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Developing Learner Agency With Destinations, Milestones, and Footsteps™

SMART is more than just an acronym for how to set clear, attainable objectives. The truth is, that setting SMART goals is a significant part of learners gaining and maintaining agency and autonomy over their learning. And when combined with the Destinations, Milestones, and Footsteps™ framework I profile in the book Agents to Agency (2023), the combination of the two makes for truly powerful learning quests.

Originally coined in the November 1981 issue of Management Review by George T. Doran, the acronym SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound (Doran, 1981). This framework has been widely adopted as the gold standard of optimal goal setting, ensuring that objectives are clear and reachable within a specific time frame.

Learner agency and autonomy refer to the capacity of learners to take control of their learning processes, make choices, and take actions that affect their educational outcomes and personal growth (Deci & Ryan, 2000). This empowerment is crucial in fostering a love for learning, encouraging self-directed study, and preparing students for the complexities of the modern world.

Integrating SMART goals in developing learner agency and autonomy with the help of Destinations, Milestones, and Footsteps™ guides learners to set realistic and personal benchmarks that lead to meaningful educational experiences.

Destinations, Milestones, and Footsteps™
Understanding SMART Goals

By now, you have probably heard of the term SMART goals. The acronym has a somewhat vague history, but it’s often attributed to George Doran (1981). It consists of five elements which we’ll discuss below. 



Goals should be clear and specific to avoid ambiguity and provide a clear direction. A study by Locke and Latham (2002) on goal setting and motivation underscores the importance of specificity in enhancing performance. For learners, this means setting objectives that are detailed and targeted. For example, rather than aiming to "improve math skills," a more specific goal would be to "increase algebra test scores by 10%."


A measurable goal allows for tracking progress and assessing achievement. The ability to measure progress towards a goal is crucial for motivation and adjustment of strategies, as highlighted by research on the feedback loop in learning (Hattie & Timperley, 2007).

It involves quantifiable indicators that make it possible to gauge progress. In an educational context, this could mean setting a goal to complete a certain number of practice problems each week or reading a specific number of books each month.


Goals must be realistic and attainable to be meaningful. Setting goals that are too lofty can lead to frustration and demotivation, while too easy goals might not push learners enough. 

Achievable goals require assessing one's current abilities and resources and setting a goal that is challenging yet possible to accomplish. Bandura's Social Cognitive Theory discusses the role of self-efficacy in achieving goals (Bandura, 1997).


Relevance ensures that the goal matters to the learner and aligns with broader objectives. The relevance of goals to the learner's interests and future aspirations is key to sustaining engagement (Pink, 2009).

A relevant goal for a student might be tied to their career aspirations, personal interests, or academic requirements. This relevance increases motivation and engagement.


Setting a deadline for goals creates a sense of urgency and helps prioritise tasks. Deadlines can increase focus and efficiency, a principle supported by studies on time management (Covey, 1989). For learners, having a specific timeframe to achieve a goal can help them manage time effectively and maintain focus.

Learner Agency and Autonomy

Learner agency and autonomy are foundational to effective learning. Agency refers to the power of learners to act independently within the learning environment, making choices that reflect personal interests, needs, and goals. Autonomy goes hand in hand with agency, emphasising the learner's capacity to regulate their learning process, from goal setting to self-assessment and reflection.

Research on agency and autonomy indicates that the above factors significantly influence learning outcomes (Zimmerman, 2002). Autonomy-supportive teaching methods have also been linked to higher levels of student motivation and engagement (Reeve, Jang, Carrell, Jeon, & Barch, 2004).

The benefits of developing learner agency and autonomy are manifold. They include increased motivation, improved self-esteem, better problem-solving skills, and deeper learning. When learners feel in control of their educational journey, they are more likely to engage deeply with the material, explore topics of interest, and develop a lifelong love of learning.

Let’s now take a detailed look at how to apply the SMART framework and also use Destinations, Milestones, and Footsteps™ for sustainable and effective learner agency goal-setting.


Applying SMART Goals to Developing Learner Agency and Autonomy

Linking SMART goals to learner agency and autonomy can be transformative. The process of setting personalised, relevant, and challenging goals empowers learners, fostering a proactive approach to their education (Dweck, 2006).

  • Setting Personalised Learning Objectives: SMART goals allow learners to set personalised learning objectives that are relevant to their interests and aspirations. By crafting SMART goals, learners can take ownership of their education by tailoring their learning path to fit their unique needs and desires.

  • Encouraging Self-Reflection: The process of setting and revising SMART goals encourages continuous self-reflection. Learners must evaluate their progress, assess their strengths and weaknesses, and adjust their strategies accordingly. This reflective practice promotes self-awareness and adaptability, key components of agency and autonomy.

  • Enhancing Motivation and Engagement: By setting clear and achievable goals, learners are more likely to be motivated and engaged in their educational pursuits. SMART goals provide a clear roadmap for success, making the learning process more transparent and rewarding. This clarity and sense of achievement can boost confidence and encourage continued learning.

