SMART Goals in Education: Importance, Benefits, Limitations

smart goals template
Use This Template! (Available at the end of the article)

The SMART Goals framework is an acronym-based framework used in education to help students set clear and structured goals related to their learning.

The framework stands for:

  • Specific – The goal is clear and has a closed-ended statement of exactly what will be achieved.
  • Measurable – The goal can be measured either quantitatively (e.g. earning 80% in an exam) or qualitatively (e.g. receiving positive feedback from a teacher).
  • Achievable – The goal is not too hard and can reasonably be met with some effort and within the set timeframe.
  • Relevant – The goal is relevant to the student’s learning and development.
  • Time-Based – A clear timeframe is set to keep you on task.

(If you’re a teacher, you might prefer to read my article on goals for teachers).

The SMART Goals Framework in Education

SMART Goals in education

The framework has had multiple variations over time. However, the most common framework is in the format: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based.

1. Specific

Your goal needs to be specific. This means that you need to note a clear target to aspire toward rather than something that is vague.

For students, this is important to clarify exactly what it is you’re aiming for.

Some strategies for making sure your goal is specific include:

  • State what, when, where, why, and how your goals will be achieved
  • State what the goal will look like when it is achieved
  • Focus on the “vital few”[1] things that you want to see done to have your goal achieved

Sometimes, this may also be stated as “strategic” rather than “specific”.

A Bad “Specific” GoalImprove my English Speaking Skills
A Good “Specific” GoalReach C1 Level in English Speaking on the IELTS test by May next year.

See our in-depth article on examples of specific goals for students to get more ideas!

2. Measurable

Your goal needs to be measurable. This ensures that you can identify improvements from the baseline as well as know when the goal has been met.

Your objectives can be formative, summative, or a mix of both.

A formative assessment is an assessment that takes place part-way through the project. It assesses where you’re at and how much more you need to do. Formative assessments allow you to pivot and make small adjustments to your action to make sure you meet the final goal.

A summative assessment is an assessment at the end of the project to see if you met your goal. This is the final measure of success or failure.

A measurable goal may also be qualitative or quantitative.

A quantitative goal will have a grade or numerative evaluation, such as 80% on a test.

A qualitative goal will be based on a subjective evaluation, such as getting a positive report card from a mentor, or, attaining the confidence to do a public speech.

A Bad “Measurable” GoalBecome a good academic writer.
A Good “Measurable” GoalGain an A grade on a college paper by the end of next semester.

See our in-depth article on examples of measurable goals for students to get more ideas!

3. Attainable

Your goal needs to be attainable. This means that it can’t be something that’s impossible to achieve. You need to know you’ll be able to reach your goals in order to sustain motivation.

This could be compared to the goldilocks principle. Goldilocks didn’t like porridge that was too cold or too hot. It had to be just right.

In education, we use the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) to explain how to promote student development and motivation. The ZPD refers to learnable content that is not too easy and not too hard.

In this zone, students can do tasks with the support of teachers and have the motivation to work because they know the content is attainable with some effort.

A Bad “Attainable” GoalTo learn the Spanish language in 7 days.
A Good “Attainable” GoalTo be able to recite the top 10 Spanish verbs from memory within 7 days.

4. Relevant

Often also written as ‘realistic’, a relevant goal is one that makes sense to your situation. If you are setting goals in your class, your teacher would expect that the goal was about your education and not something irrelevant to class.

Your goal should also be one that is consistent with your life plan and will help you get to where you need to be. This will help you to sustain motivation and ensure the goal makes sense in the long term.

While having personal goals unrelated to your coursework is great, it’s not relevant to the lesson that you’re doing within the class on the day, so remember to set your goal so it’s related to your learning.

A Bad “Relevant” GoalTo beat Level 7 of my video game on the weekend.
A Good “Relevant” GoalTo get an A+ on my Geography paper so I can sustain a GPA above 3.0.

5. Time-Based

Setting a time by which you want to meet your goals helps to keep you on track and accountable to yourself. Without time-based end goals, you may delay your goals and lose momentum.

You can also set intermittent milestones to help keep yourself on track. This can ensure you don’t let other shorter-term and more pressing tasks get in the way and get you off track.

