- Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland
Planning a course or even a class session is a bit like planning a road trip. While there may be some enjoyable serendipity in wandering aimlessly in the car and just driving, you’re likely to miss some amazing sites and experiences with a lack of direction. On the other hand, if you over-plan and schedule a trip with a rigid goal at the end, you may end up like a crazed Clark W. Griswold at the end of National Lampoon’s Vacation. Planning for teaching is a bit the same way. You have to know where you’re going, but not plan so rigidly that you don’t have the spontaneity to capitalize on those “teachable moments.”
How then, should we approach setting learning goals or objectives in our teaching? First, it’s helpful to highlight some of the benefits of setting goals for instruction. The Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching (HILT) offers a very helpful resource on setting goals for learning in higher education and identifies the following benefits (with research support):
- increase motivation
- increase achievement
- guide pedagogy and instructional practice
- provide students with clear expectations
- increase efficiency of students’ learning efforts
In How Learning Works, Ambrose et al. (2010) offer additional support for the importance of setting goals for learning:
- When goals are established, students can better direct and monitor their progress.
- They provide a framework for selecting and organizing course content.
- They can guide the selection/development of assessment and evaluation methods.
Types of learning goals
A key starting place is to consider the different major types of learning outcomes or goals. Nilson (2010) identifies five general types of learning outcomes:
- psychomotor – focus on physical performance
- affective – demonstration of appropriate emotion and affect
- social – appropriate, productive interaction and behavior
- ethical – decision making that takes into account moral implications of actions
- cognitive – focus on facts, terms, concepts, ideas, patterns, etc.
This framework is helpful because, if you’re like me, you might be tempted to zero in on only the cognitive learning goals for your course and overlook the other possibilities. For example, in a teacher education program like the one in which I teach, if we only focused on cognitive goals like educational theory, human growth and development, and social and historical foundations of education, we would be missing a whole range of absolutely essential learning goals that guide our programs.
Fink (2013) takes a different approach to considering different goals or aims for learning. While he doesn’t discuss goals in the same way as Nilson, he does offer the following taxonomy of significant learning experiences:
- foundational knowledge
- human dimension
- learning how to learn
While educators operationalize the types of learning goals in different ways, each approach challenges us to consider a variety of types of learning goals. Identifying a range of options to guide our courses that are relevant to and appropriate for our course content encourages a more well-rounded approach to the course.
Key features of effective learning goals
Not all learning goals are created equal, however. Take, for example, the following two learning goals:
- By the end of the course, students should understand Irish immigration to the United States in the mid-nineteenth century.
- By the end of the course, students should be able to define and provide examples of push and pull factors that led to Irish immigration in the mid-nineteenth century.
Ambrose et al. suggest the following attributes of effective learning goals. Goals should:
- be student-centered, framed around what students should be able to do at the end of a learning experience
- break down complex tasks into their component parts
- be framed with action verbs to focus on concrete actions and behaviors (Fresno State offers this helpful list of sample action verbs organized according to Bloom’s Taxonomy)
- be easily measurable, so that we can gauge students’ progress in mastering them
How to get started in gaining clarity through learning goals
When considering learning goals, you can begin from the big picture perspective of a course or the focused perspective of a single class session. I recommend focusing on the big picture of a whole course at first, and then work towards the more specific foci. Wiggins and McTighe offer a very helpful approach to designing learning goals in a way that will provide great clarity in your teaching called “backward design.” In this approach, you work along these lines:
- Bearing in mind the ideas in my earlier post on avoiding the curse of knowledge, identify the key ideas, concepts, and frameworks in your course.
- For each of these big ideas, consider what you would like students to be able to do relative to each as specifically as possible. State the goals in a way that is clear, concrete, and action-oriented.
- Ask yourself how you would know if they mastered the goals you’ve outlined above. If you can’t envision a way that you could clearly measure or assess their progress in mastering the goal, try to make the goals more action-oriented and specific.
Once you’ve worked your way through the steps above, you should have a pretty clear focus and direction for your course. You can then begin to unpack the goals further and identify goals for each of your class sessions with your students. Then, you are ready to move forward to the next step of the planning process – considering your learners’ learning needs and preferences. This will be the focus of the next post in this series.
What challenges do you encounter in setting your learning goals?
Please post your comments below.