4 Setting Goals and Planning

Everybody has goals. We have things we want to accomplish—whether that’s a daily task or a long-term goal for our career or personal life.

As an example, let’s say somebody planned a few very short-term goals for their morning:

  • wake up
  • eat breakfast
  • commute to work

These are the simple tasks they wanted to accomplish, and this person could take concrete steps to make each one happen—like setting an alarm, making sure there was enough breakfast cereal in the cupboard, looking at Google maps to estimate the morning’s traffic. There are goals everywhere—if you know how to spot them.

As tutors, our clientele are typically working toward specific academic goals—like earning a degree, completing a class, gaining new skills in a certain area, and so on. Behind these goals hide other goals. For example, a student might want their degree so they can land a job in a field they enjoy. Ultimately, this example student’s end-goal is a fulfilling career, not the degree itself. Somebody else might want to learn skills that will make them a better communicator in personal relationships. While completing an intrapersonal communication class will help make progress toward this goal, the goal itself exists beyond simply passing a single class. These underlying, personalized goals have strong potential to keep students motivated.1

So where do we start? Research shows that having clear goals can help students learn,1,2,3 but there are many additional considerations and entire theoretical frameworks dedicated to identifying the most educationally meaningful goals! We could spend an entire session asking a student about their life and their ambitions, and we still might not fully uncover everything they want to accomplish. Additionally, those big picture goals can feel so far away. A student might know that they want to earn their PhD in psychology, but that feels quite distant from their college algebra course. We could draw a line between early coursework and final outcomes, but that doesn’t change the fact that the student’s end-goal is far away and fuzzier. Students may find it difficult to stay motivated when their goals feel out-of-reach.

We can remember a student’s long-term goals and build connections when possible, but each tutoring session should have its own specific goals built into the process. Luckily, there’s a system to help focus on individual goals that can help students stay motivated—even if their big-picture goals feel a little further away. SMART goals help break concepts down in a way that students can manage within practical parameters.


SMART is an acronym. It stands for:

  • (S)pecific
  • (M)easureable
  • (A)actionable
  • (R)ealistic
  • (T)imely

Let’s take these one at a time.


A specific goal needs to be focused and narrow. Let’s consider this example:

You ask a student “What are your goals for this tutoring session?” 

In reply, the student says “I want to get better at writing.” 

That is an admirable goal, but it’s not specific. What does this student mean when they say “better?” What kind of writing are they talking about? Academic writing? Creative writing? Are we talking about sentence-level skills, or is this student working on a fifteen page research paper?

A better example might be:

“I want to learn how to organize my research paper.” 

This is specific, focused on an identifiable task.


We have a specific task in mind. Now how do we measure success? Without a clear metric for success, a student will not know if they have achieved their goal, made progress toward it, or if they need to reassess. No sense of accomplishment is possible if they have no way of knowing if they have completed what they set out to do. Additionally, the student’s goal may never be reached if it can’t be measured!

So, let’s go back to the example:

“I want to get better at writing.”

How can we measure this? How will the student know if they have gotten better? What is the measurement here?

  • Will they receive a certain grade on an upcoming paper?
  • Will they write a certain number of words per day?
  • Will they produce a ten-page paper?

Let’s dive back into the alternative and add some measurement:

“I want to learn how to organize my research paper outline, producing a thesis statement and one-page outline.”

Now this is measurable. The student can see if they have created a thesis and met their one-page outline goal.


SMART goals must be actionable. A student must be able to take steps toward achieving their goal. Without a clear course of action, how does the student get started? Let’s go back to our example again:

“I want to get better at writing.”

What is the action there? How does the student take a concrete step toward being better? They could attend a workshop or lecture. They could read books about the subject of writing. But those options aren’t clear from the goal itself.

Now let’s revise our SMART goal further:

“I want to watch YouTube videos about essay structure and organization. Through these videos, I’ll learn how to organize my research paper outline, producing a thesis statement and one-page outline.”

There is a clear action item here. The student will watch YouTube videos. Maybe that student should also see a tutor, but any learning is a good idea. There are some great YouTube videos out there. The goal has an action.


In order for a goal to be realistic, it must be reasonable and within the realm of possibility. Let’s revisit our writing example.

A non-realistic goal might be:

“I want to get better at writing so I can earn a perfect 100% all my papers in all my writing classes throughout my entire college experience!”

That goal meets some SMART characteristics—it’s measurable because we can easily measure whether the student received a 100% in each class. But is it realistic? Even for the most skilled writer, probably not. Very few people can claim perfection on every piece of writing. So this goal is too outlandish.

Returning to our evolving SMART goal, let’s see if it passes the realistic test:

“I want to watch YouTube videos about essay structure and organization. Through these videos, I’ll learn how to organize my research paper outline, producing a thesis statement and one-page outline.”

This goal looks realistic. The student could reasonably watch some videos and learn about this topic, then they could organize a paper and produce a page. That doesn’t seem impossible. It passes muster as-is.


Lastly, a SMART goal needs to be time-bound. Let’s go back to our initial example:

“I want to get better at writing.”

