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 and level of detail are listed below. Click on the discipline to skip to it.

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Economics 242: Economics of Local Environmental Programs at Bryn Mawr College (David R. Ross)

Learning objectives:

  • Mastery of the elementary principles and analytical tools of economics as applied to explaining and mitigating environmental harms.
  • Confidence in being able to discuss a broad range of environmental challenges faced by local communities.
  • The ability to communicate orally or in writing in clear, coherent and persuasive language appropriate to purpose, occasion and audience with others inside and outside the academy; with a particular focus on writing to:
    • Summarize research/fact finding
    • Apply the analytical tools of economics
    • Persuade through economic arguments
    • Reflect on and evaluate progress in meeting other learning goals
  • Mutually beneficial collaborative exchange: use each of the following to support the other learning goals of the course and the goals of partners:
    • Small group interactions
    • Class discussion
    • Interviewing

Brief presentations to inform or persuade an individual or group

Demonstrated success in enhancing one's own and the learning of others.

Economics of Local Environmental Programs [pdf]

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Engineering 25: Principles of Computer Architecture at Swarthmore College

Course Objectives:

  • Understand processor design concepts in modern computer architecture.
  • Understand and evaluate constraints and tradeoffs in microprocessor design.
  • Use digital logic, Verilog, C, and some assembly.
  • Enable you to design and build a mini computer.
  • Enable you to understand, use, and modify computer architecture simulation tools.



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Sociology 230 Sex, Gender, and Society at Brown University (Megan Klein Hattori)

By the end of the semester you should be able to:

  1. Observe the world sociologically, especially as it relates to sex and gender.
  2. Explain the kinds of research questions sociologists ask about sex and gender, the contexts of those questions, and why they ask them.
  3. Outline the various theories sociologists have developed to explain sex and gender arrangements and to apply these theories appropriately to contemporary social issues.

Sex, Gender, and Society - Megan Klein Hattori [pdf]

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Statistics 101: Data Analysis and Statistical Inference at Duke University (Mine Cetinkaya-Rundel)

Course goals & objectives:

  • The overall goal of this class is to introduce you to the discipline of statistics as a science of understanding and analyzing data and not as a branch of mathematics. This class is designed to provide you with the tools you need for solving real world problems using statistics and a better understanding of the process of scientific research and statistical inference.
  • By the end of this class you should be able to interpret statistical results in context and critique news stories and journal articles that include statistical information. We expect you to be comfortable with concepts such as association and causation, random sampling and random assignment, statistical bias and statistical significance, and to understand and appreciate why real data beats anecdotes.

Sta 101.002: Data Analysis and Statistical Inference [pdf]

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