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Part Four: Developing Course Goals

Objective: In this part of the seminar, we will consider the purpose of course goals (which are distinct from learning objectives, which will be covered more fully in the next part of the seminar). Afterward, you should be able to draft goals for a course in your field.

Course Goals and Learning Objectives

Earlier in this seminar (in the Exercise: Imagining Your Course), you brainstormed a list of all the possible things you might include in your course, but this list was in no particular order, and it was not yet informed by considerations of course context. Now that you have had a chance to consider your teaching situation more carefully, and to refine the list, you are ready to draft course goals and student learning objectives. In this seminar, we will distinguish between your goals for the course and the learning objectives (e.g., learning outcomes, competencies, etc.) you have for your students.

Ideally, as you are drafting course goals and learning objectives, you are also beginning to develop the assessments for the course - that is, the major assignments / activities through which students will achieve the objectives you set for them and through which you will measure the extent to which they have achieved the objectives.

The following diagram reveals the minimum building blocks for effective course design:

course design elements

In this online seminar, we focus primarily on developing goals and learning objectives, leaving assessments for another time. While this is a somewhat artificial separation, it provides a way to narrow our focus and make the online seminar manageable.

Before we discuss course goals, let's do a quick self-assessment exercise.

EXERCISE: Goals vs. Objectives Self-Assessment

At the beginning of this seminar, we provided both goals and learning objectives for the course. And we have used the two terms in other places - and as distinct from one another - often. Before we move on, consider the following questions; jot down your responses.

  1. What is the difference between a goal and a learning objective?
  2. Is this distinction new for you?
  3. In the courses you have taken and/or taught, have both goals and learning objectives been defined for and/or communicated to students?

Please hold onto the notes you jotted down for this exercise. You may want to reflect back on how well you understood the difference between goals and objectives after you have completed Part Four and Part Five of this seminar.

Understanding Course Goals

Goals provide direction, focus, and cohesion for our work with students. Often, when designing courses, instructors may articulate what they will do and/or what their course will do. These are the instructor's aims or guiding priorities for the course; while they may be written as though the focus is on the students, in fact, course goals are different from concrete, measureable statements of what students will learn in the course.

Typically, goals do one or more of the following:

  1. Express the instructor's hopes, wishes, and/or ideals for the overall educational experience students will have in a course.
  2. Represent the instructor or teaching perspective on the course, describing what the course will do (vs. what students will be able to do).
  3. Describe internal states and/or longer-term aims that you may not be able to measure in the short time you have students in your class.
  4. Convey the kind of learning experience you want to create for students.
  5. Provide an overarching framework for why the course looks the way it does, why the specific learning objectives have been chosen, and how these things are connected.

Generally speaking, course goals are the touchstones for a course; some have described them as the story or narrative of what a course is "about." Indeed, a list of general course goals often provides a helpful way to introduce the course to students and to motivate their engagement in it. Think of course goals as what the course "adds up to" - the larger framing, purpose, and payoff that give the course meaning, for students, for faculty, and for curricula.

Developing Course Goals

There are a number of ways you can begin to articulate or uncover large goals for your class. Filene (2005) offers a few prompts to jumpstart your thinking about your instructional goals (he calls them "aims"), which you may find useful as you plan courses. Filene suggests that you start course planning by trying to finish the sentences below:

questions to prompt

As you can see, course goals provide a way for you to begin refining and making meaning of all the things you might wish to cover in a given course. In some cases, the course goals may be entirely up to you; if you teach in a standardized program or have external accreditation standards to meet, you may have to work within a set of pre-defined course goals. However, if you try to answer the questions above for yourself, you will begin to see subtle ways in which you can shape the course around your main priorities for student learning and engagement and around your preferred teaching style(s). When setting course goals, then, it's important to consider your curricular and institutional context (as we discussed earlier, in Part Two: Understanding the Teaching Situation). At a minimum, there are likely to be departmental expectations about the goals of your course and how that course fits into the larger curriculum, and you will want to be aware of these as you design.

Sample Goals

To get a better sense of what we're talking about, let's look at some sample goals. The goals established for this seminar can serve as examples. They articulate what this seminar will do, including describing the kind of experience we aim to create here; they do not describe what you will learn or be able to do after the seminar. In this way, they fit the expectations of course goals as described above.

To look at a few more sample goals, watch the video below. See what you notice about the sample goals presented here: what do they have in common? How do they differ? (Click here for a transcript of the video.)

Sample Goals from Reinert CTTL on Vimeo.


As you can see, goals are important. They require us to articulate our own desires for a course, which can help to shape students' learning and engagement. However, goals alone are not enough; to design courses for learning (not just for teaching), you also must articulate core learning objectives - targets that identify what students will know and be able to do upon leaving your course.

Developing both helps you to cultivate what Peter Filene calls the "double awareness" (23) of the teaching and learning perspectives.

EXERCISE: Setting Goals for Your Course

Before we move on, let's return to your course planning. Go back to your brainstorming materials from earlier, and complete the steps described below. Spend as long as you need to on this exercise. Your goal is to develop at least 2-3 goals to shape your ongoing course design. (Note: these goals are just drafts; they do not need to be perfect.)

Step 1: Review all of the material you have generated in the online seminar thus far.

Step 2: Identify any patterns (in themes, content, hopes, activities, etc.).

Step 3: Group like items together. If you see any gaps, jot down any additional information you think important.

Step 4: Identify the most important things you hope students take away from the course (and/or what you want their learning experience to be like).

Step 5: Draft 2-3 main goals for your course. Record them in the left-hand column of the Worksheet: Writing Goals and Objectives.

Hold onto this worksheet and the goals you've sketched out. You will need this content later in the online seminar.

Continue to: Part 5: Identifying Learning Objectives

To Learn More About...

Developing Course Goals

Nilson, L. B. (2010). Outcomes-centered course design. In Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (3rd ed.) (17-32). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Filene, P. (2003). Defining your aims and outcomes. In The joy of teaching: A practical guide for new college instructors. Chapel Hill & London: The University of North Caroline Press.