Defining Goals And Objectives Is Indispensable To Course Planning

Defining Goals And Objectives Is Indispensable To Course Planning

Many college teachers use a simple, content-centered planning model. By contrast, the planning model presented in this section focuses on the student rather than on the content. The operative planning questions are:

–    In what ways will students be better thinkers when they finish the course?

–    What should students be able to do with the knowledge and skills gained in the course?

–    What portions of the content are germane to these learning goals?

–    What kinds of tasks should students perform in order to achieve these goals?

This model addresses content mastery and the intellectual skills that students should have when they finish the course. It shifts the responsibility for learning back on the student because planning decisions are made on the basis of activities that students must perform. It also makes selection of material easier, since course goals dictate the content that will be included.

How to Begin

It’s best to start planning your course several months ahead of the semester in which it is taught. Good planning requires thought and reflection, and mundane details often require long lead times: ordering textbooks, requesting films, getting copyright clearance for duplicated materials, and typing and duplicating course handouts. But even if you are asked to teach a course on short notice, you should try to follow as many of the planning guidelines as possible.

Most faculty members and some teaching assistants are completely responsible for designing the courses they teach, but some departments require that certain courses follow guidelines that insure uniformity of instruction. If you are a TA, you may inherit a course that someone else has planned and taught. Even in cases where you must conform to a previous plan, you can still use these guidelines to modify the course to suit your interests and needs. It is certainly easier and less time-consuming to adapt a well-planned course than to develop one from scratch. Remember too, that no teacher – even the best – will create a great course on the first try.

The Basic Planning Model

We have created a set of questions for you to consider at each stage of the course planning process. This list covers the most important elements of course design.

–    What is the place of this course in the curriculum? Is it a prerequisite for higher-level courses? If so, what do incoming students in these higher courses need to know? Is the course peripheral to the departmental curriculum? If so, what purpose is it supposed to serve? Where does the course fit in the overall education of the students? Answering these questions will help you define the course goals.

–    What kinds of skills and levels of knowledge can you expect of students who register for the class? What level of performance can you expect from them? It is helpful to talk to experienced faculty about the typical undergraduate’s capabilities and achievement level – for example, the average incoming freshmen reads at an eleventh-grade level.

–    What skills and knowledge should they be able to demonstrate, and how will you measure their achievement of these goals?

–    A course in art history might have a particular approach to interpreting works of art that is used throughout; a course in anthropology could use ethnocentrism as a theme. These elements can serve as unifying themes for the entire body of material; they become the threads which hold the course together for the students.

–    Are there films or videos that explain some topics better than you could in a lecture? Are there individuals whose expertise in certain areas would make them ideal guest speakers? Would your students learn some things better if they took a field trip to a local site? How will you involve students actively in their learning, both inside and outside of the classroom?

–    How will you evaluate student achievement of objectives?

Focus of the Course

Your answers to the questions above will help you determine the focus and outcomes of the course. In most math, science, language, and physical education courses, the outcomes are well-defined: students must be able to work certain kinds of problems, solve specific equations, read and speak a language at a particular level of mastery, or demonstrate certain physical skills. In these courses planning is simplified because the place of the course in the curriculum and the learning outcomes are generally agreed upon. On the other hand, departmental curricula may not be revised often enough to meet changes in the undergraduate population, and this may mean that course outcomes are inappropriate for the needs of current students.

By contrast, course goals in the social sciences and humanities are usually not as easily defined. What should students be able to do, to know, or to understand when they finish a survey course in history, music, art, anthropology, sociology, or philosophy? These courses require the teacher to think carefully about the meaning of these areas of knowledge for the lives and education of undergraduates. If they never take another course in your field, what would you want them to know about it? Of course, there is no single, objective answer to that question – not only will specialists in your field disagree, but the answer will vary from department to department and from institution to institution.

Defining goals and objectives is indispensable to course planning. For convenience, we will make a distinction between goals, which are general statements of the aims of the course, and objectives, which are more specific statements of the purposes of individual units or lessons. In writing goals and objectives, remember that they do not describe what the teacher is going to do; they describe what the students are going to learn. One way to focus planning on learning outcomes is to ask yourself how you want the students to be different by the end of the course. Do you want them to have some of the skills that professionals in your field share, at least at a rudimentary level? Do you want them to be able to interpret phenomena in a special way? With what intellectual skills should they leave the course? You might also consider non-cognitive goals (How will the students’ attitudes change over the course of the semester?), since attitudinal goals may be as important as cognitive goals in some courses.

