Goal Setting and Tracking in Academic Settings

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As usual, summer proved very busy and left me little time to write.  A new intake process for new personnel has meant fall is as well.  Thus, I’ve been absent, but not idle.  Improvements to my goal setting and tracking have yielded some great results.  My progress towards graduate school has been advanced by three classes – Labor Economics was improved to an A, Statistics is on track to be improved to an A, and Economic Research is on the fence.  We’ll see where it ultimately lands.  However, after 3 failed attempts to complete the class, I’m on track to this time.  Work presented challenges as always, but I overcame them this time.

Goal Setting & Tracking

The big thing that has made the last two terms so effective is improvements in my goal setting and tracking my progress towards it.  My goals have been very specific – nothing less than an A or A- in a class.  And I’ve been using a grade tracker to see how my grades on each assignment move me closer to or farther from my goal.  I’ll go into exactly how this works below.

Choose a Good App

I’m an Apple user, so I use Grades as my tracker on my phone.  I use my phone because I don’t work in the same location all the time – when I’m at work I need my tracker handy.  If you work at a desk in your dorm or home regularly, it may make more sense to put your tracker on your computer.  Regardless of which app store you are shopping around, there are a large number of grade trackers on offer.  When I was shopping for mine I was looking for a few different things:

  • The ability to set a goal grade by point value, not letter value
  • Splitting up classes by term to keep the list on active classes
  • Option to import the class grading scheme – this solves the weighted grade problem for you
  • The ability to record grades for assignments by point, not letter value

Grades did all this for me, and the price wasn’t bad.  So that is my app.  The downfall is that you can’t name your assignments.  You get “Quiz 1, Quiz 2…” for all your quizzes, for example.  That’s a limitation I can live with, but if you can’t, look for a more flexible application.

Why Point Values?

There’s a very simple reason that I say you want to track by point values, not letter grades:  You can’t track what you can’t quantify.

My goal is tracking the final grade in my class.  Using points instead of letters gives you a more nuanced tracking system.  You might not need an A on every assignment.  But a B, on average, encompasses everything from an 89% to an 80%.  If you need to maintain an 86% on all your remaining assignments to earn your A, then tracking by B could lead you down the wrong road.  If you have 82%’s on all your remaining assignments you’d still get a B on them all, but you wouldn’t meet your goal.  So set a point goal for your final letter grade (95 if you want an A, 90 if you want an A-) and track assignments by points so that you see the most accurate estimate of where you are.

The Value of Knowing Exactly Where You Stand

The ugly truth about being a student – especially a non-traditional student – is that you only have so much effort to put forward towards achieving your goals.  There are always limitations constraining you:  limited time, limited energy, limited internet access are all ones I run into.

The beauty of tracking by points is that you know exactly where you stand at any minute.  For example, I know that my quizzes in statistics are only 10% of my final grade.  If you’ve had a strong term so far you might see a situation like what I currently have:  I need an 83% on all my remaining assignments to get a 90 in the course.  If I want a 95 then I need a 91% on all remaining assignments.  That means at the 90 goal level, I have some breathing room.  Quizzes aren’t worth as much as all the rest of the course.  If I need to miss one because I just don’t have time to complete everything, I can sacrifice a quiz.  It raises how much I need to earn the rest of term – in this example from an 83% to an 85%.

How Much Breathing Room Do You  Need?

The important thing is that I still have breathing room in that scenario.  It’s a disaster when I have to be perfect to stay on my goal.  That means I’m severely off track and the odds of not achieving my target grade are high.  Your own tolerance for risk and uncertainty play at what an acceptable amount of breathing room is.  I try to be as perfect as possible for the first half of a term, to sort of pad myself.  Then I see where I am.  Usually if I only need B’s to stay on track, I’m doing well.  I’m worried when I need over a 90% to earn my target.  That means it’s time to buckle down and get back to perfect for a while.  It’s possible that I’d need to be perfect for the rest of the term.

When to Worry

In contrast to my Statistics class, I need a 94% on everything left in Economic Research to get a 90 there.  That has me worried.  My research paper is the biggest part of my grade.  And I need a 94% on it and everything else to get an A.  How did I get there?  A couple late assignments and a couple missed assignments.  A hard couple weeks at work severely restricted my ability to get stuff done for that class.  This is what I mean about limitations.  The sad truth is that sometimes your best isn’t good enough, or circumstances make giving your best impossible.  Decide if the result is something you can live with.  In my situation, how will missing this A affect my goal of a 3.8 GPA?  If you can live with it, move on.  If you can’t, go back and try again.  Yes it takes more time.  Yes it takes more money.  There are always costs to a goal.  If that goal is important, commit to making it work no matter what life throws at you.

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