Linda Suskie

  A Common Sense Approach to Assessment in Higher Education

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What's the difference between course and program learning goals?

Posted on September 5, 2019 at 8:15 AM

Let me begin with a brief sidebar on assessment vocabulary. Assessment in higher education is relatively new—only a few decades old—and we don’t yet have a standard vocabulary. Specifically, we don’t have agreement on the terms “learning objectives,” “learning competencies,” “learning goals,” and “learning outcomes.” Some people draw distinctions among these terms; I don’t. Many people use the term “learning outcome,” even creating acronyms for course learning outcomes (CLOs) and program learning outcomes (PLOs). I prefer the term “learning goal” because I’ve found some people think “learning outcomes” refer to assessment results—the actual learning outcome as opposed to the intended or expected learning outcome. I don’t want to make assessment any more confusing than it already is!


Learning goals (or whatever you want to call them) describe what students will be able to do as a result of successful completion of a learning experience, be it a course, program or some other learning experience. So course learning goals describe what students will be able to do upon passing the course, and program learning goals describe what students will be able to do upon successfully completing the (degree or certificate) program.


Course and program learning goals are not comprehensive lists of every single minute thing students will learn. (An important exception: some specialized accreditors do have long lists of required competencies.) Instead, an effective course or program focuses on a few key learning goals that are so important that they are addressed throughout the curriculum. Key course learning goals should be addressed through multiple assignments. Key program learning goals should be addressed in at least two required courses or other program requirements. The reason is that we want students to learn these important things really well, and students learn best through repeated practice in a variety of contexts. It’s simply unfair to both students and faculty to place full responsibility for student achievement of a key course learning goal on just one assignment. It’s similarly unfair to students and faculty to place full responsibility for student achievement for a key program learning goal on just one faculty member or one required course.


Because programs are  of course broader than courses, program learning goals are typically broader than course learning goals. Course learning goals may address the building blocks necessary to achieve the program learning goal. Or they may address aspects or contexts of the program learning goal.


Here are three examples from Chapter 4 of my book Assessing Student Learning: A Common Sense Guide.

  • Several courses in a program may each help students develop a specific technological skill. Those course learning goals collectively help students achieve a program learning goal to use technologies appropriately and effectively.
  • A course learning goal that students solve a specific kind of problem helps students prepare to achieve a program learning goal to design appropriate approaches to solving a variety of problems in the discipline.
  • An English course on Shakespeare might have a course learning goal to analyze scholarly views on character motivations. This learning goal, along with other course learning goals in other English literature courses, prepares students to achieve the English program learning goal to conduct research on issues in the study of literature.


By the time students reach the program’s capstone requirement, the course and program learning goals may be the same. If the capstone is a research project, for example, the capstone’s learning goals may include program learning goals addressing research, written communication, and information literacy skills. If the capstone is a field experience, the capstone’s learning goals may include program learning goals addressing clinical, technology, communication, and interpersonal skills.


I’ve found that, if faculty are struggling to articulate program learning goals, the problem is often the program’s curriculum. As I frequently point out, a collection of courses is not a program. But I see a lot of academic programs that are exactly that: collections of courses, nothing more. They lack coherence and focus; there are no common threads of shared program learning goals that bind the courses together.


For more information on learning goals and curriculum design, see Chapters 4 and 5 of the 3rd edition of Assessing Student Learning: A Common Sense Guide.

Categories: Learning goals, Curriculum & teaching

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