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:

  • Professors, after all, profess.
  • Student course evaluations reinforce a teacher-centered view because they commonly ask students about the professor, rather than about the student's learning experience.
  • Even we think about courses as being opportunities for us to do something for students. Think about how often you have heard someone say "I want to show my students that...", or " I want to teach my students about...", or "I want to make sure that my students are exposed to...".

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.

  • Students must do their own learning; we can't do the learning for our students.
  • Good teaching should be about developing courses where the focus is on student learning, not on teacher presentation.
  • We will design more effective courses if we focus on setting goals for the students, rather than for the faculty member.

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.

  • We decided many years ago at our workshops to collapse goals, objectives, and outcomes into one standard English term "goals". We will follow the same practice in this tutorial.
  • For this tutorial, "goals" will be concrete and measurable (e.g., "My goal in life is to make a million dollars," or "My goal next year is to make the Olympic sock wrestling team.").
  • If this offends you, please feel free to mentally distinguish among goals, objectives, and outcomes when appropriate. We would say, though, that when we have presented this simplified usage at workshops, we have been resoundingly cheered!!
  • We will also avoid using the word "learning" as an adjective.

The difference that setting student-focused, overarching goals makes

Let's think about a course in environmental geology:
  • Teacher-focused view: provide students with an introduction to the geology of environmental issues and geologic hazards.
  • Student-focused view: enable students to assess the hazard potential of an area and take that into account when choosing a piece of property for purchase OR evaluate the validity of a news report related to the environment OR prepare a scientifically sound argument on a local environmental issue to present at a town forum or in a town newspaper?

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:

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.

  • Geoscientists typically don't identify perfect mineral samples in little white boxes. Rather, geoscientists use data from rocks and minerals to help them reconstruct some aspect of the Earth's past.
  • Geoscientists typically don't just read an account of what happened in the geologic past. Rather, they collect data to work out the geologic history of an area and use the past to help predict the geologic future.
  • Geoscientists use their understanding of geologic processes in decisions that affect their daily lives, whether it has to do with house purchase, resource utilization, local waste disposal issues, school curriculum, or many other issues.
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:
  • Historians interpret historical accounts in light of the source of information.
  • Art historians assess works of art, rather than merely deciding whether they like a piece or not.
  • Many physicists predict outcomes based on calculations from first principles.
  • Sculptors search for ideas and critique their own work.

  • 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:

    • emphasized the importance of focusing on student-centered, rather than teacher-centered goals, and
    • given some thought to what you do in your discipline simply because you are a professional.

    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 ( This site may be offline. ) ).

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

    • Verbs that reflect tasks involving lower order thinking skills goals include list, explain, calculate, identify, describe, recognize, summarize, discuss, define, know about, recall, paraphrase, and locate.
    • Here are some examples of goals involving lower order thinking skills. At the end of the course, I want my students to be able to:
      • list the periods of the geologic time scale.
      • recognize erosional and depositional glacial landforms on a topographic map.
      • cite examples of poor land use practice in areas of geologic hazards.
      • explain how geologists use radioactive decay of elements to determine the ages of rock.

    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.

    • Verbs that reflect tasks involving higher order thinking skills goals include derive, predict, analyze, design, interpret, synthesize, formulate, plan, correlate, evaluate, create, critique and adapt.
    • Here are some examples of goals involving higher order thinking skills. At the end of the course, I want my students to be able to:
      • interpret unfamiliar geologic maps and construct cross sections.
      • analyze the modern geologic processes in an unfamiliar area and assess potential hazards to humans (which is different from recalling those covered in class).
      • research information on the geology of an area and present it to an appropriate audience (students, town council, family, children, friends).
      • use data from recent Mars missions (Mars Express, Mars Exploration Rovers, and MOC and THEMIS images from the past year) to re-evaluate pre-2004 hypotheses about Mars geologic processes and geologic history/evolution.
      • collect field data and make observations of rocks and thin sections to evaluate the conditions of deformation and the deformation mechanisms responsible for structures and fabrics in a sequence of rocks.
      • Given an outcrop, 1D/2D section, correlation diagram, or other representation of a stratigraphic section, interpret the depositional history of the sequence and develop a sound hypothesis about the relative importance of sediment supply, subsidence, and/or base level in creating the sequence.
      • predict the weather given appropriate meteorological data.

    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.
    • Why? Goals involving higher order thinking skills goals have imbedded in them goals involving lower order thinking skills.
      • "I want students to be able to evaluate an unfamiliar area for geologic hazards. "
        • To successfully accomplish this goal, a student must be able to do many lower order thinking skills tasks, including recognizing, classifying, defining, describing, and explaining.
      • Contrast the goal above with "I want students to know about geologic hazards."
        • A student could meet this goal by doing very little higher order thinking by demonstrating knowledge in the form of recalling, describing, identifying, etc. On the other hand, a student who could satisfy the goal as stated in the first example (..evalute an area for geologic hazards) would not only demonstrate his/her knowledge but higher order thinking skills as well.
    We will ask you to set student-focused goals with measurable outcomes.
    • Why? A measurable outcome is a specific task that students can do that make it clear that they have accomplished the course goal(s). It is a whole lot easier to design the course that has goals with measurable outcomes.
      • "I want students to be able to interpret unfamiliar tectonic settings based on information on physiography, seismicity, and volcanic activity."
        • One can easily imagine designing a course that could provide students enough background and practice that they could be successful in this goal.
      • "I want students to be able to understand plate tectonics."
        • Besides the difficulty in defining a clear measurement for "understanding", the path to designing a course that will help students achieve this goal is not nearly as clear as it is in the previous example.
    We will ask you to set concrete goals, as opposed to abstract goals.
    • Why? Abstract goals are laudable but are very difficult to assess directly and are difficult to translate into practical course design. Here are several abstract goals and their drawbacks:
      • "I want students to appreciate the complexity of Earth systems."
        • Ummm, great, but how will you tell directly whether students can "appreciate complexity"??
      • "I want students to think like scientists."
        • Sure, don't we all! But what does it really mean? In terms of designing a course, it would be more useful to decide what you think the statement means for your discipline and to write the goal in a way that provides a clear path to the kind of practice that students need in order to achieve the goal.

    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:

    • Factor in context. Who are your students, and what do they need? Remember what you wrote on course context for the tasks in Part 1.1 of this tutorial!
    • Factor in what you do as a professional. Remember the list that you made in Task 1.2b above!
    • Set student-focused goals
      • Phrase your goals as Students will be able to... or I want students to be able to....
      • Avoid phrases such as I want to expose students to... or I want to show students that.... Don't fall into the trap of writing a goal that says I want students to be able to be exposed to....!
    • Set goals involving higher order thinking skills
      • Use verbs that signal higher order thinking skills, such as derive, predict, analyze, design, interpret, synthesize, formulate, plan, correlate, evaluate, create, critique and adapt.
      • Avoid verbs that signal lower order thinking skills, such as list, explain, calculate, identify, describe, recognize, summarize, discuss, define, recall, paraphrase, know about, and locate.
    • Set goals that are concrete, have measurable outcomes, and provide clear direction for course design.
      • Avoid verbs such as understand, appreciate, value.
    • Remember that there is no one right set of overarching goals for a course. Different instructors with different students will likely have different goals or phrase goals differently even if the course is on the same topic.

    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.


    ©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.