That goal has no time-bound characteristics. When does the student want to get better? Today? Tomorrow? By midterms? Within the next ten years? There’s no way to take steps toward this goal if the end-point is fuzzy.

Let’s do one last revision to our SMART goal:

“I want to watch YouTube videos about essay structure and organization. Through these videos, I’ll learn how to organize my research paper outline, producing a thesis statement and one-page outline before next Friday’s class.”

“Next Friday’s class” is a specific, timely characteristic. Of course, if this goal is developed five minutes before Friday’s class, we run into issues with our “Realistic” requirement. But for argument’s sake, let’s say the student is developing this goal on Tuesday, so they have plenty of breathing room for their time-bound component. They have clearly met all five components of a SMART goal.

Quickwrite Exercise

What is your biggest long-term goal? If you think far into the future, what do you want to achieve? Take a moment to write out your goal. Then, ask yourself: is it a SMART goal or not?

  • If it doesn’t contain the characteristics of a SMART goal, try to revise your goal to be specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and time-bound.
  • Once you have a clear SMART goal, write out what steps you can take over the next month to help you make progress toward your long-term ambition.

How can tutors encourage SMART goals?

How can we streamline this SMART goal creation process? If a student comes in for organization help, we can’t spend the entire time running through the goal-setting process. We need to simplify this.

There are a couple options for integrating SMART goals into a session. Perhaps we want to devote one session early on to explore a SMART goal worksheet and teach students how to goal-set. Early goal-setting gives students concrete things to work on. It helps them maintain motivation and see their successes within reach. This can make the entire tutorial process smoother. Another option is to ask students to bring a goal to each session, and use it as a framework. This is a great approach that we highly recommend. Asking the student to craft their goal on their own time shifts the SMART planning to outside of the session, and it empowers the student to make their own goals.

Using a SMART goal planning worksheet really only works if we have repeat visits with students and the luxury to spend an entire session focused on this topic. What if a student only visits one day prior to their exam and there isn’t time for a session on goals? What if we work in a drop-in Tutoring Center, and never know if a student will be a frequent visitor? For these situations, something quicker and immediately useful is necessary.

This is where Socratic questioning comes in again. You’ll notice that as we tackled the goal “I want to get better at writing,” we asked a lot of questions. Those questions helped shape it into a SMART goal. This is something you can model in tutorial sessions. Even if you don’t have time to go through all the steps and use the language of SMART goal setting, you can implicitly address goals with your students. The simple phrases: “What are you working on today?” or “What can I help you with?” are great introductions,4 as mentioned in the chapter on Communication Skills. Moreover, this introduction also plants the seed for goal-setting. The student replies with an articulation of what they want to accomplish: their goal for the session.

For example, they might say “Well, today I wanted to work on my math homework.”

Okay, good start. The student has some focus, but it’s not a SMART goal. It’s too vague to help guide the student’s work for the session.5 We can ask a few quick questions to arrive at something close to a SMART goal, even if we never use the language “specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and time-bound.”

Consider some follow-up questions to get the student thinking about a SMARTer goal:

Table2.2: Follow-up questions tutors can ask to help students develop SMART goals. 
Specific “What part of the textbook are you working on?”
Measurable “Can you pick two problems for us to focus on today?”
Actionable “What steps have you taken so far? What can we try next?”
Realistic “I see you are working on polynomials. Have you already learned how to apply the order of operations?”
Time-based “When is this homework due?”

Even if you don’t cover all five aspects of a SMART goal, you can approximate its meaningful components even during a quick drop-in session. Not only do these questions help you better understand the student’s needs, it gives the student focus. This interaction will also teach the student the importance of coming to tutoring sessions with some clearer ideas of what they’d like to accomplish. In time, they may eventually shift their opening goal from “I want to work on math” to something more thoughtful and deliberate.

Something to Try

The next time a student says they are working on something—like “I’m trying to finish this essay assignment”—ask at least one question that leads them toward a SMART goal.

For example, you may say “How much time do you have to revise this rough draft before the due date?”

Then, in your next session, ask at least two questions about the student’s goal. Then three, and so on. Try to get to five questions, and you’ll be on your way to encouraging more intentional short-term goals for these students.


This short video from Kahn Academy gives a helpful overview of how to create SMART goals for success


  1. Brophy, J. E. (2010). Motivating students to learn (3rd ed.). Routledge.
  2. Lüftenegger, M., J. Klug, K. Harrer, M. Langer, Marie, C. Spiel, & B. Schober (2016). Students’ Achievement Goals, Learning-Related Emotions and Academic Achievement. Frontiers in Psychology, 7. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00603
  3. Midgley, C. (2002). Goals, goal structures, and patterns of adaptive learning. L. Erlbaum Associates.
  4. Ryan, L., & Zimmerelli, Lisa. (2016). The Bedford guide for writing tutors (Sixth edition). Bedford/St. Martin’s.
  5. McCardle, L., Webster, E. A., Haffey, A., & Hadwin, A. F. (2017). Examining Students’ Self-Set Goals for Self-Regulated Learning: Goal Properties and Patterns. Studies in Higher Education, 42(11), 2153–2169.


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Tutor Handbook Copyright © 2021 by Penny Feltner and gapinski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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