It’s easy to be a smart virtual learner by simply following a formula you’ve likely been using for years: the SMART goals formula. This framework, often associated with performance goals and annual reviews, is ideally suited to making the most out of your virtual learning opportunities.
SMART is an acronym, and it stands for: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely, and it’s the backbone of performance improvement. There are many ways to follow the SMART approach to learning, but drafting an action plan or worksheet based on the SMART framework will help you stay on track and hold yourself accountable as a learner.
Start with the Specific. Ask yourself two important questions: What exactly did I hope to gain or achieve by attending this learning event? What Specifically do I hope to be able to do (or do better) after this event is over?
When creating your worksheet, write these two Specific questions, and their answers, at the very top. This will keep you focused on the outcome and serve to remind you why you chose to invest your time and energy into that event in the first place. This should define clearly for you why attending this event is important and why it is worth your while. It’s far more like that you’ll commit to participating, and much less likely you’ll get distracted, if you have a specific outcome in mind going into the event.
Now that you know Specifically what you hope to get out of the learning event, it’s time to figure out how you’ll Measure that outcome. To do this, ask another two questions: How will I know that I have learned what I intended to learn? What are some clear benchmarks I can use measure my increase in knowledge, skill, or ability?
It’s usually very easy to Measure new knowledge and skill: I know or can do something I didn’t know or couldn’t do before. But what about measuring improvement in skill or expansion in knowledge? For this, add another item to the Measure section defining what you consider to be your depth of knowledge or level of skill currently, and what you expect it to be once you’re finished. For example: I’m now able to perform X function(s) with Y tool, and after this I should know how to perform Z function(s) with Y tool. Use this intended outcome to guide your questions for the instructor too.
Of course, none of that matters if the intended outcome isn’t Achievable. That’s an important section on the worksheet as well. Add another set of questions asking: Is my intended outcome possible based on what I will learn in this program? Will I have whatever time, support, and resources are necessary to Achieve my goals? In addition, add the why or why not to both of these questions.
Answering these questions serves a dual purpose: It reinforces your commitment to that Specific outcome you identified earlier, while also helping to identify necessities or limitations to Achieving that outcome. This can help you when building a case to justify any possible investments (in time, money, or resources) required to fill an achievability gap.
Now that you know your outcome is Achievable, define why it’s Relevant. This will also help to further support those possible investments you identified in the previous section of your worksheet. For this part, you’ll want to know why this particular learning event matters to you personally or professionally.
Your two questions to ask here will be: How will attending this learning event improve my performance? How will it make me a better contributor to my team or company? There should be some degree of correlation between the answers to these questions and the answer to the Measurable questions, in so far as both will show improvement in knowledge, skills, or ability; but the greater focus with defining the Relevance of learning is in demonstrating how it adds value for you and your organization; how it makes you better at what you do (or hope to do) or how it solves an existing or potential problem.
Finally, to complete the acronym, establish some parameters around Timely. If your SMART worksheet is well designed, this section will tie together all of the others into one nice and neat plan for improvement. Timely will help support the Specific and the Measurable by adding further benchmarks around timeframe. For example: Will I see immediate improvement? Will it take time and practice to achieve my goals? How much time and practice do I estimate it will take?
When defining the timeframe, it becomes easy to see if your outcome is Achievable too, by asking: What potential difficulties or distractions may interfere with achieving my plan for improvement? Timely also adds another level to the idea of Relevance by asking: What will the immediate impact be on myself, my team, and my organization? What will that impact be over the next 30, 60, 90 days and beyond?
This specific framework is merely a suggestion. You may find questions more suited to your needs, or a formula that works better for your way of thinking. The exact form this exercise takes is entirely up to you as an individual learner. The important aspect, regardless of format, is to have a plan for making the most out of your virtual learning opportunities. Because, ultimately, having a plan is just plain SMART!