How to set study goals that accelerate your success

While many students dive into their books with the best of intentions to revise, without clear study goals they aren’t making the best use of their time. Goals are essential in order to make progress with any challenge, and help us to prioritise our time as well as measure our success. I help my students to set their study goals when we get started with tuition, and this is how we decide them.

Motivating teenagers to revise

Ultimately, teenagers aren’t massively different from their parents, except that they haven’t finished developing physically and mentally, and they are in the early days of their independence. And so, like their parents, it is very difficult to make them do something they don’t want to do. The challenge is instead to make them want to do it.

I tend to liken it to my own experience of going out for a run. I hate running. If you feel the same way about this as I do, you’ll be able to relate. But if you’re a fan of running, perhaps a different metaphor will work for you. I hate it, but I know that it’s good for me, mentally and physically, and I know that I will get a lot of benefit from doing it as I have in the past. But I don’t want to run, and so most of the time I don’t. Now when I need to go for a run – my jeans don’t fit anymore or I’m starting to get out of breath walking up the stairs – I know that just saying to myself, “I need to go for a run”, means absolutely nothing and it won’t happen. I need to focus on the reason why I feel that I need to go for a run.

  • I want to wear my favourite jeans.
  • I want to feel healthier.
  • I want to improve my mental health.

Those mean something to me, and those are things I want even if I don’t want to go for a run. So that is where my motivation will come from.

What does success mean for your child?

Students don’t want to sit exams. They don’t want to memorise set texts and definitions. They don’t want to highlight and underline and summarise and mind map piles and piles of information. They want to pass their exams and go on to what comes next. That’s what we need to focus on when we’re setting goals. The goal needs to motivate them, and not daunt them.

This is different for every student, and finding out what that is for your child is what will truly motivate them. Ask them why it is important to them to do well in school. Really ask them to think about what it means to them. You don’t want to hear anything that is about making someone else happy, or impressing someone else, or just ‘doing well’. That doesn’t mean anything. What will it mean for their future happiness if they are able to do well in their exams? If they pass maths and english they can go on to college to study childcare. If they get a 6 in biology they can go on to take it for A level and get into university. If they go to university they can get the job in mechanical engineering that they really want. That means something to them, and if you can get really clear about that for your child, you can keep them motivated through their exams. That is their one big goal.

Building good habits

There are often some quick wins that you can introduce to make the challenge easier. Keeping up with classwork and making good notes in lessons can make a big difference. There’s nothing worse than heading into revision and realising that all you’ve got on a crucial chapter now means nothing to you. Check out this blog on making good study notes.

Set specific study goals

Now that you’ve got a clear motivation for your child, you can break that down into their specific study goals. What grades do they need to get in their exams, and how close are they to achieving them at the moment? What grades did they get in their most recent mock exams? Do they need to go up one or two grades before the final exam? Are there any subjects where they are already at or above target? Set a specific goal for each of their exam subjects and note how close they are to them at the moment.

There’s more to life than exams

Goal setting should apply to more than exams. Does your child have anything else going on this year that they need to spend their time on? This will make it less likely for them to achieve a study goal. If you move the goalposts too far away it will kill their motivation to work towards them.

If your child doesn’t have any goals that aren’t exam focused, this might be a good time to introduce something. I don’t mean they should take on a major hobby that will add to their overwhelm. They should simply enjoy some time away from the books each week. Support them in finding time for something they enjoy, that they are good at. Remind them of who they are and what they are capable of when their confidence for study is dented.

A comfortable stretch

Once you have your child’s goals, rate how achievable they are at the moment. It is OK to have some that are going to be a stretch, but no more than 3. Ideally these would be the most important to them, as they will need the largest slice of their time to achieve. If they need a top grade in a specific subject for their further studies, but are a few grades under at the moment, that is a clear stretch goal. If they are on track for their target grade, what push would help them get closer to their big goal. Make sure that they have realistic, achievable, meaningful goals.

You can get more support on setting study goals and exam preparation in my free revision and exam planning guide at and in the Facebook group.