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Learner Centered Course Goals

By Mark Ferrer

The brave new Learning Centered universe starts here, at the cobbled rings of goal and objective setting. Step over its rim and a comfortable gravity will help you take the next defining step on your teaching journey. If you are unfamiliar with learning-centeredness, or if your forays within it have been tentative, we promise that the guided process offered below will gently, but definitively, draw you into becoming a learning-centered instructor. Proceeding will transform; your approach will move from content- to learning-centered; you will depart the instructional paradigm to enter the learning paradigm. Who wouldn’t change a singularity for a stellar nursery?


Setting goals and objectives are among the critical activities that distinguish the making of a learning syllabus from simply putting information on paper or online. The war of the paradigms -- Instructional vs. Learning -- generates many battles on this front. There is a false dichotomy lurking in the propaganda of these war machines. The New Paradigm seems more critical of the old than is wise. Teachers, as it turns out, are always the ones who make the changes, consider the alternatives, keep the process moving, make the new paradigms.

What distinguishes this “Learning” movement is its focus on student success. Teachers are very good about explaining, making presentations, making good sense, talking to students. But we think most often in terms of our discipline, our subject, and are not trained or certain that we need to be experts in learning as well as in our content area. The new paradigm, as a first step, invites us to move beyond our curriculum expertise, to draw on the work of instructional designers, learning theorists, cognitive scientists to help us zero in on helping students master and become interested in the material we teach. The thought that we could help students learn is very seductive. We haven’t seen ourselves as being the ones to help students learn to learn, to communicate, to study, to master critical skills. Leaving that teaching to experts in Basic Skills or to counselors has not produced the results they and we want, not for their lack of knowledge or accomplishment, but because the skills and attitudes need to be taught continuously in all classes, in the context of real learning events, or they don’t stick. The Learning Paradigm emphasizes real world application, communication, constant improvement for teacher and student. This only happens across disciplines. The way to start participating in the integration of learning skills is by setting goals and objectives that emphasize "Doing," and to implement assessment practices that monitor progress, success, failure so that change is sustained and growth .

Setting goals is a lever that allows us to hoist significant change into place in our courses. One of the important changes is to stop thinking in terms of what we want to do with the course –Teaching Goals--and shift to articulating what students will be able to do as a result of the course and our assistance. This is not a natural activity for most of us. It takes some doing and seeing results to make it second nature.

Course Goal:

“What will the course do for my students? How will the course benefit them?”

Learning Objective:

“What should my students be able to do upon completion of this course?”

You can stay on a learning-centered track by keeping those questions in mind when you plan your course. The first question is your reminder to discover and emphasize how course material relates to the lives and futures of your students. This is an important component in building a learning environment that nurtures intrinsic motivation.  The second question keeps your focus on the difference between, “What will my students know at the end of the course?” and, “What will my students be able to do at the end of the course?” This distinction is critical because setting goals based on DO” naturally prompts you to design assignments and assessments that require your students to think in ways that push them higher on Bloom’s scale. Setting “KNOW” goals tends to restrict assignment and assessment design to the Knowledge level of the Taxonomy.

Understand that thinking of learning objectives in terms of what the students will be able to do is a defining moment in the move from being an instruction-centered to learning-centered. Constructing good learning objectives places an emphasis on what the student learns as opposed to whether the teacher has "covered the material" and made good presentations. Consider the following table, from Huba and Freed's Learner-Centered Assessment on College Campuses, for other aspects of the shift from the information-centered to the learning-centered paradigm:

Teacher-Centered Paradigm  Learner-Centered Paradigm

Knowledge is transmitted to Students' construct knowledge from professor. 

Students construct knowledge through gathering and synthesizing information and integrating it with the general skills of inquiry, communication, critical thinking, problem solving, and so on.

Students passively receive information. Students are actively involved.
Emphasis is on acquisition of knowledge outside the context in which it will be used.

Emphasis is on using and communicating  knowledge effectively to address enduring and emerging issues and problems in real-life contexts.

Professor's role is to be primary information giver and primary evaluator.   Professor's role is to coach and facilitate.
Professor and students evaluate learning together.
Teaching and assessing are separate. Teaching and assessing are intertwined.
Assessment is used to monitor learning. 

Assessment is used to promote and diagnose learning.

Emphasis is on right answers. 

Emphasis is on generating better questions and learning from errors.

Desired learning is assessed indirectly through objectively scored tests. Desired learning is assessed directly through through the use of papers, projects, performances, portfolios, and the like.
Focus is on a single discipline. 

Approach is compatible with interdisciplinary investigation.

Culture is competitive and individualistic.

Culture is cooperative, collaborative, and  supportive. 

Only students are viewed as learners. Professor and students learn together.

See also Barr and Tagg (1995); Bonstingl (1992); Boyatzis, Cowen, Kolb and Associates (1995); Duffy and Jones (1995); and Kleinsasser (1995). Experiencing a Paradigm Shift Through Assessment 5

Reflection improves teaching. Setting personal goals pushes us and our students to improve. For instance, a helpful personal goal would be one you set because you want to address issues raised by students from the previous term; another personal goal about your own teaching might be that you improve your use of lecture by mastering the punctuated lecture approach. Whatever you choose, naming it and planning to work on it will result in growth.

The same is true for students. You (and/or your institution and department) identify the learning objectives [the “DO” goals for the course] so that your students will master the course material as they progress toward those goals. This is simple cybernetics: goal-directed behavior is more likely to result in accomplishment of the objective than random behavior. Because this is the case, setting the goals and objectives in your course is a critically important activity.

First, a word about semantics. Educators sometimes distinguish between “goal” and “objective.”. The University of Arkansas’ Components of the Syllabus site (http://www.opnsmgmt.uark.edu/moreinfo/forms/componentsofasyllabus.doc) makes the distinction by saying that goals should be general statements of intended outcomes and that objectives should be specific statements including measurable and observable terms. Perhaps more commonly, at least within the learning-centered paradigm, outcomes are stated as objectives because the concept of “DO with the knowledge” is a natural consequence of active learning and moves students higher on Bloom’s Taxonomy. To save confusion in this section, let’s agree that “goal” is used to mean the benefits students derive from taking the course. We’ll use “objective” to mean the behaviors your students will be able to demonstrate at the end of the course or the end of a unit. This is a logical and learning-centered distinction: students “doing with the course content” means they are working at the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy compared to “students knowing the course content,” which is a Knowledge-level Taxonomy placement.  

Here’s a nutshell approach to course goals setting:

Find the benefits to the students as a result of taking the course and publicize them. This means you’ll have to elicit this information from current students in order to share it with future students.

Here’s a nutshell approach to learning objectives setting:

As you plan your course (and subsequent to that, your syllabus), think about what your students should be able to do upon completion of the course and how you’re going to measure how well they will be able to do those things.

Keeping these two guidelines in mind throughout your course preparation will keep you on a learning-centered track.


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