High School Juniors, Forget Fuzzy Goals!

by Jackie Stachel

Attention, high school juniors! I know, I know, if you hear one more time how important this year is to, like, your entire future, you are going to SCREAM. Rather than pile on more admonishments, I’d like to focus on helping you accomplish your goals for the school year.

Listing your goals is one step in getting yourself organized.

So, what are your goals? Something like “survive junior year”, right? That’s certainly attainable, but it doesn’t guide your actions much. To set effective goals, keep in mind the process that helps you achieve your objectives and break it down into small, workable chunks. Let’s look at a typical student’s goal (we’ll call her Dana): “Get a B+ or above in all classes.” Admirable. Sensible. Yet fuzzy about exactly how it gets accomplished. And because it’s vague, the likelihood of reaching that goal is slim. As an academic coach, I help students figure out how to attain their goals by developing a specific process, and help them stick with that process.

First, I’d ask Dana what she thinks needs to happen in order to get a B+ or better across the board. She may list things like:

  • Complete all homework on time
  • Do well on projects and other long-term assignments
  • Do well on tests
  • Participate in class

So far, so good. Next, I’d ask her to look carefully at each of those components and assess her track record on them. She may identify a consistent strength in class participation, and provide evidence from teacher comments to support her assessment. Great! We’ll look at that as a skill that is well established and needs no particular focus, other than to maintain her existing approach.

Don’t just assess your problem areas, find the right tools to help you solve them day-to-day!

Then we’ll dig deeper to the problem areas. Dana reveals that she is a last minute, panic-driven worker. She tells me about staying up until 3:30am the day before an English essay was due and getting a history project knocked down a grade because she turned it in a day late. Well aware that this pattern is a path to ongoing misery, Dana is ready to change how she uses her time (she just doesn’t want to hear her mom say “I told you so!”). Further discussion identifies a big source of Dana’s time crunch: online distractions such as Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram. Here’s where I help her to both set some process goals and choose tools that can help. For Dana’s time management difficulties, those goals may look like this:

  • Install Self Control on laptop and put all distracting sites on the blocked list.
  • Use Self Control app when working, every time.
  • Start homework by 6:30pm Mon-Thurs. Start weekend homework Sunday morning at 10:00am.

These goals take care of the day-to-day assignments. But what about those longer term projects that creep up and bite her? That calls for looking at the bigger picture of Dana’s time management process, and setting goals to address that:

  • Set up and maintain Google calendar on laptop and phone. Insert all ongoing time commitments, such as class time, after school sports, part-time job, volunteering, and SAT prep classes. Next, add in dedicated homework time for each day of the week.
  • Add in an ongoing reminder for Sundays to plan the week ahead. Here’s when Dana will look at syllabi for classes, social events, and other commitments to figure out what she can fit into her week, and when to do it. Thirty notecards for research paper due Thursday? Well, that means planning some library time Monday during study hall to find primary sources and other print media, and setting aside work time Tuesday for 15 cards and Wednesday for another 15.

With process goals for time management addressed, next we’d look at Dana’s other problem zone: tests. She says that even though she “looks over her notes”, she often doesn’t perform as well as she’d like to on quizzes and tests. We’d look at the following process goals for study skills:

  • Learn and use 2-column note-taking, which creates an ongoing study guide for both readings and class lectures. Dana will use the question prompts she creates or topic headings in the left column to quiz herself on detailed content in the right column. (This is active and effective studying, whereas just passively looking at notes does not engage the brain sufficiently, which could explain why Dana is having trouble with tests.)
  • Dana will set aside work time to consistently use this self-quizzing approach with her class notes, after at least every other class.
  • When preparing for an essay test, Dana will “think like the teacher” and use clues from class notes and readings to make an educated guess on the prompts, and complete outlines that answer those prompts.
  • Dana will plan on meeting with her teachers 1:1 prior to tests, to clarify information and ask, “How do you suggest I can best prepare for this test?”

Now that Dana has her trouble areas addressed with specific, achievable, process-oriented goals, she’s building the foundation for getting the grades she wants for her junior year and beyond. I’ll be helping her stay focused on her priorities, assessing how those apps are working for her, teaching her how to tweak study approaches for each subject, and providing a gentle nudge if the good habits start to slip. I just won’t follow her on Twitter.

 Jackie Stachel, MS CCC-SLP is the Director of Public Relations and a senior level Executive Function coach for Beyond BookSmart. She is also a certified Speech-Language Pathologist.

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