can use these tips to remain on track throughout the school year:

  • Track progress
  • Get others involved
  • Plan rewards
  • Take regular breaks

The student should always track their progress. After writing down your goals and determining how to measure their results, notes should be kept of the steps achieved to get to the desired goal.

For example, if the student needs to study each day, they should make a note in their calendar each day that they study. As they work towards achieving higher scores or getting a better grade at the end of the semester, they will be able to see how this little goal contributed to achieving a bigger goal.

As mentioned, getting teachers or instructors involved helps students achieve their goals. However, students may also need to get their parents involved in help as well. From middle school onward, students may also benefit from college students working with their peers.

Students and parents should consider rewards for a little extra motivation in achieving academic goals. Studies show that rewards help to provide additional motivation when it’s hard to come by.

Last Thoughts on Setting and Achieving Academic Goals

Every student should have goals, as they provide focus, motivation, and lead to improved educational outcomes.

To start on the path to achieving their goals, students should write down their goals and determine what they hope to achieve and when it will be achieved by.

Using the SMART model will help to ensure that the goals are specific, measurable, achievable, results-focused, and timely.

Having this structure in place to guide them will help them to focus on realistic goals, increasing their chance of having a successful academic career. If you are looking for some extra motivation I wrote a helpful article about famous scholars and the adversity they had to overcome to reach the height of their field. 

Dr. Patrick Capriola

Dr. Patrick Capriola is the founder of strategiesforparents.com. He is an expert in parenting, social-emotional development, academic growth, dropout prevention, educator professional development, and navigating the school system. He earned his Doctorate in Educational Leadership from the University of Florida in 2014. His professional experience includes serving as a classroom teacher, a student behavior specialist, a school administrator, and an educational trainer - providing professional development to school administrators and teachers, helping them learn to meet the academic and social-emotional needs of students. He is focused on growing strategiesforparents.com into a leading source for high-quality research-based content to help parents work through the challenges of raising a family and progressing through the school system.

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