Whether you're a professor designing a new course from scratch or a Teaching Fellow planning an individual section, the best place to start—and a touchstone to which you can, and should, return—is the set of learning goals you have for your students. The idea of starting with "learning goals" might feel like a distraction from the content which is at the heart and soul of your course; at worst, it might feel like a buzzword trying to stand in for expertise. In fact, though, while many of us start with content when we're designing our teaching, that feeling is itself an intuition that's often masking the discrete goals and waystations through which we passed in our own development from novice to experts—whether it was a book that we survived, and that every generation of students in our discipline must survive; or an experiment that made a particular concept come into immediate, jarring focus. What learning goals help us do is interrogate these intuitions so that we can remind ourselves why we got excited about pursuing our expertise in the first place, and which modes of teaching or kinds of assignments helped us the most.
Indeed, focusing on learning goals doesn't take us away from this experience. Instead, it ensures that the design choices we make are dictated by what we want students to learn and do, rather than the other way around. If there are specific concepts from a lecture or specific readings on a syllabus or specific moments in time you're committed to including, that's great. From a design perspective, though, the question then becomes: Why does my discipline value this reading? And why do I want to teach it? In five weeks—or years—from now, what do I want my students to be able to do as a result of my course, and how does this text fit into that equation?
On Learning Goals and Learning Objectives
You will find lots of talk in the literature on teaching and learning about the importance of articulating learning goals and learning objectives for your students. While we agree with the importance of identifying a clear set of objectives for your teaching, we also recognize that instructors from different disciplinary backgrounds may be more or less comfortable with the notion that it's possible to predetermine exactly what students will learn from, or be able to do with, some of the material we teach. For instructors who are more reluctant to speak the language of learning objectives, we try instead to find ways to think about what it means to steer a meaningful course between the various kinds of freedom and constraint which necessarily come with teaching a disciplinary tradition within a university setting.
Taxonomies of Learning
As you design learning objectives for your courses, you’ll be thinking deeply about what type of work you want your students to do to demonstrate that they have achieved your desired outcomes. What should our students know? What skills should they have? What types of activities should they be able to do? Bloom's Taxonomy, designed in the 1950's and subsequently revised, is a useful framework for defining the types of work that we want our students to do.
While taxonomies of student learning like Bloom's can go a long way toward helping you articulate your goals for your students, it is undeniably true that the majority of university instructors draw their their goals and objectives from the history, tradition, and or values of their academic disciplines. Academic fields or disciplines exist, and can be distinguished from each other, precisely because they have different answers to questions like "what counts as knowledge?", "how is it best discovered and organized?", and "how is it best transmitted to future generations of practitioners?" The answers to all of these questions (and particularly the last one) bear directly on the kinds of assignments and classroom experiences that teachers working within various disciplines are likely to prefer and/or to judge successful.