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Articulating Learning Goals

This page contains information on each of the following areas. Please click on the topic to skip to it. (Also, be sure to look at the Swarthmore examples under Academic Areas — Learning Goals.)

Articulating Goals for Student Learning

Articulating goals and objectives for student learning is valuable in clarifying what we are trying to accomplish and in framing the activities we undertake to achieve them. Departments that have engaged in this articulation process have usually found it helpful and rewarding, as it allows them to discuss, debate, and make decisions about what they care most about — what they want for their students. Articulating goals is also a necessary first step in assessment.

The terminology that one encounters for this concept can be inconsistent and confusing. At Swarthmore faculty members are asked to identify what it is that students should know or be able to do when they complete a course, program, or other educational activity. "Goals" are the broader concepts, and "objectives" or "outcomes" drill down to more specific results or details. The department may use whatever terms that it feels most comfortable with. But in order for learning goals and objectives to be most beneficial, they should be clear and concrete.

The following information is excerpted from Suskie, L. (2009). Assessing Student Learning: A Common Sense Guide (2nd ed.). Hoboken : John Wiley & Sons, Inc. It was shared with department chairs in divisional meetings in Fall 2011, and with faculty in departmental meetings in 2012.

Learning goals should be based on what is IMPORTANT. They may cover:

  • Knowledge and conceptual understanding
  • Thinking and other skills
    • Applying knowledge
    • Analysis
    • Evaluation, problem-solving, and decision-making
    • Synthesis and creativity
    • Critical thinking
    • Information literacy
    • Other (e.g. performance, interpersonal,...)
  • Attitudes, values, dispositions, and habits of mind
    • Metacognition - learning about one's own learning (style, strategies)
    • Productive dispositions, habits of mind (organization, independence, curiosity)

Good learning goal statements:

  • Focus on the end (what the student will be able to do), not the means (what is taught).
  • Clarify fuzzy terms
  • Are neither too broad nor too specific Use concrete action words when possible

The more clearly your goals for student learning are written, the better the framework they provide for curricular planning and course design, and the more straightforward it will be when you focus on the assessment of them.

Furthermore, the focus of the statements should be not on topics presented, but what you expect the student to gain and be able to do - that is, not on the teaching, but the learning.

For example, a department might provide instruction on proper style and form for scientific writing. A clear, specific goal statement might be:

Students will be able to write laboratory reports according to the standards of professional scientific writing.

(This is a goal of the Swarthmore major in Biology)

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General Resources for Articulating Learning Goals

Assessment of Liberal Education

Metarubrics for Assessing Essential Learning Outcomes of Liberal Education — A team of faculty and other academic professionals worked with the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) to identify essential learning outcomes and to develop rubrics for assessing them. This is a great starting point for discussion of assessment at any level — course, major, department, institution.

Information Literacy

The ACLR (Association of College and Research Libraries) - Information literacy is a set of abilities requiring individuals to "recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information." - ACLR standards for Information Literacy

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Examples of Institutional Goals for Student Learning

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Discipline-specific Resources for Articulating Learning Goals

Goals for Student Learning from Discipline-Based Associations

Examples of Goals for Student Learning in the Discipline

Note: See also a number of Swarthmore departments' goals for student learning, available at Academic Areas — Goals for Student Learning.

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Learning Goals for Courses, and the Syllabus

The goals for an individual course should contribute to the overarching goals for the department, for its majors and/or non-majors. (Goals for non-majors might in fact be primarily based in individual courses.) Faculty members should think about and articulate goals at the course level. These goals and objectives should be approached just as the learning goals for the major or program. They should in clear language identify what the student will know or be able to do, having successfully completed the course. The focus of the goal statements should not be on what concepts the course will cover, but what the student will learn.

The level of detail about the course goals appropriate to include on its course syllabi is up to the department. Even a few general statements can be helpful in clarifying for the student what they can expect to achieve from the course and how it might fit into their curriculum. Some faculty members include only general statements, and then provide more detail in other ways (discussion, website, LMS, or with other supplementary materials.) Others may wish to include the full course goals.