Some courses have themes, principles, or fundamental postulates that lend continuity and provide perspectives on the entire course. These themes will provide convenient intellectual pegs on which to hang concepts and other course material. In an Anthropology course, a teacher articulated several themes: the difference between nature and culture in Western thought; the relation between Western cultural values and other cultural values; the interaction between environment and culture and its effect on behavior. The teacher referred to one or more of these themes in each class, providing students with a way to organize and discuss the course concepts. In some courses, a model of analysis can be used in the same way. The model is introduced at the beginning of the course and used throughout as students explore the content.

Planning for Instruction

Some questions relate to the next stage of course design, which involves dividing the course into manageable pieces, choosing activities for each class, providing for quizzes and exams, and integrating these elements into a coherent whole. The major and minor divisions of the course should follow a logical order that can be easily grasped by students. The breaks between divisions provide natural points for quizzes and exams and allow students to synthesize course material in manageable pieces. Sometimes the textbook dictates the order and sequence of these divisions, as in some math, chemistry, or language courses. Courses that follow a linear historical survey will usually have natural breaks in the narrative, and courses that are organized topically can be divided by topic. It is wise to avoid using a textbook that presents material in a sequence that differs widely from your course plan, but if you must use such a book, provide careful instructions for students to minimize confusion.

Think of each class as having three elements: objectives, methods, and evaluation. It is helpful to create a table for each class to plan for each of these elements. This procedure pre-empts the impulse to sit down and automatically write lectures for each class session. Some course material may be appropriately taught via lectures, but if you consider the objectives for the day, you may decide that class discussion (or a formal debate or homework assignment) would be a more appropriate and effective method. You can then write “class discussion” under the methods column and make notes about how to prepare students for the discussion and how you might conduct the exercise. You may decide that students will need several different activities to master the objectives. For example, a short lecture might be followed by an in-class writing assignment, a guided discussion on the reading, followed by a short summarization lecture at the end of class. (Assigned readings and homework exercises can be used to get students to master some objectives outside of class – remember, class time is limited and very precious.)

The taxonomy is useful for this stage of planning because it provides clear distinctions between lower and higher levels of learning. We include the taxonomy here because it will help you select the outcomes you desire. Don’t worry about whether a particular objective falls under application or analysis, just use the list as a guide for your planning. For example, if you find that most of your objectives fall in the lower end of the taxonomy, ask yourself whether some higher-level objectives might also be appropriate. In the content-centered method of course planning, teachers tend to emphasize recall and comprehension, but most teachers would prefer to emphasize the upper levels (synthesis and evaluation). There are other systems for classifying learning outcomes, but this one has been used in psychology and education for many years, and it is simple and easy to understand.

This planning format helps you focus classroom activities on specific learning outcomes, to entertain a variety of instructional strategies, and to consider appropriate methods of evaluation at the initial planning stage (rather than after you have taught the material). This format can also be applied to planning a single lecture, demonstration, or other individual unit of instruction.

As you look over your work at this point, check the “flow” of the course. For example, be sure that sections of the course fit together well and that you have provided ways for your students to understand these connections. Short lectures are useful for providing an overview of an upcoming unit, and they can be supplemented by short class exercises in which you ask the students to look over the next unit and identify the connections between the new material and previous units.

This is also a good time to check the length and sequence of readings and how they relate to class activities. If you simply lecture on the reading assignments, students quickly learn that they don’t need to come to class or that they don’t need to do the reading. On the other hand, if you fail to relate reading material to class activities, students will be confused about the importance and relevance of the readings. Reading material should be illuminated in class so that students understand the context of the material and perceive its relationship to the course. Exercises that require students to use material from the reading can be very effective for this kind of integration. You can tell you haven’t succeeded in this regard when students ask questions such as “How much of this reading will be on the exam?,” “Do you just want us to get the general point from the reading or do you want us to memorize facts?,” or “Do I need to read it for class on the assigned day or just before the exam?” You should also ask yourself how well you have clarified relationships among other course activities – written exercises, exams and quizzes, homework assignments, topical discussions, or lectures. A well-designed course is a carefully crafted network of ideas. Students should not have to guess why they are reading a particular book or writing a particular paper; nor should they waste time or suffer needless anxiety trying to fathom the instructor’s intentions.

Now that you have read about the process of course development, you can decide how much of it you can use in your teaching situation. Sometimes faculty members and TAs are assigned courses at the last minute and don’t have much time for planning, but if you find yourself in this situation you can still use elements of the planning model. For example, you might work on course units that occur late in the semester, or as you teach, make notes about how you will alter the course in subsequent semesters.


Jeff C. Palmer is a teacher, success coach, trainer, Certified Master of Web Copywriting and founder of Jeff is a prolific writer, Senior Research Associate and Infopreneur having written many eBooks, articles and special reports.



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