Setting goals with the SMART method

This is how it works!

Are you formulating a goal for your research or reflection paper? Then it is important that your goal is SMART. This means: Specific, Measurable, Acceptable, Realistic and Time-bound. By setting your goals for a research project, yourself or your client according to the SMART principles, you make them achievable. This explanation of the SMART method will help you get this right.

Explanation: SMART method

Suppose you formulate the following objective for your research.

The research goal is to find a method by which university students achieve higher grades.

That objective raises all sorts of questions when you look at it critically. What do you mean by 'higher grades'? What kind of method do you want to find: a teaching method or something else? Are you talking about all Dutch university students or a specific group of students?

Since this goal of achieving higher grades is still vague, it is difficult to judge when exactly you have completed it. For example, how much higher than normal do the grades have to be for you to consider this goal met?

The SMART method is designed to make goals more concrete. You do this by making sure the goal meets the five SMART principles:

  1. The goal is Specific: the intended result is concrete and observable.
  2. The goal is Measurable: you can use numbers or other measures to determine whether the goal has been achieved.
  3. The aim is Acceptable: you can substantiate the aim well. It stems from the theoretical framework or analysis, and  you,the client, and your thesis supervisor all support it.
  4. The goal is Realistic: it is feasible for you to achieve this goal within the set timeframe.
  5. The goal is Time-bound: you make it clear which date the goal must be achieved by. SMART goals are often short-term goals, and so the end date is not too far in the future.

Example SMART method

Let's zoom in further on the example objective introduced earlier. We can make it more concrete by rewriting it according to the SMART method. You do that in five steps.

1. Specify the purpose

Make it clear what you want to achieve, who exactly this goal targets, what area you are talking about, when you will work on the goal, and why you want to achieve it.

The example involves psychology students at Utrecht University. You want the students to score higher on their exams for the course statistics. You want to achieve that goal by 1 June 2023. The reason you want to achieve this is that many students currently have to resit the course, and the number of resits is much higher than a few years ago.

2. Make the goal measurable

Once you have narrowed down your focus, you can start to make the goal measurable and operationalize your variables. To do this, link concrete figures, percentages, or other measurable criteria to your goal. Additionally, think about how you can measure whether or not the goal has been achieved.

In this example, you can make the goal measurable by specifying how much higher the grades should be (1 point) and when that must be achieved by. You can measure this by comparing the grades of the statistics exam on 1 June 2023 with those on 1 June the year prior.

3. Make sure the goal is acceptable

First, check that at the very least, you support the goal. Is the goal also backed up by research, the current situation and by the needs at hand? Furthermore, check if your client and thesis supervisor support the goal too.

To go back to the student results example, if you are motivated to improve these students' results and if you believe you have the right skills to do so, it is a strong indicator that you yourself stand behind the goal. The fact that grades are noticibly disappointing at the moment is a good rationale for this survey. Moreover, inquiring with teachers and students reveals that they would like to see the grades go up.

4. Check the feasibility of the goal

Is it realistic to achieve the intended goal within the set time? That's what you check in this step. It is important that the goal is not too easy to achieve, but certainly not unrealistic either.

Make sure it is possible to achieve your goal before your thesis deadline. Creating a plan of action will help you assess the feasibility.

5. Link an end date to the goal

Look at the date you want to finish your research by and make sure the end date  for achieving your objective is before that. This will ensure you have enough time to process your results and write the conclusion and discussion.

For example, you can link the student grade target to the end date of 1 June 2023 if you have to hand in your thesis on 1 July 2023.

All in all, you can arrive at this SMART goal via the five steps:

The research goal is to develop a teaching method for the statistics course at Utrecht University that will allow psychology students to score an average of one point higher on 1 June 2023 than on 1 June 2022.

SMART goals clear? write them down!

Have you formulated your SMART goals and completed your action plan? You can now get to work on your research and, after that, on writing your thesis! Check out our writing tips for some helpful practical guidance.

While writing, do you doubt whether your thesis is correct in terms of language and structure? Don't worry, just keep writing. Our thesis editors will gladly check your thesis for you after you are done.