Initial Publication Date: July 1, 2014

Learning Goals and Alignment
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Designing Measurable Learning Goals

Learning goals allow you and your students to focus on what they are supposed to learning. When learning goals are explicit, they will guide your students' decisions on where to focus effort and illuminate what they are to take from a given task. It will also ensure you are evaluating the things you care most about and designing your course or activity to best meet your goals for students. Good learning goals are specific, measurable and focused on the students' abilities.

You already do this either explicitly by writing down your goals for your students to read or implicitly by giving your students assessments (exams, quizzes, homework, projects, etc.) that match your unwritten goals of what they should know. "Written vs. Unwritten" really boils to this question: how explicit do you want to be with regards to the expectations you have for your students?

How to Design Effective Learning Goals

Imagine what your students would be like at the end of your course. Well-written learning goals will allow you to determine if your students match what you have imagined; they should be able to meet specific goals that you have laid out for them. This is only possible if your goals are clear and measurable. One way to approach this is to consider the following questions while designing a learning goal:

  • What ability will students have or what "action" will students be able to take if they reach the goal? Verbs like "design," "estimate," "compare," "calculate" and "apply" might help you target the skills your students should have by the end of the course?
  • Learning goals happen at multiple scales so keep in mind not only the lower order goals (e.g. "list" "describe" "define" or "identify") but also the higher order goals (e.g. "apply" "contrast" "predict" or "critique"). Think about the level of detail and cognitive ability that you expect from your students for a given goal.

"My students should be able to... [something specific] while completing an assignment, a project, a test, a field exercise." Those are your goals, the actions you want them to be able to take. Some of your goals will involve lower order thinking skills (e.g. list, describe, classify, etc) and others will be at a higher level (e.g. examine, compare and contrast, determine, formulate, design, etc). Bloom's Taxonomy (more info) can help you contextualize the level of thinking skills involved with your goals, and offers many example active verbs that can help you write your goals. Chances are you've already used verbs in your assignments. We're suggesting you become systematic but also creative in your approach to learning goals.

The Russian Dolls of Learning Goals: Nesting your goals

Small, activity-level goals may address a specific skill or knowledge related to a small portion of the course. These goals will be very specific, narrow in focus, and be measured by a small-scale item (e.g. an assignment, a lab, a question on an quiz, a debate, a specific critical question that is key to the course, etc).

Medium, unit- or topic-level goals may address a set of skills or more general knowledge related to a topic of relevance to the course. These goals will be moderately specific, a bit broader in focus than activity-level goals, and be measured by medium-scale items (e.g. a series of assignments, one or more labs, a series of questions on an exam, a number of in-class activities, etc).

Larger, course-level goals are designed to look at the overall success throughout the course. Course-level goals are broad and can focus on skills that will be useful at the departmental or career level, as well. These goals are measured by large-scale items (e.g. oral or poster presentation, term papers, cumulative labs, in-depth final exam, final exams, etc).

Which of these three learning goals represents lower order thinking skills?

[INCORRECT] This is learning goal has a mix of cognitive requirements but most of the skills require higher order thinking skills. To be able to read a peer-reviewed article and provide a well-written summary would be lower order thinking for an upper level course (you might expect 3rd and 4th year students to do this activity with relative ease) but is likely a higher order thinking skill for 1st or 2nd year students. The other parts of the goal (asking relevant questions, critiquing the scientific merit of the work) would imply higher order skills for any level of student (the word "critique" is within the highest level of Bloom's Taxonomy, a level six action verb). It should be noted that the level of challenge of a given goal is likely dependent upon the course in question and the students taking it. Keep that in mind as you develop your goals.

[CORRECT] In this case, the key action verb is "Apply" indicating a level three on the Bloom's taxonomy. It can be argued that this may or may not be a higher order thinking skill and again likely depends upon the course, the instructor and the students. In this case, because it is clearly a level 3, it would likely be assessing a lower order skill, especially if the students simply need to choose the correct equation from a list and apply it. However, this may also be a higher order skill if students are not used to applying equations or if this is a lower division course. This choice might considered "incorrect" in some contexts.

[CORRECT] Here we see that the active verbs include "describe," "give examples," and "list," all of which are low on Bloom's Taxonomy (being either a level 1 or a level 2). This goal, or a test or homework question covering this goal, would be assessing a lower order thinking skill for a majority of our students.

Develop course content and iterate

It is challenging to produce a set of learning goals that align well with your content and assessments. The process takes time. Be willing to update your learning goals and allow them evolve each time you teach your course. In some cases, the learning goals will evolve quickly, over the course of one or two terms. In other cases, it may take years for you to develop a series of learning goals that match what you want your students to learn from your course. Regardless, realizing that this is a process and not a one-time event is an important thing to keep in mind as you develop goals and present them to your students.

Practice with a few InTeGrate learning goals »

Practice in-depth goal setting with the Course Design Tutorial »

Which of the following is a good topic-level goal? Can you identify the level of each goal below before you look at the answer?
[CORRECT]This is most likely a unit- or topic-level goal although it is possible it could also serve as a course-level goal depending upon the focus of the course.
[INCORRECT]This is most likely an activity-level goal although, again, it could be a topic-level goal if the greenhouse effect is a large part of the course under consideration

References and Resources

The following references may be of interest to you.