Developing Learning Goals

Freshman Scholars Institute, Molecular Biology Lab

Why are course learning goals important? Setting learning goals puts the emphasis on how you want students to engage course content, as well as the content itself.  


Articulating course goals

Articulating Course Goals

Effective course design begins with the question, what do I want my students to know and be able to do by the end of my course?

Learning goals, or course goals, are student-centered–they identify what your students will learn or achieve by taking your course. Your goals will likely include content knowledge as well as academic skills (like close reading or careful argumentation).   

Articulating course goals helps guide your choice of topics and themes and your sequence of assignments.

Consider the following in developing your course and learning goals:

  • Focus on student learning. What do you want your students to understand after taking your course? What abilities do you want them to acquire by taking your course?
  • Develop ALARMS goals, ones that are Active, Learner-Centered, Attainable, Relevant, Measurable, and Specific. Consult these taxonomies of learning for examples of learning goals.
  • Align your goals with the topics and assignments for the course. How will engaging these topics and completing these assignments help your students meet, and even exceed, those goals?


Motivating Your Students

Motivating Your Students

The more thought, time, and energy your students invest in the work of your course, the more deeply they will learn. The research on learning tells us that students are most motivated when they value what they are learning and they believe they can be successful learning new or unfamiliar material. 

In order to create a classroom in which students will value what they are learning, you might:

  • Explain why you are interested in the topic. Why do you believe your discipline's ways of thinking are important? 
  • Give students questions or assignments that enable them to see connections between learning in your class and learning in other courses. For example: How does knowing historical context enrich the reading of a novel? How will an understanding of the properties of fluids prove important to their work in chemical engineering?
  • Ask students to reflect on how what they learn in your course can help them approach aspects of their lives more meaningfully. How do they see art or hear music differently once they have developed a vocabulary for talking about each? What do they see in themselves and their relationships when they view them through knowledge of human psychology or social behavior?
  • Structure learning so that students practice using course concepts or disciplinary ways of thinking to solve problems or answer pressing questions about, for instance, the physical world or the culture(s) they live in and among. How might they evaluate the latest diet trend in light of their knowledge of cellular metabolism? How might they evaluate U.S. foreign policy in light of their historical knowledge of diplomacy or their encounter with other cultures through anthropology, literature, or geography?
  • Underscore how knowledge and skills developed in your course can be transferred to other contexts, including their professional lives. 

In order to encourage students’ belief that they can succeed at learning new or unfamiliar material, you might:

  • Let your students know that you believe in their capacity to develop and do well in your course. Past teaching experience might help you state this with confidence. 
  • Throughout the course, promote the idea that students will succeed because of their efforts to learn, not because of fixed, innate capacities. Provide constructive feedback on their work, reinforcing your belief in their ability to improve.
  • Sequence assignments so that students can experience success early in the process and then maintain motivation for future work. For example, students might approach a highly complicated problem with more confidence, and thus motivation, if they have successfully solved similar, but less challenging problems, in preparation.
  • As you evaluate student work, underscore where they have mastered goals and reflect back success. You can do this in written comments on their work or in office hours. When work falls short of your criteria, be clear about how students can improve in future work.
  • Make grading criteria clear so that students have some way to assess their own learning and academic performance. If they know exactly what constitutes success, they are likely to feel more confident of their ability to meet those expectations.
  • Establish high, but reasonable, expectations for your students. If they are given tasks that stretch them but don't overwhelm them, they will approach new challenges with more motivation. 

References and Additional Resources

References and Additional Resources

Bowen, R. S.  (2017). “Understanding by Design.” Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching, 2017. Accessed 11 April 2023.

Course-Level Learning Goals/Outcomes,” Berkeley Center for Teaching and Learning, UC Berkeley. Accessed 11 April 2023.

Establishing Learning Goals.” Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning, Brown University. Accessed 11 April 2023.

Svinicki, Marilla D. Learning and Motivation in the Postsecondary Classroom. Anker Publishing, 2004.

Taxonomies of Learning.” Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard University. Accessed 3 January 2024.

“Understanding by Design Workshop with Grant Wiggins” (Part 1 and Part 2), uploaded by Avenues the World School, 28 February 2013 and 7 March 2013.

Wiggins, Grant and Jay McTighe. Understanding by Design. Grant Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2005. (See especially Chapter 3, "Gaining Clarity on our Goals," pp. 56-81.)