College of Arts & Sciences

Dean's Office, CA&S

Program Learning Goals and Objectives
Program learning goals and objectives describe what students will learn, what skills they develop, what experiences they will have (or likely have) as a result of completing the requirements for the degree program.  The following is meant to provide a general overview of what is meant in terms of "goals" and "objectives" and to provide some guidance for how to formulate them.  There are many additional resources available on the "Resources" tab for this site. 

Since the faculty "own" the curricula for academic programs (the faculty determine the required courses and the content of each course) the program learning goals and objectives need to be developed cooperatively and collectively by the faculty who teach within that program. While it may seem that "everyone knows" what the faculty intend graduates to "be, know and do", there are often differences in opinion and perspective that only emerge through conversation about the goals and objectives.  Such discussions provide an opportunity for the faculty to come to consensus on a shared vision and understanding of their expectations for students, which are then articulated through the learning goals and objectives.  As programs develop and change overtime, these statements will also need to be periodically revisited and revised as needed.

According to Mary J. Allen's book "Assessing Academic Programs in Higher Education" (pages 29 - 30), learning goals are "... broad statements concerning knowledge, skills or values" that faculty intend the courses and other requirements in the degree program to help students achieve. These statements often fall into categories reflecting those different aspects of student learning and formation, namely "knowledge, skills or values" and hey are usually broad in terms of what they cover. For example, a "knowledge" learning goal might be something like "Students will understand basic principles and concepts in X".  A "skill" learning goal migth read "Students will be able to apply appropriate statistical methods to analyze data and draw meaningful conclusions based on that analysis." A "value" based goal could be one relating to following appropriate ethical practices within a profession or scholarly discipline. Goals (and objectives) are written in a student-centered way, in that they address what students will know, what skills they will have, what values they hold, rather than what is "covered" in the course (teacher-centered).  As such, goals will typically begin with "Students will ...", and objectives will begin with "Students can...".  

Program learning goals are, by nature, broad, and it is often difficult (or impossible) to directly assess students' attainment in these areas. That is why specific learning objectives must also be articulated for each degree-granting program.  These objectives unpackage the learning goals into more discrete, and quantifiable, pieces. The program learning objectives are specific statements about the knowledge, skills and values that graduates of the program are expected to have.  Each learning goal for the program should have one or more specific learning objectives that describe what students are expected to learn, what skills they will develop and what values they will have.  Each objective should relate to at least one of the courses in the major program, and most will likely be treated (at varying levels) in two or more courses that students take.  Objectives may also address the goal at different levels of depth. Some examples from Mary J. Allen's book (page 33) are provided below:

"Many different objectives can be written for the same goal, and they can varying depth of processing. For example, here are possible learning objectives at each of Bloom's [Taxonomy] levels for the following goal: 'Students will understand the major theoretical approaches within the discipline.'
  • Students can list the major theoretical approaches of the discipline (Knowledge)
  • Students can describe the key theories, concepts, and issues for the major theoretical approaches (Comprehension)
  • Students can apply theoretical principles to solve real-world problems (Application)
  • Students can analyze the strengths and limitations of each of the major theoretical approaches for understanding specific phenomena (Analysis)
  • Students can combine theoretical approaches to explain complex phenomena (Synthesis)
  • Students can select the theoretical approach that is most applicable to a phenomenon and explain why they have selected that perspective (Evaluation)"

In articulating the statement of program learning goals and objectives, the question of "how many are required" often arises. There is no "right" number but there are two things to balance. First, the goals and objectives need to describe what students are expected to learn, what skills they are expected to develop, what experiences they are expected to have, etc., through the courses in the degree program.  The "right" number of goals and objectives is thus the number needed to describe this for each major. 

This has to be balanced with the need to assess these objectives.  If a program articulates two dozen measurable objectives, then the only way that they can be assessed within a meaningful time frame would be to be assessing five or six every year.  This is likely not doable, at least not in a way that informs teaching and leads to improvement in student learning.

What it means to me is that there are some degree programs that will have as many as say 9 or 10 articulated learning objectives (the things that are actually measured through assessment) as that is what is needed to describe the program (this is especially true in programs that are very broad and that draw on multiple disciplines).  Other programs have been able to capture this in fewer goals.
 
At the end of the day what is needed is to balance the mechanics of conducting the assessments with the need to actually look at what students are learning in the various areas of the degree program.  

Works Cited:
Allen, Mary J. Assessing Academic Programs in Higher Education. Boston: Anker Publishing Company, 2004. Print