How SMART are you?: Using the SMART system in your academic career

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The acronym for these five words is SMART, and SMART goal-setting has become ubiquitous in business. The SMART guidelines have crept into the academic world as well, and many secondary schools now include them in the criteria for students’ essay and project plans.

Unlike many business fads, SMART goals are actually very sensible. You can use this system in your academic career when supporting students to plan their work or address deficiencies, and you can also use it to improve your own career, teaching and research planning.

Getting SMART

The whole idea is to stop setting goals that are never met. That wastes time, and it’s demoralising as well. So let’s take a typical academic goal:

I will improve the way I teach Course X.

Great sentiment, but it falls short of the SMART criteria in every way. First, it doesn’t specify what “improvement” means. It doesn’t say how you will measure improvement, so you won’t know whether you have achieved the goal. It’s also so open-ended that you might feel that you have never done enough—in other words, neither achievable nor realistic. Finally, it doesn’t say when this will occur, so it’s quite easy to kick your plan into the long grass.

To improve on this beginning, add the details that will make it SMART. Think first about what would improve your teaching. Do you want to be better prepared, do you want to engage students more, or does the course content need an update? Let’s assume it’s student engagement.

Measuring student engagement isn’t the easiest thing, but one method might be to count the number of students who ask questions in class now, and try to double that.

Is that achievable? A quick look at the literature on university pedagogy turns up several helpful guides to encouraging student participation, so yes, it can be done! These guides give you some specific tips for things to try.

Of course, they also include some suggestions that would take more time and effort than others. Knowing that your schedule is busy, you choose realistic options.

And then there’s the time factor—you decide that you want to achieve this goal by the middle of the next term.

Your new version is indeed SMART:

At the beginning of the autumn term, I will use changes to the classroom layout and asking students to lead discussions to improve student participation in Course X. At the middle of the term, I will compare the amount of student participation to the amount that was happening during the spring.

Now you know exactly what changes you will make and when, how you will measure any improvement and when, and you haven’t asked yourself to do anything unreasonable. The task no longer seems vague or impossible.

Beyond the classroom, SMART goal-setting can also improve your personal development planning, and it is invaluable when making research plans.

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