Tips and resources to help you set learning goals for your course
Oftentimes when instructors are developing courses, they start by thinking about a reading list or a list of topics to lecture on. This is considered a forward-thinking process of designing a course. By contrast, Wiggins and McTighe (2005) recommend a backward design approach that encourages you to consider your outcomes (goals) for students first. A learning goal is a statement of what your students should know or be able to do as a result of successfully completing your course.
By clarifying and explicitly stating your learning goals first, you can then design assessments and learning activities that are aligned with those goals. The benefit of following backward design that you can be confident that students who succeed in the course will leave having achieved the goals that you set for them at the beginning.
Identifying Your Learning Goals
Ideally, learning goals for a course are developed through considering contextual factors, as well as the kinds of knowledge production activities (e.g. synthesis, analysis, comparison, etc.) and skills that you want your students to leave your course comfortable performing. Starting from contextual factors, and considering types of learning on a macro-level, should make it easier to identify specific course-level learning goals for your students. As you are exploring the chart below, consider the relationships among the teaching context, types of learning, and beginning draft of learning goals provided:
|I am teaching a lower-level course with 75 students. This course must prepare students for the next course in the sequence. It offers them the chance to learn some important discipline-specific language that they will use in all further courses in our department.|
|Macro-Level: Type of Knowledge/Skill||
Specific Learning Goals:
|Because this course is a foundational course, foundational types of knowledge (defining terms, understanding formulas) are really essential.||Define “x,” “y,” and “z” terms|
|I also want students to walk away with a clear understanding of the relationship between the content offered in Units 1, 2, and 3 of my course, so comprehension/synthesis type goals are critical.||Recognize the relationship between “x,” “y,” and “z”|
|Students are new to the field, so they are also “learning-how-to-learn” in this discipline.||Gain confidence in communicating with me and their peers in a professional manner|
What’s the Big Deal about Learning Goals?
So, you might be wondering at this point: what’s the big deal about learning goals? You might even be annoyed if you see learning goals as simply an output of the corporatization of higher education. The truth is however that even if you haven’t used the words “learning goals” before to describe your classes, instructors always have in mind what it is they want their students to get out of a course. And, the best, most meaningful classes for students tend to be those in which that foundational set of goals drives every other decision that is made about the course: What assignments should I ask my students to complete? What should they read or watch? What should we do in class? How should they interact with each other? In short, learning goals can be our compass, can keep us from veering off course in ways that don’t support our students’ learning.
In a time when fancy new technologies and all the other considerations seem overwhelming, learning goals are all the more critical. If you are willing to start from your learning goals, the noise of possibilities will begin to die down, and everything that is truly essential for you to know in order to support your students’ learning will become clearer.
Writing a Learning Goal
As you develop and refine your learning goals for students, you’ll want to make sure they are specific and measurable. It’s critical that the goals that you choose are ones that can be measured–that is, that it would be possible for you to assess how well students have been able to accomplish this goal in your class.
A good way to start drafting a specific learning goal is to identify what you want students to actually do with the knowledge that you hope they will gain in your course. Examining a list of verbs can really be helpful for identifying the specific things that you’d like students to be able to do with knowledge acquired.
One common way to break down these cognitive activities (what students are “doing”) is Bloom’s (revised) Taxonomy, a hierarchical framework for constructing and classifying learning goals (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001). The revised taxonomy includes the following levels of cognitive engagement: Remember, Understand, Apply, Analyze, Evaluate, and Create. This taxonomy suggests that one isn’t ready to do more complex cognitive tasks (e.g. application, analysis) until one has a firm grasp on the lower-levels (remember, understand).
Traditionally, learning goals are written from the student’s point of view, for example: “The student should be able to trace the carbon cycle in a given ecosystem.”
Click here to see more examples of learning goals.
Characteristics of Effective Learning Goals
It’s relatively easy to write a learning goal, it’s more challenging to write a really effective one! Watch the short video presentation below (~6 minutes) to learn some of the basic principles of effective learning goals.
Nilson, L. (2016). “Outcomes-Centered Course Design” in Teaching at It’s Best, 4th edition. Jossey-Bass.
Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning, Yale University. (2017). Bloom’s Taxonomy.
Fink, L. D. (2005). A Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning.
Anderson, L. W. & Krathwohl, D. R. (Eds.). (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing : A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives. Longman.
Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. ASCD.