Improving Academic Performance

Want to Do Better in School? Develop Plans, Set Specific Goals, and Monitor Progress

Posted by Mark Skoskiewicz on Sat, Nov 25, 2017 @ 10:19 AM



It is natural to believe that most successful students either have an above average IQ or work very hard, or both. This is an almost universally accepted perspective. But I think it misses the mark by quite a bit.  Students often succeed because of the choices they make and the actions they take. In other words, they succeed because of the strategies they employ.

To learn more about the notion of success coming from “what you do” and not “who you are” check out this Harvard Business Review article by Heidi Grant Halvorson.

In this article, we’ll describe three basic strategies for improving performance in school.

  • Set specific goals
  • Build a plan
  • Monitor progress and adjust

Set Specific Goals

The more specific the goal, the better. Why? Because the more specific the goal, the clearer idea you’ll have in your head about what it means to reach it, and thus the better positioned you’ll be to plan out the steps required to achieve it. In other words, the more specific the goal, the more likely it is that you can develop a good plan of attack.

Let’s use a simple example. You worked reasonably hard but got a C in your math class first semester, and your goal is to do better in the next semester. If you leave it at that, a C+ might represent meeting your goal, because that’s better than the “C.” The plan required to get a C+ vs. an A will be very different. That might seem obviously, but many people set the goal of “doing better in class” but really do wish they could get an A. They might be afraid to set a goal of getting an A, because they are worried they might fail. However, once you set that specific goal, you are ready acknowledge the steps you’ll have to take to get there. You are ready to develop a plan.

Develop Plans

When people are planning evenings out with their friends or events like birthday parties, etc. they find it natural to plan. They’ll make reservations, get feedback on restaurants, etc. and develop an outline of how the night will go.

But for whatever reason, this is not the natural way that many people approach school. Perhaps it’s because teachers assign homework and announce timing for quizzes and tests, so the whole experience of going to school feels very structured and planned out for you. Although some specific classes are structured such that everything is planned out for you, it is a mistake to think that school in general doesn’t require a lot of planning on the part of a student who wants to be particularly successful. Success in school is about much more than working hard.

So, what does it really mean to develop a plan in the context of performing well in school?

Well, you can and should plan on multiple levels and these plans should be tied to your goals (see the previous section). You should have a high-level plan for how you approach high school or college (what types of classes will you take, what activities will you pursue, etc.), plans for each year, plans for each course (when will you study for the course, how will you get help, etc.), plans for upcoming tests (i.e., what material will you review, how long will you study, when will you study, etc.) and even plans for how you’ll complete your homework on any given night.

Here’s an example of how to think about developing a college admissions plan.

Monitor progress and adjust

Once you’ve set a goal and mapped out a plan for achieving it, you need to develop a way to measure your progress. In the context of school, that should not need to be a difficult task.

If you are in high school, many classes have many homework assignments, quizzes, and tests. So, a simple strategy is to just schedule the time to prepare for and complete all of these to the best of your ability, and then be honest about whether you are on track to meet your goal or not. If your goal is to get an A, you need to, obviously, get an A on a clear majority of these assignments. If you are missing half of the problems on your homework, you are not on track to get 95% of them correct on the next test.

So, if you missed a day of class, and are sitting down to do your homework and are finding it particularly difficult, this probably means you are starting to fall behind. Don’t ignore this feedback. Similarly, if you bomb a relatively inconsequential quiz, don’t just tell yourself that it wasn’t worth too many points and doesn’t matter. If you are not understanding certain material in the class, this could start compounding into a situation where you are very far behind, and in danger of doing poorly on an important test, midterm, or final.


One common term you may have heard about as it relates to goals is that they should be SMART. Or, Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, and Timebound. In this article, we’ve covered what it means to be specific, and of course to monitor progress, a goal must be “measurable,” which we also covered. A good goal is also actionable, meaning you can envision what to do to go after it. If you think about it, if a goal isn’t actionable, you’d have a hard time developing a plan of attack for achieving it. So, that ties in to our section on developing plans.

A good goal is also realistic, meaning it’s something you really could achieve if you work at it. Finally, it needs to be timebound, meaning that you set a specific time by when you plan to have reached the goal. Here’s a good article on SMART goals.

If you follow the simple three step process of setting specific goals, developing plans, and monitoring your progress, you’ll be on your way to better performance in school.