Universities are increasingly being asked to explain what it is that they do, and to prove that it is valuable. While what sorts of topics might be valuable is controversial, that we want our students to learn something is not. As instructors, we all want our students to learn things; identifying and assessing these things is key to making sure we achieve our goals and that our students benefit.
A learning goal, or learning outcome, is what we want our students to get out of the course. In more formal terms, the Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences bases the new Core Curriculum on learning goals that “clearly articulate what SAS students are able to do upon completion of the Core, incorporating the reasons for these requirements right into the requirements themselves." At the university level, these goals unite traditional liberal arts and research goals with the demands for success post-undergraduate in the 21st century. At the individual classroom level, learning goals contribute to this larger mission while also attending specifically to the mission of the individual department and the individual course topic. These outcomes might come in the form of content mastery or skills knowledge, in a broad variety of areas. For example, learning outcomes in an introductory biology course will likely include knowledge about basic biological facts, like cell processes, but will also include knowledge and experience in proper lab conduct—both of which are crucial for future success in the sciences. It is usually the responsibility of the individual instructor to define and assess learning goals for courses and units. By structuring courses in this way, it becomes more possible to articulate success.
You already know how to define learning goals. As instructors, we do want our students to learn certain things in certain ways, as well as be able to do certain things. By framing these “things" as learning goals, we articulate more specifically what they are, how they can be attained, and whether or not our students have attained them. Some considerations in articulating learning goals are the appropriateness of the goal to the level of the course, what is the content students should know, and what skills you want them to have.
In an introductory course, learning goals will be different from what they will be in an advanced course—both in content and skills. While an introductory course might focus on learning how to do a close reading or how to act properly in a lab, an advanced course might focus on centralized higher order skills like contextual critical analysis or designing research projects. Content too is based on skill level, a 100-level course might ask for familiarity, while a 300-level course might ask for mastery. Articulating these goals prior to the start of the course will define the path the course takes, from readings, to assignments, to how classroom time is spent.
Once learning outcomes have been defined for the course, instructors can also break these goals into smaller chunks that together will equal the larger goals. In other words, the overall learning goal becomes point Z, and this breakdown draws the map to get there from point A, the start of the semester. Making these points evident can strengthen teaching and provide important landmarks for students as they move through the course. For example, by breaking down “improve chemistry lab skills" into constituent parts, like “master two substance titration" both instructor and student will be able to more clearly mark progress.
Throughout the semester, it is crucial to assess and also provide opportunities for students to self-assess whether progress is made towards learning goals. These can range from traditional exams, to indirect assessments such as surveys and informal writing assignments. Peer and self-assessments can also encourage students to reflect on their own role in the learning process. By designing assessments based on your already articulated learning goals, continuity can be established, and learning processes can be improved. Research has shown that students are more motivated to learn when they understand what it is and how they are learning it, something that can be communicated through assessment.