What Should Students Learn?

In designing your course, it's important to remember that much of what students should learn will be informed by the other features of your course—what you want them to do, the content you want them to cover, and the models of expertise you want them to see. These often come from diverse sources, including your discipline, research interests, and sense of what students will need for their future lives. That might sound like a lot—and it is. It’s almost certainly too much for any one course. To have a successful, learner-centered course, it is important to distill your broad goals into a set of learning objectives that can be taught in a semester. This involves a mix of being transparent about disciplinary goals and interests, using taxonomies of learning to refine and shape goals into objectives, and recognizing that you may not be able to fulfill all of your goals in just one course. At the Bok Center, a trick we use for winnowing down your goals to the constraints of a semester is to begin by designing the capstone project and then using that assignment to further refine your objectives.

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.

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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. 

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Disciplinary Transparency

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.

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