Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Setting Goals

"Do you set goals?" my husband asked me this morning as I was getting ready for work.

"Yes, yes I do."

Thinking back, I realise that I have always been a goal-setter. I remember writing my first list of life-goals, more of a bucket list really, when I was about 18. While some goals on that list (I still have it) no longer interest me, when I re-read it every few years, I'm amazed at how much I have already accomplished. 

Around the beginning of each year I often, quite organically, find myself taking stock of where I am - patting myself on the back for achievements and forgiving myself for the failures and short-falls. This mental stocktaking inevitably rolls over into goal-setting for the year ahead. Generally I'll jot down a short list in a notebook and leave it at that. Then over the course of the year I may come across that list and update it, but it's not a task I diarise. Life takes over, January comes around again and I repeat the process. I have at times come across lists that are two or three years old and been surprised at goals I accomplished that I forgot I had set! I find something very satisfying about the act of crossing items off a list!

What has always intrigued me though, was how I was achieving my goals - sometimes without even realising it. Today I read a really useful article on goal-setting that answered my question with simplicity and elegance....

By committing my goals to paper, I had given myself, my subconscious, direction. Of course, Donohue goes on to talk about how we need to do more that write down our goals and forget about them (as I have been doing) and he offers some excellent practical advice on how to go about making the most of this activity. Notably, he talks about setting distinct goals for six key areas in your life; Family & home, finance & career, spiritual & ethical, physical & health, social & cultural, mental & educational. I think it's interesting how we forget that goal-setting really should apply to all areas of life. 

In academia we set goals for each project we do - we call them aims. Most of us wouldn't dream of embarking on a project without a very clear list of aims and objectives. In fact, setting aims and objectives is usually a gate-keeping activity - without them, no research or funding proposal would ever be approved. So, if we know how important they are to the success of a project, why do we struggle to see how important they are to the success of our lives? And, why are we not talking to our students about this?

The more I think about it, the more I realise that setting goals has particular relevance for students. Students are in a very critical phase of development, for the first time they are able to make really diversifying choices about the shape and direction of their lives, yet they often make these choices with very little interrogation. It frustrates me to think that many students (myself included) embark upon a degree with very little thought about what they are going to do when they graduate. At various life stages there are the dreaded questions (When are you handing-in? When are you going to have a baby? When are you going to have another baby?) For many students, I think that dreaded questions is "So, what job are you going to do with that degree?" 

As educators we need to encourage our students to think about their long-term academic and career goals - earlier rather than later. Too many students are pursuing degrees that will not prepare them well for the job they ultimately want - at best leaving them under-prepared for employment and at worst (for those who drop-out) leaving them thousands of rand and several years in debt, without even a piece of paper to show for it. 

If we want our students to be successful, not just with a particular assignment or project, but holistically successful, then we need to talk to our students about the importance of setting goals and teach them the skills of setting good aims and objectives. Not only will this encourage students to engage critically with their aspirations and take ownership of their lives, but it will empower them with tools that will help them to determine direction and cement their focus. 

And the best place to start?

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