  • Facilitating Time Management and Organisation: The time-bound nature of SMART goals helps learners develop effective time management and organisational skills. By establishing deadlines and prioritising tasks, learners can better manage their workload, reduce stress, and allocate time to both academic and personal interests.

  • Promoting Self-Directed Learning: SMART goals are inherently suited to fostering self-directed learning. By setting their own goals, learners engage in an active, self-determined process. This autonomy in learning encourages exploration, critical thinking, and the development of independent study habits.


Relating SMART Goals to the Destinations, Milestones, and Footsteps™ Framework

The Destinations, Milestones, and Footsteps™ framework is a powerful metaphor for understanding the learning journey. It conceptualises the path to educational and personal growth as a journey towards a Destination, marked by significant Milestones and accomplished through individual Footsteps. 

SMART goals seamlessly integrate into this framework, providing a structured approach to navigating this journey. Here's how they relate.

Destinations: The "Specific" and "Relevant" in SMART Goals

Destinations are the long-term objectives or end goals towards which learners are striving. These are akin to the "Specific" and "Relevant" aspects of SMART goals. 

A Destination must be clearly defined (Specific) so that the learner knows exactly where they are heading, and it must hold significance (Relevant) to the learner's personal aspirations, interests, or career goals. 

For instance, a Destination might be to achieve fluency in a foreign language or to earn a degree in a chosen field. By setting a specific and relevant Destination, learners can ensure their journey has direction and purpose.

Milestones: The "Measurable" and "Achievable" in SMART Goals

Milestones are significant markers of progress along the journey to the Destination and represent the "Measurable" and "Achievable" elements of SMART goals. Milestones allow learners to assess how far they have come and how far they still need to go. 

They should be realistically attainable (Achievable) within a certain timeframe and quantifiable (Measurable), such as completing a certification course or passing a key exam. By achieving Milestones, learners can maintain motivation and adjust their strategies as needed, ensuring continued progress towards their ultimate Destination.

Footsteps: The "Time-bound" in SMART Goals

Footsteps represent the actions and small decisions that move learners closer to their Milestones and, ultimately, their Destination. This concept aligns with the "Time-bound" aspect of SMART goals. 

Setting a timeline for each step (Time-bound) helps learners stay on track and manage their time effectively. Whether it's dedicating two hours daily to study, reading a chapter of a book each night, or practising a skill regularly, Footsteps are the tangible, actionable tasks that cumulatively lead to significant progress.

Integrating the Destinations, Milestones, and Footsteps™ Framework with SMART Goals

Integrating SMART goals with the Destinations, Milestones, and Footsteps™ framework offers a comprehensive approach to achieving learner agency and autonomy.

  • Setting the Destination: Learners begin by defining their ultimate goal (Specific and Relevant)—the Destination they aim to reach. This could be a career objective, personal growth goal, or academic achievement.

  • Identifying Milestones: Next, learners outline key Milestones (Measurable and Achievable) along their journey. These Milestones act as checkpoints to ensure they are on the right path and provide opportunities for celebration and reflection.

  • Planning the Footsteps: Finally, learners plan the Footsteps (Time-bound)—the specific, short-term actions they will take to progress from one Milestone to the next. These steps are scheduled with clear deadlines, ensuring consistent progress.

Building a Path to Success

By relating SMART goals to the Destinations, Milestones, and Footsteps™ framework and applying them together, learners can navigate any educational journey with clarity, purpose, and a sense of ownership. This approach aligns with the findings of numerous studies across the fields of psychology and education, which emphasise the importance of structured, self-directed learning (Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark, 2006).

SMART goal-setting with DMF not only enhances the learning experience but also fosters a proactive, self-directed attitude towards personal development. Through thoughtful planning and execution of SMART goals within the DMF framework, learners can effectively chart their course towards achieving their aspirations, making the journey toward learner agency and autonomy both rewarding and successful.


Change Everything.

Explore this comprehensive guide for the simplest and most powerful goal-setting and strategic planning system you’ll ever use. 

See for yourself—get your PDF copy of Destinations, Milestones, & Footsteps™: Journeying to Success today.



Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. W.H. Freeman.

Covey, S. R. (1989). The 7 habits of highly effective people: Powerful lessons in personal change. Free Press.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The "what" and "why" of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11(4), 227-268.

Doran, G. T. (1981). There's a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management's goals and objectives. Management Review, 70(11), 35-36.

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House.

Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81-112.

Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86.

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation. American Psychologist, 57(9), 705-717.

Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. Riverhead Books.

Reeve, J., Jang, H., Carrell, D., Jeon, S., & Barch, J. (2004). Enhancing students' engagement by increasing teachers' autonomy support. Motivation and Emotion, 28(2), 147-169.

Zimmerman, B. J. (2002). Becoming a self-regulated learner: An overview. Theory Into Practice, 41(2), 64-70.