Learning Goals

You undoubtedly have implicit ideas about what you want your students to take away from your course. You may also be expected to meet learning goals from your department or program. But it can be incredibly valuable to articulate each of these goals explicitly for yourself and for your students.

Specific, demonstrable and measurable

Learning goals must express specific behaviors that are demonstrable (students must be able to show what they have learned) and measurable (you must be able to distinguish between unsatisfactory, satisfactory, good and excellent performance).

In introductory courses, your first instinct might be to create a goal such as this one:

  • Students will gain a basic knowledge of the subject.

In order to make this goal more specific, demonstrable and measurable, ask yourself, “what will the students need to do to show they have a basic knowledge?” Here are some examples of how you could express this:

  • Students will be able to define concepts x, y and z.
  • Students will be able to identify the theories that an author uses to support her argument.
  • Students will be able to interpret the results of an experiment to evaluate whether the hypotheses were proven true.
  • Students will be able to perform practical procedures x, y and z correctly in a clinical setting.

Bloom's Taxonomy

When selecting the verbs to use to express what the students will do, you may find it helpful to use Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy of the cognitive domain (updated by Anderson and Krathwohl). The taxonomy divides the cognitive domain into six levels of increasing complexity:

  • know
  • understand
  • apply
  • analyze
  • evaluate
  • create

Even in an introductory course, you should aim for your students to achieve some goals in the higher dimensions. In a politics course, for example, in addition to understanding current debates, you can ask students to use this understanding to make policy recommendations for a given case. To help you devise specific, demonstrable and measurable learning goals for all levels of the cognitive domain, you can consult this list of Verbs for Bloom’s Taxonomy prepared by Carnegie Mellon University.

In addition to the cognitive domain, Bloom’s Taxonomy contains two other domains: the affective domain and the psychomotor domain. For more information on these two domains, consult this handout prepared by the University of Minnesota.

Short- and long-term goals

In order to refine your goals so that they express the essence of what students should be able to do by the end of the course, you can distinguish three different categories of things that students might learn in a particular course (Wiggins and McTighe, Understanding by Design):

  1. What is merely worth being familiar with?
    Anything that is not essential for students to be able to do right now, at the end of this course, goes in this category. You may decide to devote some class time to it, but it is not an integral part of how you evaluate students’ performance in the course, and thus, not central to your course’s learning goals.
  2. What is important for students to know and/or do?
    This includes content knowledge, skills and attitudes that you expect students to demonstrate by the end of the course. Students cannot successfully complete this course and move on to more advanced courses in the field without demonstrating that they have achieved these goals.
  3. What enduring understanding or lasting impact do you want students to gain?
    This includes enduring understandings about the subject matter, about how practitioners in the field conceive of the subject and carry out their practice, and about other people and themselves, that you hope students will remember several years after completing the course. You can bear these in mind when determining the goals on which you will evaluate student learning at the end of this semester or year.

In order to put the second (immediate) and third (long-term) categories of goals into perspective, Joan Middendorf and David Pace have developed an approach whereby you identify significant bottlenecks in student learning: concepts and practices that students typically struggle to learn, but which they must master in order to advance to a deeper and more complex level of understanding and skill in the field.

L. Dee Fink describes another approach to developing goals that take both a short-term and a long-term view. He recommends you ask yourself, “what would I like the impact of the course to be on students two to three years after the course is over?” For more information on developing what he calls significant learning goals, see p. 8-12 of his Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning.

Course-level goals and other types of goals

Your program may already have program-level goals that indicate the knowledge, skills and attitudes that students must be able to demonstrate in order to progress through the program or what a graduate of the program should be able to do. Is it helpful to be familiar with these program-level goals so that you can ensure that your course-level goals support them.

When you are designing units of teaching for your course (thematic units, individual lessons, etc.), it is a good idea to think in terms of goals as well. What will the students be able to do at the end of a particular lesson or unit? How do those goals support the course-level goals?

Aligning goals, assessments and teaching strategies

As mentioned in the section on Designing Backward, you must ensure that your learning goals are aligned with the assessments of student learning and with the teaching strategies you choose. As you develop those other two components of your course design, you may return to the learning goals and modify them so that they align better.

Please reach out to us at cndls@georgetown.edu if you'd like to have a conversation with someone at CNDLS about these or other teaching issues.