It’s that time in the semester when I teach goal setting. Why, you ask, do I not start the semester with goals? It is because that I believe students need good data–meaning grades on early assignments, concerns about fitting in–to create specific, measurable goals that will actually help them achieve in college. In fact, there are studies, such as this one, that demonstrate that students who set goals within their courses do better than students who don’t set goals. Goal setting, in essence, creates the pathway to success.

If I started with goal setting the first week of class, I would get the usual, bland goals of “passing all of my classes” or “making new friends.” These are fine, mind you, but not focused enough to create a clear plan or the semester. And they certainly are not inspiring in a way that can keep them motivated through the setbacks and rocky times that will inevitably be part of the college experience.

I have seen too often that students without a clear sense of purpose and reasonable, achievable goals to help them fulfill that purpose are more likely to sleepwalk through their classes (unless they are really entertaining or engaging), complete degree plans as if it is weekend chore list (necessary, but not exciting), and wander aimlessly through the myriad of options for maximizing their skill development.

What I want students–both high school and college students–to know that there are few people who can point to great success who didn’t start with a specific goal first. And you as parents can help them develop the skills necessary to create those goals and achieve them. Here are the questions you can ask them to help them move them from walking idly through each semester to making focused effort to achieve and succeed.

  1. “What do you see your purpose is?” This question should be the start of any guidance with creating goals. A purpose is different than a college major, but it may be aligned with a career choice. For example, a student who wants to help those who are sick may be interested in the health sciences field. Starting here is essential to creating meaningful goals.
  2. “How have you done so far?” This should be answered with hard “data” (e.g., grades or other feedback) such as “I made a 68 on my first philosophy paper.” (By the way, low grades are normal for first-year students who are learning how to meet the expectations of college assignments).
  3. “What goals do you have for this semester?” I suggest that you guide students to limit them to the current semester as it is finite amount of time. This will help them create timebound goals. They should also create goals that are specific and measurable (more about that later), meaning that you can see that the goal was attained. The goals should also be realistic for the student. A 4.0 for the semester is not realistic for all students.

When they articulate their goals, I suggest following up with these additional questions:

  1. How will you know that you achieved this goal?” This is a question to get at measurability. Too often students will tell me that they want to “improve their grades” and I will ask “What does that look like?” Then, they will say, “I want to improve from a C average to a B.” That is measurable. In other words, we can tell if that happens at the end of the semester.
  2. “What steps are you going to take to achieve this goal?” The answer to this is not necessarily part of the goal setting process, but it is part of the goal achieving process. Listen for more specific strategies and steps such as “I plan to study three hours a day every other day” and “I will meet with my professor before the next assignment to get clarification before I submit it.” If you don’t hear those strategies, then coach them on what they think they need to be doing to achieve those goals.
  3. “What happens if you fall short of your goal?” Answers may vary, but a good response would be that they will use that information to make changes to their strategies and tweak their future goals. They should not see falling short as failure.
  4. “How will you reward yourself for meeting your goal?” Reaching goals should be celebrated in some way other than a checkmark on a list. Help them learn to reward themselves for hard work in healthy, sustainable ways.

Coaching your student to develop goal setting is a process, but it is well worth the time and effort it takes. I tell me students that I work with adults who struggle with setting measurable goals–it is not easy, but when that skills gets refined, it is much easier to move toward those goals and bask in the glory of a goal achieved.


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