What I’ve Learned about Learning Goals

What I’ve Learned about Learning Goals

I read a wonderful interview with Natalie Mendoza this morning, in which she offered a wonderful articulation of alignment – making sure that your course goals, assessments, and instruction are all synced with one another:

“Let me explain what alignment is. Alignment includes three steps. The first step would be identifying learning objectives. What is it that you want students to learn?

Photo of Natalie Mendoza
Dr. Mendoza is a postdoctoral research associate and founder of the History Teaching and Learning Project in the history department at U-Colorado Boulder

We talked about skills, we talked about concepts, or content – any of those things could be learning objectives. The second thing is for you to think about those high-stakes assignments at the end of the semester that comprise the final grade. What types of assignments at the end of the semester will measure whether or not students learned the objectives that you set for them? What assignments will provide the evidence of learning that you need? And the third step is to think about what instruction you need to provide throughout the semester before students complete that final assignment. What instruction do you need to provide in order to support students? If you have all three of these steps in sync with each other, then you have alignment in your classroom.”

Amid that definition are the words “learning objectives” – words that cause a lot of apprehension in academic circles, especially when identifying them is done at the urging of administrators for institutional assessment purposes. Your institution might talk about learning goals or course goals, but they all mean the same thing – they’re a description of what you hope your students will get out of your class.

At Knox, we have a great institutional assessment team that explained learning goals to us in a way that made sense to us: keep it simple; don’t describe what you want an excellent student to do, but what you hope every student should be able to do when they come out of your courses. So our departmental learning goals look like this:

Students will:

  1. Analyze primary sources
  2. Formulate an argument using evidence
  3. Contextualize knowledge/truth claims

And here’s how assessment works for us: we look for information that will help us be better teachers.

So, for example, one of the first assessments we undertook was to see how well we were teaching students how to analyze primary sources in our 100-level classes. That’s different from saying “how well are students analyzing primary sources?” and that subtlety works for us – it means we’re assessing ourselves, and that the overall presumption is that if something isn’t going well in our classrooms, it’s something we can and will fix. (Put another way: if there’s a problem, it’s not with the students, it’s with us.) We made a rubric that we filled out when grading a primary-source assignment of some kind (a quiz or a paper) that added perhaps five minutes to the process. And when we discovered that we weren’t doing the best job we all went away to make tweaks to our teaching – we didn’t aim for or insist upon a uniform response to the data we got. Instead, we all figured out how to teach primary source analysis a little differently, targeting the things our assessment showed students were struggling with, and when we assessed again, we had far, far better results.

Approaching assessment this way has helped us move through it collegially and genially. The person who heads up assessment reporting changes periodically, and we all share the load. We draft rubrics in meetings, then the assessment coordinator finesses them and distributes them over email, so we’re not bogged down. We also carve out lots of room for instructor agency, so we avoid conflicts about the “right” way to go about something. Most of all, we find out information that helps us. If our assessment every lost that utility, I think most of us would chafe at the process / task, but because we can shape what we want to know and what we’ll do to solve it, we can take action that’s rewarding – we all want to be better teachers, and we all want our students to get the most out of our classes that they can.

All by way of saying – I’ve enjoyed establishing learning goals. I really enjoy following the process Natalie described when she defined alignment. I love figuring out how to assess learning and how to teach the skills students need to succeed. And then I get to select the content, knowing that my students will know how to approach it, analyze it, and use it well.



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