SMART goals should, in my humble opinion, be part of every primary+ level course. In my experience, they really do help learners focus on their learning and see where they have improved and where they could do more work. I’m not the only one – there are plenty of other professionals in the field of motivation, etc. that see the pedagogic value of goal setting. For example, Dörnyei (2001) writes that goal setting helps learners understand why they are learning and ensuring that they have realistic expectations, while Harmer (2001) states that helping learners achieve both long-term and short-term goals should be a priority for teachers as this will have a large impact on learning success. In this post, we will look at the difference between long-term/distal and short-term/proximal goals, and why having learners revisit their goals throughout the year and adding more ‘smaller’ ones is important.
I began writing this post with the idea that most people have an idea of what SMART goals are, however like many of my students, I remembered there are also many teachers who are unaware of them. With this in mind, let’s take a look at SMART goals.
SMART is an acronym for:
Specific: Goals need to be specific and not vague. What is it that learners want to achieve?
Measurable: Goals need to be able to be measured. How do learners know they are moving towards their goal? How can they measure their success?
Attainable: Goals need to be attainable and realistic. Is this goal realistically achievable? Does the learner have the necessary skills, support and time to be able to achieve this goal?
Relevant: Goals need to be relevant to learners. How does this goal impact a learner’s life, learning, classroom experience, etc.?
Time-based: Goals need to have a time limit. When does the learner want to complete this goal by? How much time will they need?
Note: There are a few variations of the main headings, so don’t shoot me if you find a different set!
I often use this video to present the SMART goals to my learners (B1+ with support) and teachers.
Distal and proximal SMART goals
Writing up a SMART goal is something that many teachers get their learners to do at the start of the year. It brings into focus the course objectives and what is expected of learners, especially in terms of study requirements. As this is a goal that is going to take some time to complete (in our case, an academic year, nine months or so) we can refer to these as distal goals – in essence, long-term. Of course, this distal goal may be a proximal goal, i.e. short-term goal, of something much larger, e.g. the mastery of English, which can take… well, around thirty years (Hartshorne, Tenenbaum, & Pinker, 2018).
Motivation and time
So, why bother with proximal and distal goals? Well, motivation is not a ‘constant’, instead being in a state of flux throughout a learner’s learning (Dörnei, 2001). Because of this, simply having learners set their goal at the start of the year is not enough – learners need goal maintenance, so to speak, and one way of achieving this is through the constant revision of distal goals and setting of further proximal sub-goals. This process helps keep learners on the successful learning path, making the distal goal more achievable by breaking it up into well-defined parts.
So, you’ve got an idea of what distal and proximal goals are, you know what SMART goals are, and you are pretty sure that you want to get your learners to focus on them for the final term. Let’s take a look at one approach.
Primary: By the end of this lesson, learners will be better able to write proximal SMART goals.
Secondary: By the end of this lesson, learners will be better able to use note taking as a listening strategy in extended listening texts in which key information is important.
- Board SMART goals and elicit from learners what the letters represent. If you have not done SMART goals with your learners before, it could be a good idea to watch the video and get them to think about what their SMART goal would be for the entire school year. If you have done SMART goals previously, this is great time for learners to share what their SMART goals are.
- Provide learners with this worksheet and explain that they are going to listen to Sergio* talking about the previous term’s progress (Part 1 of the worksheet). Ensure that learners understand each of the sections and what they mean – I found that have improved and still need to improve caused some confusion with B1 learners.
- Play the audio* once, and have learners fill in the missing information. A great real-life skill and listening strategy that is being developed here is note taking, so ensure that learners understand that there is a lot of information, more than one correct answer, and so they will need to take plenty of notes. Developing this strategy is important, so try eliciting what good note taking involves (key words, main ideas, shorthand for some people, etc.).
- Once learners have listened once, provide learners with time to compare their notes. From here, play the recording a second time. If learners are having no issues, let is play through a second time so they can confirm their understanding. If learners are struggling, try pause listening, i.e. pausing after a certain amount of time (I’d suggest each segment) and providing learners time to discuss what they heard before writing their notes – do this for the whole text.
- Once finished, have learners confirm final details together, then ask for answers, clarifying points where necessary. Ask learners to reflect on their note taking – were they successful in catching all of the important information? Did they write enough or too much? What could be the negatives and positives of this strategy in exam listening? What about real-life uses?
- From here, draw learners’ attention to Part 2, and get them to brainstorm what they believe Sergio’s* SMART goal could be and why.
- Play audio* and have learners check their predictions against what they heard. Again, this is a note taking activity, with a lot of information – ensure that learners are aware of this. After listening twice (if needed), confirm their answers, and get them to analyse Sergio’s* example with the following questions:
- Are each of the goal sections specific enough?
- Are they clear?
- Do you think this is an appropriate goal for Sergio*? Why?
- From here, learners are then given another copy of the worksheet, however this time they complete Part 1 individually then compare with their partner. Part 2 can be done collaboratively or individually. If done individually, learners should then analyse each other’s SMART goals to ensure they are clear and specific.
Note: (*) indicates where you can change information. I created this lesson and the audio, worksheet, etc. for my class and context. Feel free to change everything so that it is as relevant as possible to your learners and teaching context. If you do use the audios, please be aware that they are certainly not perfect (audio quality is not the best and I mumble at certain times). I love creating materials for my classes, however making them perfect is still something I’m working on!
If you’re working online, pretty much everything is the same, however you might like to use this editable PDF of the worksheet.
Like I said before, feel free to change everything, but if you do want to use the audio files, here are the answers.
This lesson is a great follow-on from learner interview, i.e. where teachers sit down with learners individually and go through their exam results, how they feel about the term, their worries and doubts, etc. I did this at the end of this term, however it could easily be done as first or second lesson in the final term. In trying to keep goal maintenance a priority, I laminate my learners’ goals and put them on the wall – this way you can refer to them as the term progresses.
You might be wondering why I chose to make a listening out of the SMART goal activity, rather than going straight into getting learners to reflect on their progress and writing their own. The reason behind this was two-fold. The first – I have identified that listening for key information is a weakness in my B1 and B2 classes, and it is something that learners have expressed interest in developing. The second – by providing learners with an example of how deep and specific to go, it provides them with a guide on how to be successful, a model of sorts.
Perhaps your learners need to focus on other skills or systems, and so perhaps this lesson as it is might not be as suitable as it could be. This lesson can easily be adapted to focus on reading or speaking, or perhaps with a little more work, certain grammatical features (e.g. present perfect simple or future forms).
Goal setting should be in your curriculum. Both for learners and teachers. This lesson is one way in which you could incorporate further goal setting throughout the year, ideally doing this every term with a new set of proximal goals being developed each time. This being said, I would love to hear how you as teachers get your learners to set and maintain goals, stay motivated and on track, so please feel free to leave a comment!
Dörney, Z. (2001). Teaching and Researching Motivation. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.
Harmer, J. (2001). The Practice of English Language Teaching – Third Edition. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.
Hartshorne, J. K., Tenenbaum, J. B., & Pinker, S. (2018). A critical period for second language acquisition: Evidence from 2/3 million English speakers. Cognition, 177, 263–277. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2018.04.007