Goal Setting for Students for the New Year

Clay Scarborough
Clay Scarborough
High school principal; M.A. in Education, principal certification
A drawing on a chalkboard reads, “What are your goals?”

It is kind of awkward that the second half of the school year coincides with the first half of the calendar year. For most, January brings a new start and resolutions. In schools, the year has been going on since August, and habits have been set with those four months of school under our student and teacher belts.

This does not change the need for goal setting as a tool for success later in life. In the second half of the school year, most schools enter the standardized test season, with most testing occurring later in the spring. Goal setting on the academic side can help students be more successful.

There is plenty of time between now and then for students to set goals academically and behaviorally. It is worth mentioning again, that the ability to set a goal and work toward it is a vitally important skill for students to have when they enter the real world.

In an article by Barbara Osiecka, “How to Increase your Chances of Success to 95%,” she cites that the American Society of Training and Development has found that:

  • If you have an idea or goal, you are 10% likely to achieve it
  • If you consciously decide that you achieve your goal, you are 25% likely to complete your goal
  • If you decide when you will do it, your likelihood of achieving the goal raised to 40%
  • If you plan how to achieve your goal, your likelihood of you achieving the goal is 50%
  • If you commit to someone that you will do it, you have a 65% possibility of achieving your goal
  • If you have a specific accountability appointment with someone you are committed to, the possibility raises to 95%

Our students, and ourselves, need this skill.

What Kind of Goals Can Students Set for Themselves?

There are two major kinds of goals for students in the school realm: academic and behavioral.

Academically speaking, students who set goals toward improvement or mastery of certain learning standards improve their rate of success. There are many studies on how goal setting directly impacts student academic success.

One by Ronnie Dotson, Superintendent of Carter County School in Kentucky in 2016, is a good example of how goals impacted student success. In the study, 69% of students made adequate growth after utilizing goal setting compared to only 60% before implementing goal setting.

This was just one example of the improvement seen with goal setting. Other studies showed some greater improvement, and others showed the same difference. Approximately ten percent more of our students achieving goals would make a big difference in all of our schools.


One personal example of where I saw a teacher using goal setting in her class was to have the students track the learning standards they have and have not mastered, and to the level, they mastered the learning standard. This teacher had her students where they could tell me when I asked what they had mastered in that class, and what they were still working on. Students were essentially completing their own scouting report of what they were learning.

Many teachers that I have seen use something similar were able to help students who traditionally struggled by making it easier for students to see what they needed to learn to be successful. It might be a question or two in a certain standard that would make the difference, but the student knew what they needed to learn to make it happen. Goal setting at its finest.


Behaviorally speaking, many of us reading this article can take a good lesson from the ARDS we have all sat in when it comes to behavioral goals. The way special education tracks behavior goals are a great way for us to do the same things with all students. How many times was a student late over six weeks? How many missing assignments did the student have these six weeks? Tracking this and setting goals make students more successful.

How to Help Students Set Goals 

The answer to how to set goals with students is found in the basic ideals of developing reasonable, attainable goals. This follows the outline of SMART goal setting.

SMART goal setting chart.

First, where do we need to go to be successful? This is the whole idea of beginning with the end in mind. But what if that goal is too lofty? Goals can be set as progress markers along the way or as steps toward the ultimate goal.

Attainable Goals

Say you have a student who wants to get 90% of questions on a learning standard correct but has been traditionally scoring in the 50s or 60s; it might be a jump to go from 55% to 90%.

Set the goal at 70% and make it attainable. If a goal is too lofty, it may deflate a student from succeeding because they may feel like they cannot get to that point.

Must be Measurable

The goal must be measurable. From the book, “The Four Disciplines of Execution”, one of the keys to success in obtaining goal is seeing as a scoreboard. This makes the goal concrete and not abstract and easy to define.

Goals Should Have a Timetable

Lastly, goals need to have a sort of timetable. A student may need to progress by a certain time to pass a test or complete a college readiness test. However, don’t be hesitant to adjust the timing so a student can succeed. All students progress at different speeds and if it is too quick of a deadline, it can be discouraging.

In short, with an attainable goal, students’ success rate goes up. And like always, it takes our hand to help teach our students how to set goals and apply that skill later in life.

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