How To Set Online Learning Goals You’ll Actually Achieve

by | Jun 3, 2021

Goal setting is not a new concept. You probably have a few of them floating around in your brain right now. Save for a car. Graduate from college. Spend less than five hours a day on TikTok.

Setting goals is easy. Achieving goals? Not so much. According to one study, only about 8% of people who make a New Year’s resolution actually keep it. The most common day those resolutions have been thrown out the window? January 19.

Setting big, lofty, life-altering goals sounds good at the moment, but they are incredibly difficult to stick to. Often they are too broad, hard to measure, and sometimes not even feasible. That’s why the S.M.A.R.T strategy for goal-setting is so important.

Find A Goal That Matters To You

Before we get into breaking down your goals into achievable steps, make sure you have a goal that is truly important to you. Not your parents. Not your best friend. It is something that you really want to make happen for you.

There will be some rough spots as you work towards your goals. There are going to be times when you want to be like the 92% of people who made resolutions. But when you start with something you deeply care about, it will be much easier to work through those roadblocks.

Making Your Goals Smart

The SMART acronym for goal setting started with a 1981 article by George T. Duran. Some of the specifics have evolved over the years, and various thought-leaders have added letters (see SMARTER) to the mnemonic. Here’s the concept broken down for online learners.


You want to make your goal as specific as possible. Not specific: Getting good grades. Specific: Earning an A in every class my senior year. When you are thinking about making your goals specific, be sure you can answer the five Ws:

  • Who: Who can help me to achieve this goal? Is this something that you will need to tackle yourself or can you bring in help from your instructor or your study group?
  • What: What am I actually trying to accomplish? You may want to learn a new language, but what does that actually mean to you? Do you want to be fluent, or do you just want to know enough Spanish to make your way around Costa Rica during a study abroad trip?
  • When: When do I want to achieve this goal? We’ll cover this more in the time-bound section, but understand if this is something that needs to be completed in a semester or might be a longer-term goal.
  • Where: Is there a location relevant to my goal? If you want to get accepted at a specific college or university, make sure that’s included in your goal.
  • Why: Why am I setting this goal in the first place? Understand what is behind this goal. For example, you want to get good grades so you get scholarships. Answering this question helps you make sure these steps are the best ones to help you reach that end goal.

The more specific you can be, the easier the rest of this exercise will be.


Great goals are able to be measured. This is your opportunity to figure out how you will determine if you were successful. If your goal was “Doing good in school,” someone might think passing the courses would be successful. With a measurable goal, not only is your goal more tangible, but it also helps with setting milestones along the way.

This may look like the number of courses you complete in a certain length of time. It may look like achieving certain grades in a set of courses. That metric is up to you, but it needs to be included in your goal.


As we talked about earlier, it’s easy to set unrealistic and lofty goals. It’s also easy to give up on your goals when they are too big. Breaking down those big goals into smaller, attainable goals makes them more achievable. Not only will you feel more accomplished as you continue to check each one off your list, but before you know it, you’ll have achieved that big goal.

Attainable also takes into account limiting factors, such as finances and time constraints. Sure, you may want to earn your associate degree before you graduate high school. But if you are already a senior, that might not be an attainable goal.


This piece goes back to those W questions you answered back at the beginning. Make sure the goals you set actually help you achieve your larger goals and help you to get to where you want to be.

This also takes into consideration outside factors, such as whether this is the right time to work on this goal. If you want to take a missionary trip to an area that is in the midst of political unrest, you might consider postponing the trip when that country is peaceful again.


Set yourself a timeline for achieving your goal. This will help you determine if you are successful. Without some kind of timeline, it’s easy to look at your goals as something that will happen in the “future.” You don’t want to get 20 years down the road and have that goal still be in the future. Mark it on a calendar and set periodic reminders.

Make Your SMART Goal Visible

Now that you have your goal, make sure you see it often. Write it on a sticky note and put it on your mirror or by your computer monitor. Share it with friends and ask them to check in on your progress every once in a while. Having constant reminders will help you keep your goal front of mind.

By making sure to create goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound, you can create a clear roadmap to your academic success. Just remember, be SMART.

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