A Bad “Time-Based” GoalTo graduate from university.
A Good “Time-Based” GoalTo complete 4 courses per semester and graduate from the university by November next year.

SMARTER Goals Add-On

Some scholars have provided additional steps to the framework. One common one is to add ‘ER’[2]:

6. Exciting

You are more likely to achieve a goal if you make it exciting. This will motivate you to carry out your plan.

An example of excitement added to a goal would be to create some self-rewards if it is completed, like “If I complete the goal I will take myself out for dinner.”

The ‘E’ is also often added when the goals are for teachers or leaders who are setting goals for their students or staff. By making the goal exciting, they’ll be able to get buy-in from students and staff.

7. Recorded

The ‘R’ often stands for ‘Recorded’ and asks you to show how you are going to record progress.

This one is somewhat similar to ‘Measurable’ but expands on it by asking not only how you’re going to measure success, but how are you going to record progress. Keeping a journal, for example, can help you record progress and reflect on the process of chasing your coals.

The Importance of SMART Goals in Education

Goal setting helps students and teachers to develop a vision for self-improvement. Without clear goals, there is no clear and agreed-upon direction for learning.

For this reason, goals have been used extensively in education. Examples include:

  • Curriculum outcomes
  • A syllabus
  • Developmental milestones
  • Standardized testing
  • Summative and formative assessments

The SMART framework, however, tends to be a student-led way of setting goals. It enables students to reflect on what they want to achieve and plan how to achieve these goals.

As a result, the framework doesn’t just help students articulate what they want out of their education. It also provides a range of soft skills for students such as:

  • Motivation for growth
  • Reflective practice
  • Self Evaluation
  • Structured analytical thinking

Read Also: Examples of SMART Goals for Students

SMART Goals Advantages and Disadvantages

Benefits of SMART Goals

The SMART framework is widely used because it helps students to clarify their goals and how they are going to go about achieving them. Often, students start with a vague statement of intention, but by the end of the session, they have fleshed out their goals using the SMART template.

Some benefits of the template include:

Provides ClarityStudents are given a framework to flesh out their goals and clarify them in their own minds.
Identifies Potential ProblemsWhen using the framework, students can identify problems they may face, such as whether their timeframe is realistic or whether they have been specific enough.
Easy to Use and UnderstandThe framework can be understood and implemented within a single lesson.
Widely ApplicableThe framework isn’t only used for students but also in a wide range of other fields such as business, teaching, and leadership.
Easy to AmendThere are many different iterations of the SMART framework (such as SMARTER) which can be used if the most common framework isn’t quite right in your situation.

Limitations of SMART Goals

While the framework is easy to use and implement, it does face a few limitations. One major downside is that it doesn’t account for the importance of incrementalism in self-improvement. Students need to break down their goals into a series of milestones.

Some limitations of the template include:

Lack of ConsensusThere is no clear consensus over what the ‘correct’ S.M.A.R.T acronym is. For example, sometimes the ‘R’ is realistic and other times it is relevant. Sometimes the ‘A’ is attainable and other times it is assignable.
Lack of focus on MilestonesGoal setting should involve a series of short, medium, and long-term goals that build upon one another.
Lack of Focus on Barriers to SuccessOther self-development frameworks such as the SWOT Analysis provide a stronger focus on barriers to success (both internal and external – see our list of personal SWOT Analysis examples). By looking at barriers to success, you can predict them and work to mitigate their effects.

SMART Goals Template

smart goals template

Get the Google Docs Template Here


SMART goals help students to reflect on what they want from their education and how to achieve it. They provide a template and framework for students to go into more depth about their goals so they are not simply vague statements, but rather actionable statements of intent.

A lesson where you get your students to set out their goals will often have students leaving the class with a much deeper understanding of what they want out of their education and how they might go about getting it.

Read Also: A List of Long-Term Goals for Students and A List of Short-Term Goals for Students


[1] O’Neil, J. and Conzemius, A. (2006). The Power of SMART Goals: Using Goals to Improve Student Learning. London: Solution Tree Press.

[2]  Yemm, G. (2013). Essential Guide to Leading Your Team: How to Set Goals, Measure Performance and Reward Talent. Melbourne: Pearson Education. pp. 37–39.

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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