You undoubtedly have implicit ideas about what you want your students to take away from your course. You may also be expected to meet learning goals from your department or program. But it can be incredibly valuable to articulate each of these goals explicitly for yourself and for your students.
Learning goals must express specific behaviors that are demonstrable (students must be able to show what they have learned) and measurable (you must be able to distinguish between unsatisfactory, satisfactory, good and excellent performance).
In introductory courses, your first instinct might be to create a goal such as this one:
In order to make this goal more specific, demonstrable and measurable, ask yourself, “what will the students need to do to show they have a basic knowledge?” Here are some examples of how you could express this:
When selecting the verbs to use to express what the students will do, you may find it helpful to use Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy of the cognitive domain (updated by Anderson and Krathwohl). The taxonomy divides the cognitive domain into six levels of increasing complexity:
Even in an introductory course, you should aim for your students to achieve some goals in the higher dimensions. In a politics course, for example, in addition to understanding current debates, you can ask students to use this understanding to make policy recommendations for a given case. To help you devise specific, demonstrable and measurable learning goals for all levels of the cognitive domain, you can consult this list of Verbs for Bloom’s Taxonomy prepared by Carnegie Mellon University.
In addition to the cognitive domain, Bloom’s Taxonomy contains two other domains: the affective domain and the psychomotor domain. For more information on these two domains, consult this handout on Cognitive, Affective, and Psychomotor Domains Grading prepared by the University of Washington.
In order to refine your goals so that they express the essence of what students should be able to do by the end of the course, you can distinguish three different categories of things that students might learn in a particular course (Wiggins and McTighe, Understanding by Design):
In order to put the second (immediate) and third (long-term) categories of goals into perspective, Joan Middendorf and David Pace have developed an approach whereby you identify significant bottlenecks in student learning: concepts and practices that students typically struggle to learn, but which they must master in order to advance to a deeper and more complex level of understanding and skill in the field.
L. Dee Fink describes another approach to developing goals that take both a short-term and a long-term view. He recommends you ask yourself, “what would I like the impact of the course to be on students two to three years after the course is over?” For more information on developing what he calls significant learning goals, see p. 8-12 of his Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning.
Your program may already have program-level goals that indicate the knowledge, skills and attitudes that students must be able to demonstrate in order to progress through the program or what a graduate of the program should be able to do. It's probably helpful to be familiar with these program-level goals so that you can ensure that your course-level goals support them.
It's also a good idea to think in terms of goals when you're designing units of teaching for your course (thematic units, individual lessons, etc.). What will the students be able to do at the end of a particular lesson or unit? How do those goals support the course-level goals?
As mentioned on our Designing Backward page, you must ensure that your learning goals are aligned with the assessments of student learning and with the teaching strategies you choose. As you develop those other two components of your course design, you may return to the learning goals and modify them so that they align better.