Cutting Edge > Course Design > Course Design Tutorial > Table of contents > Part 1 index > Overarching goals

If you have dropped into this Course Design Tutorial from somewhere else, you might wish to start at the introduction, overview, or table of contents. If you are working through the tutorial, you should have completed Part 1.1 before beginning this section.

Part 1.2 Setting overarching goals

In this section of the tutorial, we will ask you to focus on answering the question, "What do I want my students to be able to do when they are done with my course?" If this question is answered thoughtfully and realistically, the goals that you have set for your students will provide a road map for developing an innovative course that helps students achieve those goals. Assessment, sometimes viewed as a real bugbear, falls out naturally from the desire to determine whether students have met the goals.


Start by downloading the worksheet (Microsoft Word 70kB May23 05) that goes with this part, and use it as you work through the sections below.


Part 1.2.1 Background on overarching goals

Teaching is commonly viewed as being teacher-centered:


It dawned on me about two weeks into the first year that it was not teaching that was taking place in the classroom, but learning."

Pop star Sting, reflecting upon his early career as a teacher (Shaping the Future; NSF publication 96-139)


Two weeks may very well be a world record for coming to the realization that it is learning, not teaching, going on in the classroom! He is, though, absolutely right about it.

What, exactly, do we mean by the term goals?

The education world has a whole host of terms such as goals, objectives, outcomes, learning goals, learning outcomes, and so on. Many college and university faculty are unclear on the specific definitions of these terms and on the distinctions among them. Others have encountered them defined differently in different places. Our workshop participants have, in general, found it counterproductive to worry about specific definitions and distinctions.

The difference that setting student-focused, overarching goals makes

Let's think about a course in environmental geology:

Thinking about this environmental geology course as a survey course points us inevitably down the path of presenting material to students, exposing students to a series of examples, and so forth. Thinking about the course as enabling students to do something in the future points us down a very different path, one where we would need to design a course that prepares students to do something significanton their own after the course is over. What a different course this would be!

Before going on, take the time to browse several of the additional examples below of the difference that thinking about a course in student-focused terms makes. We have deliberately used examples from a variety of fields, because it's commonly easier to see the point in a field you're not quite so close to:

  • Teacher-focused goal: provide survey of history from a particular time period
  • Student-focused goals: enable students to evaluate an unfamiliar event in its historical context OR reconstruct an unfamiliar historical event from different viewpoints or a familiar historical event from a new viewpoint OR seek out and evaluate information about an unfamiliar historical event.
  • Teacher-focused goal: provide survey of art from a particular period.
  • Student-focused goals: enable students to go to an art museum and evaluate the technique of an unfamiliar work of art OR evaluate an unfamiliar work in its historical context OR evaluate a work in the context of a particular artistic genre, school, or style.
  • Teacher-focused goal: provide instruction and practice in particular techniques (statistics, calculus, differential equations)
  • Student-focused goals: enable students to evaluate evaluate statistical claims in the popular press/advertising OR analyze applications of calculus in unfamiliar situations OR solve unfamiliar real-world problems in science/engineering.
  • Teacher-focused goal: provide survey of results of research on learning
  • Student-focused goals: enable students to design classroom activities for students that are consistent with educational theory and the science of learning.

The common denominator in all of the examples above is that the student-focused goals articulate what someone in the profession does as a result of being in that profession. And one very useful way to begin to approach setting student-focused goals is to think about what sorts of things you do simply because you are a professional in your discipline.

Suppose, for example, that you were a geoscientist.

The ways we think, the types of problems that we think about, and the way we approach problems as professionals vary from discipline to discipline. Here are a few other examples of the contrast in ways of thinking among different professionals that can help answer the question of how a course that you design might help your students learn, at the appropriate level, how to do what professionals do in your discipline:
  • Sculptors search for ideas and critique their own work.
    • At one of our multidisciplinary workshops, we asked everyone to think about what they do as professionals. One of the participants, a sculptor, had an epiphany as he thought through the answer. He realized that, when he did is own work in sculpture, he spent a lot of time searching for ideas and inspiration by looking through books, Internet sites, etc., working out for himself what he was trying to accomplish, and finally performing a serious critical evaluation of the extent to which he had achieved what he had set out to accomplish.
    • As he articulated this for himself, he realized that he had never explained this process to his students nor asked them to do anything like it. That one ah ha! insight would transform his next sculpture course.


    Task 1.2a: So, what do you do?

    Your course should enable your students, at the appropriate level, to do what you do in your discipline, not just expose them to what you know. In the context of your general course topic, what do you do simply because you are a professional in your discipline? What does "analyze", "evaluate", etc. involve? Alternatively, what is unique about your world view or the view of your discipline?? Before proceeding further with the tutorial, answer this question on the worksheet that you downloaded at the start of this section.


    Part 1.2.2 Setting the overarching goals for your course

    So far, we have:

    Now, it is time to set overarching goals for your own course by answering the question, "What do I want my students to be able to do when they are done with my course?" The answer is crucial to the design process, because the course must be designed to bring students to the point where they are good at doing whatever it is on their own.

    What kinds of things might you want students to be able to do at the end of your course?


    You might set goals that involve lower order thinking skills (terminology adapted from Bloom's taxonomy (more info) ).

    Lower order thinking skills goals are those that involve knowledge, comprehension, and some types of application.

    Alternatively, you might set goals that involve higher order thinking skills.

    Higher order thinking skills goals are those that involve analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and some types of application.


    What kind of goals will we ask you to set for your course in this tutorial?


    We will ask you to set student-focused goals involving higher order thinking skills. We will ask you to set student-focused goals with measurable outcomes. We will ask you to set concrete goals, as opposed to abstract goals.

    Task 1.2b: Practice in critical evaluation of overarching goals

    Work through the goals practice page before proceeding further with the tutorial. Use the worksheet that you downloaded at the beginning of this tutorial section to record your evaluation of each goal before peeking at our evaluation of each.


    Task 1.2c: Set one to three overarching goals for your course


    Now, it's time to write overarching goals for your course. What do you want your students to be able to do when they are done with your course? Several months down the road? Next year? Five years from now? Keep the following in mind:


    If you would like to view sample goals in addition to the ones in this part of the tutorial, visit the Cutting Edge Goals/Syllabus Data Base where you will find a collection of examples.



    Once you have written the overarching goals, Go to Part 1.3 Setting Ancillary Skills goals.


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    ©2005 On-line Course Design Tutorial developed by Dr. Barbara J. Tewksbury (Hamilton College) and Dr. R. Heather Macdonald (College of William and Mary) as part of the program On the Cutting Edge, funded by NSF grant DUE-0127310.


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