David Silver launched a series last week on how to write a syllabus (part 1, part 2) that promises to be very helpful. The third installment, on writing learning goals into a syllabus, underlines the importance of this oft-neglected step:
on the first day of classes, learning goals signal to students what they can and should expect to learn from your course. on the last day of classes, learning goals help students assess what they did or should have learned from your course.
What’s valuable about this formulation is that it reminds us what assignments should do: Not just generate the raw material for grades, but to demonstrate some specific skill or knowledge that students need.
Whether they’re called learning goals or learning outcomes, focusing on them, rather than on the material itself, can be helpful. (An example from literature: Say I want to teach a course on Dickens. One way to organize it would be to grab a bunch of Dickens novels that I like, cut the list down to fit a 15-week semester, and sprinkle some papers along the way. Another way would be to think about what I’d want students to learn about Dickens–and maybe even what I’d like students to learn about the Victorian period, since a Dickens course might well substitute for a 19thC course–and then identify texts and assignments that spoke to those points.)
In addition to David’s posts, also see this page on writing program-level learning outcomes. Last year, when I chaired our university assessment committee, we encouraged departments to write simple, declarative sentences that: take “Students” as their grammatical subject; hang on an action verb; describe what students should be able to do, rather than a property of the material; and describe only one such action per outcome. That’s sound advice for a class, too.
How do you approach learning goals or outcomes in your syllabuses?