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Examples of Learning Goals on Syllabi

A few examples presenting a range of approaches by Swarthmore faculty members are listed below. Click on the discipline to skip to it. Syllabi shared by Swarthmore faculty are available here (available only to internal community).

English 089B/ Environmental Studies 044: Materials that Matter (Katie Price)


Students will leave the course able to:

  • Define environmental literature in the context of literary studies and environmental studies, and articulate how and why it makes a unique contribution to each field.
  • Define “hyperobject,” and be able to apply the term to readings of environmental literature.
  • Employ sophisticated reading and analysis strategies unique to environmental literature, including how to read critically a relevant secondary source essay and apply it to the primary readings.
  • Develop interpretation skills necessary to advance nuanced arguments about works of environmental literature.
  • Analyze works of literature from interdisciplinary perspectives.

In regards to writing, students will leave the course able to:

  • Move from a set of observations to a thesis sentence.
  • Differentiate between a topic and a thesis statement, and between a weak thesis and a strong one.
  • Develop an important, provocative thesis that is specific in scope; capable of development in component parts; supportable by means of sustained argument; and sophisticated enough to consider alternative readings and counter-arguments.
  • Marshal an argument in support of the thesis that is convincing because it follows a logical development; has components related to the thesis and to each other; uses rhetorical strategies (such as counter-arguments, illustrations, and digressions); and draws upon theory, cultural-historical backgrounds, and disciplinary knowledge as appropriate.
  • Integrate quoted evidence and analysis of that evidence in the structured argument in ways that are thorough, detailed, and convincing to skeptical readers because the author used appropriate quotations; analyzed and interpreted the textual evidence; and showed its relevance to the argument.
  • Conclude an argument in a way that shows the importance of the thesis statement by offering reflections and outlining the implications of the thesis statement and overall argument.
  • Demonstrate improved facility with grammar, punctuation, syntax, vocabulary, paragraph structure, and organization in ways that bring liveliness, clarity, and variety to their writing.

ENG089B/ENVS 044 Materials that Matter [pdf]

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Music 005A: Music Cultures of the World (Lei Ouyang Bryant)

Course Objectives
Upon completion of the course, students will be able to:

• Identify and describe basic musical characteristics and elements of sound
• Identify and describe multiple music cultures from diverse areas of the world
• Identify and discuss relationships between music and culture

Additionally, by completing this course students will enhance skills in critical thinking, writing, and

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Philosophy 12: Logic (Alan Baker)

The primary goal of this course is to develop familiarity with, and understanding of, the basics of sentential and quantificational logic. These formal systems provide powerful tools for translating arguments from natural languages (such as English) into symbols, and for constructing rigorous proofs using these symbols together with specially formulated rules of deduction. Both the syntactic and semantic apparatus of each formal system will be developed.

A secondary goal is the examination and discussion of selected philosophical issues surrounding the results, techniques, and presuppositions of logic. Supporting materials for this component of the course include readings by philosophers of logic.

PHIL 12 Logic [pdf]

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Physics 003: General Physics I (Adam Light)

Course Objectives: In addition to learning about particular physical models and their consequences, we will practice and develop the following skills over the course of the semester:

  1. Estimation: A sense of physical scales and what expectations are reasonable given our models of nature.
  2. Modeling: The ability to devise and/or apply a simple model to extract key components of a complex process.
  3. Metacognition: Thinking about how we think and how that influences our work.
  4. Leveraging community: Gaining insight from a diverse set of perspectives and experience; connecting ideas through interactions with others.

PHYS 003 Physics I [pdf]

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Political Science 101: Honors Modern Political Theory (Ben Berger)

Course Goals:

  • Students will enhance their ability to read difficult texts closely and critically.
  • Students will gain an understanding of the following: the history of political theory and political ideas; the meaning of "modern" (as opposed to ancient, medieval, or postmodern) political theory; the importance, influence and limitations of political theory; prominent debates among theorists;  and the continuing applications of political theory to political practice.
  • Students will improve their ability to speak extemporaneously in defense of philosophical and critical positions.
  • Students will improve their ability to write cogent, incisive textual analyses on short notice as well as over a longer period of time.

POLS101 Honors Modern Political Theory [pdf]

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