Identifying Student Learning Goals

When setting learning goals, it’s important to consider both the content and skills you want your students to take away from the course. Students’ background, prior knowledge, and the likelihood of whether they will continue working in the field all play important roles in establishing goals and selecting appropriate course content to help realize them.

Beginning the Process: Prioritizing Learning Goals

In their book Understanding by Design, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe distinguish three kinds of learning goals that you as an instructor might use for a course:

  • Enduring understandings: This type of goal provides the overall framework for the instructional piece–these are the “big ideas,” the “organizing principles,” or the “core or essential questions” that help define and structure the field. What are the points that you hope students will still remember five years from now?
  • Important to know and be able to do: What skills must students learn in order to go on to their next course in the sequence? What methods or approaches should students know how to use appropriately?
  • Worth being familiar with: What wouldI like to cover but is not absolutely essential? What do I want to expose students to but not demand that they demonstrate a deep learning of?

Following Up: Specifying Mastery

After determining at what levels you need students in the course to know and understand the content and develop skills, decide what you will accept as evidence that a student has mastered the necessary content or skills. Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives is helpful in teasing out the various aspects of mastery. His labeling of the separate domains involved in learning can also provide a foundation for determining learning goals:

Cognitive Domain: Depending on the level of your course, it may be appropriate to ask students to recall certain facts and content, explain ideas and concepts, apply the new knowledge in another familiar situation, differentiate between and relate constituent parts, justify an opinion or decision, or generate new products, ideas, or ways of viewing things.

Affective Domain: In what situations do you expect students to only notice a particular phenomenon? When do you expect them to develop a certain value system?

Psychomotor Domain: What skilled movements, if any, do you expect students to display at the end of a course?

Give it a try:

You might begin by asking:

  • What is important for students to fully comprehend about my “big ideas” or “enduring understandings”?
  • How should students be able to perform with these understandings in order to progress in the field?
  • How do I expect students to exhibit their ability to integrate new concepts and themes and to apply them to new situations?

Transforming Learning Goals

Revise the above lists into polished student-centered learning goals with measurable, observable outcomes:

  • Each goal should be concise, and it should be possible to observe the results of achieving it.
  • Each goal should be expressed as something the student might achieve–not as what the teacher will do.

Verbs are crucial to learning goals. Words and phrases such as “understand,” “realize,” and “be aware of” should be avoided, since they describe behavior that isn’t observable. Vague or ambiguous verbs such as “know” should also be avoided.

Words/Phrases Open to Multiple Interpretations: know, understand, appreciate, grasp the significance of, enjoy, believe, have faith in

Words Open to Fewer Interpretations: write, recite, identify, sort, solve, construct, build, compare, contrast