Faculty Club / Student Engagement / A Step-By-Step Guide for Helping Students Set SMART Goals

A Step-By-Step Guide for Helping Students Set SMART Goals

Dr. Andrea Woodson-Smith spends a semester on SMART goals and vision boards to show her kinesiology students how to get what they want in life.

Dr. Andrea Woodson-Smith spends a semester on SMART goals and vision boards to show her kinesiology students how to get what they want in life.

Andrea Woodson-Smith, PhD


Associate Professor of Kinesiology and Recreation Administration,
North Carolina Central University in Durham, North Carolina

PhD in Kinesiology with a concentration in Adapted Physical Education, MS in Physical Education with a concentration in adapted physical education, BS in Kinesiology

Dr. Andrea Woodson-Smith knows what it means to have a Plan B. During her college basketball career, an in-game collision left her with damage to her hip and spine that limits her mobility to this day. Rather than giving up, she switched to wheelchair basketball, earning multiple medals in the sport, including the Gold in the 2011 Parapan American Games.

Today, as an associate professor at North Carolina Central University in Durham, Woodson-Smith wants her students to have the skills to shift gears as needed, too. So, instead of teaching only about the human movement system in her kinesiology courses, Introduction to Physical Education and Adapted Physical Education, she also explains an evidence-based system for setting and achieving goals. This has blossomed into a semester-long project that emphasizes SMART principles for setting goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely.

“I do this project for students to have a clear picture of career choices,” Woodson-Smith says. “Many of [my] students do not realize how difficult it is to get into graduate school or doctoral school, and they do not understand the importance of what to do in order to obtain the career position afterwards.”

Below, she shares her strategies for helping students create a Plan A and Plan B so they can get from point A to point B and, ultimately, to the career of their dreams.

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“I have a lot of students who want to help people. They want to be that mentor for younger children or athletes. When teaching these students, I have to make them see the difference between a counselor or psychological therapist and those who work physically with athletes or patients.”
-Andrea Woodson-Smith, PhD

Course: PEDU 4110 Kinesiology

Course description: An investigative analysis of human motion and application of anatomical, physiological, and mechanical principles to prescription for improving performance of motor skills.

Woodson-Smith’s steps to goal-setting success

Woodson-Smith recently explained her methodical approach to helping students devise a path forward in their professional lives.

Make students study their degree-completion checklist

At the beginning of the semester, Woodson-Smith presents students with a degree checklist. “We review their program curriculum, semester by semester. I have the students look at the GPAs needed by each semester, as well as the courses they will take each semester and the learning objectives for these courses,” she says. Students also complete a self-efficacy document. This shows them the skills and areas within their life in which they may want to improve. “Specifically, we focus on skills that will assist them in their intended field,” she says.

Ask for their goal—before teaching them how to write one

Next, Woodson-Smith has the students write down their professional goal, as they see it today. “I do this to determine whether they have all of the necessary components,” she says. SMART goals, she explains, are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely. Typically, at least one of these is missing from students’ initial goals. Midway through the semester, Woodson-Smith revisits that original goal—this time, providing guidance on putting the SMART principles to use (see sidebar).

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Make them do some detective work in the real world

Woodson-Smith wants students to think about all of the careers open to them. “They may have a general idea of what profession they want to go into but haven’t really ventured into what other careers exist within that field,” she says.

Textbooks often give an overview of careers, but the picture is rarely complete or detailed. That is one reason Woodson-Smith requires that students interview a professional within their field. She also has them complete a “discipline project,” which requires them to research practical details such as salary (nationally, locally, and in the location where they hope to work) as well as what is required for that position (license, certification, graduate school, etc.).

Finally, she has students look at the different levels within their discipline and consider what ranking they aspire to, as different positions may require different levels of expertise.

Introduce students to the idea of secondary careers

“Primary careers are those that are their main funding and time source,” explains Woodson-Smith. “However, I always preach about secondary careers that can bring in additional financial resources, as well as hobby-like careers.” Most of the secondary careers in the exercise-science field can be pursued by obtaining an additional certification, she adds. “The primary careers [in my field] are physical therapist, occupational therapist, physician assistant, physical education teacher, athletic trainer, and strength and conditioning coach. The secondary careers are personal trainer, sports classifier for adapted sports, official (referee), substitute teacher, and coach, just to name a few.”

Use peer evaluations and assessments to help refine the goal

As they write their goals, Woodson-Smith has students engage in peer evaluations. “The students have to pose questions to assist their peer in thinking of the bigger picture and the specifics,” she says. For example, most of her students want to become physical therapists. However, they do not think about what population they want to serve, what part of the body will be their emphasis, and where they want to work (at a school, clinic, military base, etc.). “As they revise their goal, according to the questions their peer asks, this helps them to begin to write a broad yet specific goal following the SMART principle,” she says

Once students refine their goal, Woodson-Smith encourages a top-down approach to test the goal’s strength. To do this, she encourages them to think first about its achievement: How will they know if they hit the mark? “If a goal is written correctly, then they will be able to determine very easily whether or not they can assess it and also how to assess it,” she says. “Usually when we begin, this part is missing.”

Ask for a step-by-step action plan—in vision-board form

When Woodson-Smith is satisfied with the student’s SMART goal, she explains how to develop an action plan. “We divide it into appropriate objectives and benchmarks, including all components within an objective,” she says. “I try to have them complete [the initial plan] by mid-March, prior to [Fall course] registration.”

The final piece of the project is the creation of a vision board. “The vision board should visually show their action plan, well designed and laid out as a road to success,” she says. Woodson-Smith provides the trifold board and asks for a rough layout of what students intend to put on it before they do the actual gluing. The board must include the student’s name, SMART goals, a personal photo, and a clear action plan, depicted in imagery and text.

Remind them of Plan B and Plan C before course registration

Each month throughout the semester, Woodson-Smith has students work on developing a Plan B and Plan C. “We discuss what career they can go into if Plan A does not work—and the point at which they should make that change within their curriculum,” she says. This means reviewing both their current degree checklist and those of related programs.

For example, switching majors may not be as difficult in the first two years of college, provided that Plan B and Plan A share the same foundational courses. She also discusses the requirements for graduate school and what majors and minors will set them up for their master’s level, even if they decide to take a small detour. All of this helps students see the many options available, so they can always feel positive and stay focused on their progress and prospects.

“My hopes,” Woodson-Smith says, “are that students will continue to follow through and revise and edit their goals and action plans as they matriculate through their academic career—and hopefully utilize these same skills post–higher education into their profession. Most of my students will have to write goals and objectives for other clients, students, patients. This practice will allow them to easily develop future plans. To paraphrase, ‘A goal is just a wish without SMART and an action plan to follow.’”

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