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Defining a Learning Goal

As we all know, it is critical to have clear goals defined first when we are designing a learning experience for either ourselves or our students. In Julie Dirksen’ book, Design for How People Learn, she discussed three important steps that I found helpful in determining the path for the learners.

I. Identify the problem you are trying to solve.

With a well-defined problem, you can design much effective learning solutions. Sometimes the topic might be too general to start. Let’s look at an example together, “students need to learn to be qualified business data analyst”. We need to break this down into smaller problems so that we can create much more specific routes and destinations to meet the goal. To break down the big problem in the example, we may want to first think about the knowledge and skills students need to master in order to become a qualified data analyst, and branch out from there.

To help you further identify the problem, here are two questions that you should ask yourself that Dirksen mentioned in her book:

  • Why is it important they (learners) know that?
  • What bad thing will happen if they don’t know this?

Although there isn’t always a problem waiting to be solved, you can still create a better learning experience for students if you consider what they want or need to get out of it.

II. Define learning goals.

  • Create authentic and measurable learning goals.

Going along with the example above, we hope students will develop programming skills in Python, SPSS, T-SQL, Mat lab, etc. Let’s say there’s a course called “Python for Programmers”, and the goal is that “students will be able to understand how to program in Python”. One big issue is the word “understand”, which is pretty common in the learning objectives.

Of course, we want our students to understand, but it is hard to measure if someone truly “understands”, so as Dirksen recommended, we need to elaborate it further by using words like define or describe because those are observable actions. However, memorizing definitions is obviously not students’ main learning goal in this course. We ultimately care about what students can do by the end of this course.

Therefore, when creating learning objectives, Dirksen suggested that we ask ourselves:

  1. Is this something the learner would actually do in the real world? (Authenticity)
  2. Can I tell when they’ve done it? (Measurability)

If the answer to either of those questions is no, then you might want to rethink the goals. When you struggle to get a learning objective to work, it usually means you need to unpack it more – either break it down or keep asking why it is important until you reveal the real purpose.

  • Consider how much you want your students to actually learn.

There are two ways to accomplish this. One way is to think about how sophisticated or complex you want your learners’ understanding to be, using Anderson and Krathwohl’s scale in A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate to create.

The other way is to think about how proficient you want them to become, using Gery’s scale from familiarization, comprehension, conscious effort, conscious action, proficiency, to unconscious competence, in Electronic Performance Support System: How and Why to Remake the Workplace through the Strategic Application of Technology. The higher we go on either of the two scales, the more time, practice, and skills development students will need to reach the goal.

  • Clearly communicate goals with students.

After finalizing the learning objectives, you need to announce them to the students at the very beginning of the course. It will let them know what to expect and what levels of performance they should be working towards.

III. Determine the gap.

After setting the learning objectives, if you find that learners aren’t currently meeting those goals, you could consider possible gaps.

Often a student’ main gap is knowledge, but more frequently knowledge is just the foundation or the supply students need to develop skills. Dirksen recommend us asking “Is it reasonable to think that students can be proficient without practice?” to identify skills gaps. If the answer is no, you have to provide opportunities for them to practice and improve those skills. In addition, by asking yourself, “if students know how to do something, is there any other reason why they aren’t succeeding?” you may want to consider things like “are students’ motivated?”, “do they get enough support while learning?”, and “is there any problems of communication between you and them?”.

According to Dirksen, reasons above could be summarized as knowledge gaps, skills gaps, attitude or motivational gaps, environment gaps (time and support), or communication gaps (directions). When you determine the specific gap, you are able to create custom and effective solutions.

Learn more:

You can learn how to write and map your learning outcomes on our TLA website.

To learn about assessing students’ learning, register for the 2017 DePaul Teaching and Learning Conference (May 5, 2017, 8:30 am – 3:30 pm, FREE)!  The theme will be “Beyond Grades – Capturing Authentic Learning”. You’ll have an opportunity to hear a keynote address and attend a workshop given by Dr. Tom Angelo, a well-respected scholar in classroom assessment. You will also learn more about relevant topics from your colleagues during breakout sessions!

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One Response to Defining a Learning Goal

  1. KenZ May 10, 2017 at 9:19 am #

    Well written!

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