College Course Success: Goals, Motivation & Creating a Learning Plan

REPOSTED March 2023 with updated content

  • Goal research: Setting goals keeps students focused on desired outcomes and provides a clear direction for success. The key to establishing goals that produce results is making them specific, measureable, attainable, relevant, and time sensitive. (2016, R Dotson, Superintendent Carter County Schools, Kentucky)
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Imagine a football coach who didn’t have a plan for executing plays or a plan to grow needed skills. The coach simply said to the team “Go out and practice for 2 hours.”

What would a building project be without a team of people, blueprints and project plan? No assigned action steps or prioritizing when the steps needed to be done?  Or consider how profitable a business would be if there wasn’t a plan for what to do, when to do it, how to do it, and who was going to do what part.

College courses cost hundreds or thousands of dollars, yet concrete approaches for course-by-course goal setting and step-by-step action planning is not typically a skill honed in high school. My work as an academic life coach and college advisor over the years has me hearing over and over from students these similar themes:  Students often…

  1. …keep their “to do” list in their mind – if they have one at all,
  2. …react to syllabus due dates daily or weekly rather than plan ahead around the rest of their life, and
  3. …study primarily by only doing the assigned homework and putting in “a lot” of time for “reviewing” notes.
  4. …don’t have a clear understanding of why any of this work matters to their future.
  5. …don’t have accountability measures or partners in place to provide additional support.

Numerous successful people do not go to major lengths to write down their intention for a specific grade or physically design a project plan. Yet gaps of effort or skills may mean a failed class or too low of a grade required for a major program. With that..more tuition money is then needed to retake a class AND the student may feel a range of negative emotions. Now is the time to  “Make it Happen” with a solid & documented plan!

What first? Creating a framework for the big picture requires naming the goal! Maybe this seems unnecessary – everyone wants to pass their classes and graduate, right?  I’ve seen students who mentally just want to pass a class – and then “oops” happens.

So what does “oops” look like?  Could be things like…

  • “I thought I knew it when I took the test, but I guess I didn’t.” or
  • “I didn’t expect that kind of test.” or
  • “I had to work extra hours, so it’s my boss’s fault that I didn’t have time to study.”

Check out this brief research results document on the positive impact of actually naming and setting goals! Dr. Gail Matthews of Dominican University in California found direct implications that saw increased goal attainment with action plans and accountability measures.

Goal creation can be viewed in a number of ways, with a common acronym being SMART goals. While that is an excellent approach, I prefer the version below “SMART-ER” goals with more direct action words. 

  • S = Specific goal and action steps
  • M = Measureable and Meaningful
  • A = Achieveable and Actionable
  • R = Realistic and Ready to Do It
  • T = Time and Talent to Do It
  • E = Emotionally Ready to Do it 
  • R = Review Results  – Adjust as Needed

I’ll study harder…I’ll study more are NOT Smart Goals and leave students with little direction and no plan to actually do it!

Consider working with a coach at your college or reach out to learn more about how working with Coach Pam can help!

Published by Pam Schoessling: Academic, Career, and Life Coach

I am passionate about helping people reach their potential at school and find fulfillment in their work. With over 10 years experience coaching, teaching, or advising high school and college students, I also am trained in career planning with design thinking for creating a visionary action plan to move forward. A Master's degree in Education and over 6 years of coach training programs round out my readiness and skills for increasing students' capacity for both achievements​ AND enjoying the journey along the way.

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