SMART Goals for Gifted Students

By Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., author of Self-Regulation in the Classroom: Helping Students Learn How to Learn
Part of our Cash in on Learning series by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. Click to read other Cash in on Learning posts.

SMART Goals for Gifted StudentsIt’s that time of year! Many of us will be making those New Year’s resolutions to drop some weight, increase exercise, limit chocolate, or read more books. Often, we fall short of these goals by mid-January, mainly due to the quality and nature of the goal. Many factors influence goal attainment, from the difficulty of the tasks to social supports to—in the case of student goals—orientation toward learning.

When working with students, what’s most important in the goal-setting process is the level of commitment the student has toward the goal. As I stated in Self-Regulation in the Classroom, “Achievement is most positively affected by students and teachers setting challenging goals that are relevant to the students’ level of abilities and achievement.” Psychologists Robert Wood and Edwin Locke found that students who set the most challenging (yet achievable) goals out-performed their peers who set easier goals by over 250 percent!

Some gifted students may not have been challenged in the past to the degree where they had to put forth effort, or they may feel their giftedness hinges on their ability to be fast and right. Students with this kind of learning orientation (called performance approach) set goals based on being better than others. These learners use the learning process for positive reinforcement of their abilities and may only put forth effort on tasks where they are assured a positive outcome. This orientation may be harmful when it comes time to work on unfamiliar or challenging tasks.

Ideal Self Goal
To move gifted students from a performance-approach orientation (goal setting based on being better than others) to a mastery-approach one (goal setting based on personal best), consider having your students first set what is called an “ideal self goal.” This is a goal that reflects the type of person they would like to be in their lives. Typically, this includes a set of characteristics or qualities they are committed to achieving, such as:

  • compassionate
  • creative
  • dedicated
  • dependable
  • giving
  • kind
  • loyal
  • sensitive
  • trustworthy

Once students decide on their ideal self goals, they can begin to set learning goals to achieve their ideal selves. The quality of the goals students set prior to the learning activities will have a profound effect on their motivation to learn. Quality goals motivate learners to:

  • Focus attention toward relevant tasks to achieve the goal
  • Exert effort in the right places
  • Persist when things get difficult
  • Achieve a higher degree of self-satisfaction in learning

One of the most effective tools for setting quality learning goals is the SMARTS/S goals framework. We’ve all heard of SMART goals. I’ve made an adjustment to the framework to include “strategies to success” (S/S):
S = Specific. The more specific the goal is, the more likely the student will be able to achieve it.
M = Measurable. Knowing how to measure the goal (the criteria for achievement) provides the learner with ways to track progress.
A = Achievable. The self-efficacy of the student’s skill level and ability can support him or her when things get tough.
R = Realistic. The goal should be neither too high nor too low; it needs to hit the “Goldilocks principle”—just right.
T = Timely. The same Goldilocks principle applies here as well—neither too long nor too short of a timeline to measure accomplishment.
S/S = Strategies to Success. Knowing which strategies to use and when is crucial to the achievement of a learning goal. (More about this below.)

Strategies to Success
Having a clear understanding of the strategies (discrete conscious actions) that develop into skills (automaticity) helps in dealing with complex problems. Typically, young gifted students learn strategies quickly, without a great deal of repetition or practice. Many teachers may see students’ rapid efficiency with individual strategies as evidence of skill development. However, without knowing how the strategy can be refined through multiple practices, or having multiple strategies to rely on, students may stumble when issues become more complex or sophisticated in later grades. Skilled learners are those who can quickly refine strategies or pull from multiple strategies to achieve a successful outcome.

Teachers can support gifted students in setting quality goals by:

  • Helping them identify the kind of person they want to be (the ideal self)
  • Keeping them aware of the strategies and skills they’re developing to achieve the ideal self
  • Providing effective feedback on goal attainment

The importance of goal setting is to develop greater intrinsic motivation toward mastery and learning. Students who set goals tend to be more self-energized, motivated, and directed toward being successful. With each goal attainment, students develop greater self-efficacy and confidence. Our New Year’s resolution should be to assist our students in setting, monitoring, and reviewing goals toward their individual successes. For more ideas on the goal setting process, see Self-Regulation in the Classroom: Helping Students Learn How to Learn.


  1. Cash, R.M. Self-Regulation in the Classroom: Helping Students Learn How to Learn. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing, 2016.
  2. Wood, R.E., and E.A. Locke. “The Relation of Self-Efficacy and Grade Goals to Academic Performance.” Educational and Psychological Measurement, 47, no.4 (1987): 1013–1024
  3. Schunk, D.H., and B.J. Zimmerman (eds.). Motivation and Self-Regulated Learning: Theory, Research, and Applications. New York: Routledge, 2008.
  4. Hattie, J.Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. New York: Routledge, 2009.

Richard CashRichard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit Publishing. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally.

Free Spirit books by Richard Cash:

Self-regulation Advancing Differentiation Revised and Updated Edition Differentiation for Gifted Learners

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About Richard M. Cash, Ed.D.

Writes the "Cash in on Learning" post series for Free Spirit Publishing.
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