The Importance of Setting Goals as an Adult Learner

Setting goals and keeping them top of mind as you return to school will keep you on track toward graduation. Here’s how to move forward with purpose.

As an adult learner, keeping a steady focus on your goals is crucial for staying motivated. Not feeling up to studying? Dreading that paper you have to write? We’ve all been there. But remembering your why—the reasons for and rewards of earning your degree—can drive you past those inevitable challenges. Clear, achievable goals can also help you prioritize your to-do list as you balance school, work, and life, increasing your likelihood of staying the course through graduation.  

Here are some tips for keeping your eyes on the prize.

Define what matters

If you’ve ever had to set quarterly objectives at work but then realized that you find your job boring or unfulfilling, you know how futile it is to set short-term goals that don’t align with your personal mission or values. So before you begin defining specific goals for the week, semester, or even year, think about your overarching purpose. Here some reflection questions to get you thinking about the bigger picture:

  • What matters most to you when you think about life, career, and education?
  • What would make those areas of your life feel most fulfilling and meaningful?
  • Where—or who—would you like to be in 1, 5, or 10 years?

It can be challenging to think so broadly about what you stand for or what you want in life, but reflecting on your core values and mission will assure that you’re creating the right goals. And when things get tough, knowing these underlying reasons for your goals can motivate you to keep moving forward.



Whether you’re thinking about short- or long-term objectives, make your goals SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time bound.


Avoid vague objectives; clearly define what you want to accomplish, how or when you’ll reach that goal, and why it’s important to you.

  • Vague: I want to be a better student.
  • Specific: By the end of the semester, I want to implement a system of learning strategies  that work best for me so that I can improve my GPA, broaden my knowledge, and complete my degree.

You should be able to say whether you’ve accomplished your goal. For example, if you want to determine which learning strategies are most effective for you, you can assess that through your grades: if they’ve increased after you’ve tried a new learning strategy, then you know that tactic is working.


Your goal should be something realistic given what you can control, such as your attitude and resources. But don’t underestimate what you can achieve, either! For example, if you’re struggling in a math class, setting a goal of an A+ on your next test is less realistic than improving your grade by a half or full letter grade.


Make sure that your goals align with your values. If your larger goals are to improve your GPA, broaden your knowledge, and complete your degree, then a smaller goal of implementing new learning strategies to determine what works best for you is going to feel worthwhile and make you more likely to succeed.

Time bound

Set a deadline for your goal, such as today, by the end of the semester, or within the next year.


From ends to means

Break down each SMART goal into actionable steps. Make sure you can complete those steps during the time frame you’ve set out for yourself. Here’s just one example:

SMART goal: Save enough money by the end of the year to pay for three semesters of community college.

Action 1: Convert paychecks to direct deposit to my savings account.

Action 2: Reserve 10% of each paycheck for college.

Action 3: Record the amount I’ve spent on all purchases to determine which items are essential and which are not.

Action 4: Cancel unnecessary subscriptions.

Action 5: Limit eating out to one day a week.


Track your progress

Write down your goals. You can even turn your actionable steps into a to-do checklist. Then, set reminders in your calendar or planner to revisit your goals and actions so you can make sure you’re maintaining progress. And when you’ve checked something off your list or reached your goal, reward yourself! This will help inspire you to keep going.


Don’t give up

If things aren’t going perfectly, don’t beat yourself up! Remember, goal setting and getting are actually just part of your larger growth process

So say your goal is to get a B on your next chemistry test. Your action items included visiting office hours three times and studying half an hour a day for two weeks before the exam. But when you get your grade back, it’s a C. Don’t stress out! The grade is simply your measurement for whether your action items and overall approach are working. You may need to tweak your action steps—such as how, when, or where you’re studying—to improve your results. 

By keeping track of your wins and setbacks, you can get a better sense of how to adapt so you can more likely achieve your goals. By monitoring your progress, you may also find that you need to assess whether your goals are actually still the right ones. For instance, you may encounter obstacles beyond your control that prevent you from achieving your goals. If so, you may need to consider whether a new goal should be focused on overcoming that barrier.


The benefits of goal setting

Goals can be difficult to define and pursue, but they’re such an important part of your success story. By breaking goals down into actionable steps and then tracking your progress, you’ll establish accountability and develop a better sense of what’s realistic given your situation and resources. Setting clear goals helps you improve your decision-making skills because you learn what to prioritize as you consider everyday and long-term tasks. And ultimately, goals remind you why you’re doing something, so you’ll have a clearer sense of direction and be able to tackle tasks with less stress and greater confidence.


Need help setting and achieving your goals?

ReUp Success Coaches are here to help you create realistic plans when it comes to school, career, and life! If you’d like tailored guidance on defining and pursuing the goals that matter most to you, your support team is available by phone, text, or email. Ready to get started?