Designing a Course

Identifying Learning Goals

A foundational step in designing a course is identifying the learning goals that will give direction to the course content.

The goals for a particular course are shaped by its larger context. For example, the goals of a course that's part of a standard sequence in a major will be shaped not only by the learning goals for students in that major but also by the courses that come before and after it in the disciplinary course sequence. Other constraints include the size of the class and whether it enrolls introductory students or students farther along in disciplinary study. Even given the limits set by the larger context of a course, defining learning goals requires you to establish priorities, sorting out the many different things that students might learn in a particular course and establishing how these many things are related to each other. In the discussion of experts and novices in Learning Principles, we noted that one distinction between an expert and a novice in a discipline is that an expert thinks in terms of a disciplinary structure. As you think through the many goals that seem important for a particular course, seek to identify those that might get a student closer to identifying the larger structure of what you are hoping students will learn. You will likely find that many of the goals you're considering are rather narrowly applicable to a particular assignment or module in the course, while a few will rise to the top as the overarching goals the course as a whole is designed to meet.

There are several ways to identify the goals you think most important from among the many you have for the course. Wiggins and McTighe (Backward Design) suggest that you begin this sorting process by distinguishing three different categories of things that students might learn in a particular course:

  • What is merely worth being familiar with?
  • What is important for students to know and/or do?
  • What enduring understanding or lasting impact do you want students to gain?

What is merely worth being familiar with? To put something in this category is not to say that it's unimportant. Instead, it is to say that students don't need to learn these things in intricate detail at this level of study so that they will remember them years later. For example, when preparing an introductory course you might decide that even though students don't need to remember after completing the course all of the details of the debate between two influential scholars in the field, you could still expect students to be able to explain what is at stake in such debates. Demonstrating this ability in an examination or paper in the course might require knowing details of this particular debate, but what is crucial over the long term is the ability to tease these things out in other situations rather than the ability to memorize names and statements.

What is important for students to know and/or do? Items in this category include content knowledge that you expect students to understand in some depth and skills that you expect students to master. This knowledge and these skills are crucial to the subject of the course, and students simply must develop their understanding of the concepts and develop the skills. They are worth knowing in themselves, and they are particularly valuable in that they enable one to unpack and express the even more crucial understandings that you identify as enduring.

What enduring understanding or lasting impact do you want students to gain? The enduring understanding includes the central themes that hold everything together for the course and the material being studied. These are the understandings that you hope students will remember several years after completing the course. Your course-level student learning goals will likely be built primarily out of these enduring understandings. This last reference to "course-level student learning goals" introduces an important point. While we have focused here on developing student learning goals for an entire course, it is also a good discipline to develop learning goals for each particular class sessions and assignments. Each of these lower-level goals would be directed to the meeting of one or more of the course-level goals, and all of them together should align with and support the structure of the course as a whole.

Note that student learning goals are different from teaching strategies and content. As noted above, student learning goals focus on student outputs. In contrast, teaching strategies specify inputs such as content, instructional materials and delivery, readings/text, and guest speakers. We discuss teaching strategies in another section of this guide; they are an important aspect of course development, but they are not the same thing as learning goals!

Work toward precision and specificity in your learning goals. Clear, well-articulated learning goals will work to the advantage of both professor and student as the course plays out. Use verbs that clearly state actions that are observable and measurable. The advantage of goals stated in such language is that they indicate clearly just how the student will be expected to demonstrate his or her understanding. For example, instead of saying more generally that a student will be able to think like a biologist (or historian, or psychologist), push harder to define the particular tasks in the field of biology that a student who completes your class successfully should be able to do. What are the steps involved in these tasks, and how will you determine that a student is actually completing each of these tasks? Frame your goal (e.g., that a student will be able to think like a biologist) in terms of the behaviors that will demonstrate to you that the student has met the goal.

Joan Middendorf and David Pace have developed an approach that could prove helpful as you attempt to identify the behaviors you describe in these learning goals. They suggest that you begin by identifying significant bottlenecks in student learning. What are those significant concepts and practices that students typically struggle to learn, and what is the larger context in which they struggle to learn them? How does the bottleneck develop? That is, what is the problem or challenge that students find most difficult to overcome? For our purposes here, focus on bottleneck concepts that are related to what you have identified as the major student learning goals for your course. Identify the larger context in which these concepts become problematic for your students. How is the challenge presented to them? Having identified those bottleneck concepts, think about how you as an expert might approach the problem or challenge that you have identified. Middendorf and Pace propose an interview-style exercise to uncover how an expert approaches problem-solving in her discipline. In this interview, the expert might be asked to describe the steps taken in problem solving, and at each step encouraged to describe in more detail how one does that. Middendorf and Pace further propose that such an interview will lead the expert to arrive at a description of "bedrock" behaviors—that is, behaviors that are fundamental to expertise in the discipline. Those are the behaviors that you want to highlight in your learning goals, and those are the behaviors that you want your students to demonstrate.


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