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Defining Course Goals, Objectives & Strategies

What do you want students to know or be able to do at the end of a course? Start by thinking big--what do you hope they’ll remember in five years? In one year? Then, consider the different domains your goals might fall under, ranging from foundational knowledge about a discipline to developing their passion for a topic.

While your course goals articulate your broad priorities, your learning objectives should describe behaviors the students will be able to demonstrate at the end of the class or unit. They should be written using measurable action verbs. The GW Office of Academic Planning, Institutional Research, and Assessment describes this on their page on Setting Goals.

Objectives such as students will "understand" or "will think critically about" are fine general aims, but do not provide enough information from which to set up a strong course. Consider, for example, that you want students to understand the foundations of project management. How will students show you that understanding, and at what level? Would it be enough for students to list steps in a process? To create a scenario? To work in teams to solve a case study? Often, courses include multiple activities, some assessed and graded, and others presented as low-stakes practice for students to test their own comprehension.

Course objectives also guide the selection of appropriate technology tools. For instance, if students are to be able to build an original media presentation, a technology tool will need to provide the means to upload and display that presentation. If students are to then peer review and comment on that presentation, a tool will, again, need to support that student-to-student sharing.

Here are several readings to clarify the process of developing solid goals and objectives:

  • Integrated Course Design (2005) by L. Dee Fink. (Print copy available via Gelman Library).
  • Understanding by Design, Expanded 2nd Edition (2012) by Grant Wiggins & Jay McTighe. Module O, "Designing the Lesson Plan for Your Unit", describes how starting with the end in mind (i.e. knowing what you want students to be able to understand and do at the end of a course) produces strong goals and objectives. (Gelman Library eBook).
  • The Power of Course Design to Increase Student Engagement and Learning by L. Dee Fink, Peer Review (Winter 2007). This is a course-design paper featured in the AAC&U publication PeerReview (requires GWU login to view through the library site). See what you think of it in itself and in relation to Wiggins' and McTighe's chapter.
  • On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching (2008) by James M. Lang, 4–9. (Print copy available via Gelman Library).

Writing strong objectives requires looking beyond the content or facts you want students to master to how you will know they grasp the content. If you are not already familiar with developing course objectives, please reference the Learning Taxonomies page in this resource.