Friday, August 14, 2009

Taking Course Goal Seriously

How do we articulate course goals in an age of knowledge and information? Does it sacrifice the notion that we ought to trust the power of the texts themselves and our expertise at helping students navigate such texts? Do we do a disservice to students by emphasizing the very targets of assessment mechanisms - knowledge learned - at the cost of a more loose and cryptic notion of what "students should come away with."

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T.S. Eliot asked in his 1934 poem The Rock: Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” I find myself admonishing myself with these words as I craft my syllabi. I should note that I am coming off a year sabbatical, which makes the problem I describe here only more acute.

When I was on the job market I was given sage advice about how to answer a certain interview question: how would you teach course X? I was told: don’t hand them a syllabus, don’t spout a bibliography – talk about what you want students who take the course to come away with.

I took the interview advice and I also took the advice as it was probably intended: if you get the job, think this way about your courses as well. I followed it. But eight years later, I find myself having more difficulty taking that advice. In crafting my syllabi I seem more interested in what the students should know – what information they should have – than in what they should, cryptically, take away from the course.

As the bloggers here know, I have an uneasy relationship with assessment. In a trivial sense, it is absolutely necessary and helpful. But for many of us earnest and honest teachers, it also makes us uneasy – not because we do not want to be assessed, but because it tends to ask the very questions that are making me uneasy about the way I have found myself thinking of my courses lately: should courses be judged on what information and knowledge they impart?

I’ve been prepping a course in Modern: 17th and 18th Century philosophy. In trying to cover as much as possible and in trying to make sure that students understand the scientific and historical contexts I find myself crafting a syllabus that maximizes information at the cost of trusting the texts and trusting myself.

This post doesn’t pose a question so much as a challenge to myself and others during this pre-term time: how do we, in the age of assessment, take course goals seriously by asking what it is that we want students to (cryptically) come away with? For my part, it is not information or knowledge, but understanding. And such understanding might come at the price of information and knowledge.


  1. Hi Becko-

    Hmmm. I'm having trouble pinpointing your anxiety. You seem to have in mind that when we try to articulate course learning goals, we tend to focus on "knowledge" or "information" at the expense of "understanding," with the result that this focus leads to a kind of mistrust of one's course material and of oneself as an instructor.

    I guess I'm not fully seeing the anxiety. It seems to me possible to have course goals that incorporate understanding rather than knowledge or information in the narrow sense. So here are my course learning objectives the last time I taught moral theory:

    "By the conclusion of this course, students should be able to:
    1) explain the goals and motivations of philosophical theorizing about morality
    2) articulate the principal features of egoistic, utilitarian, Kantian, and virtue-based theories of morality, highlighting their points of agreement and disagreement
    3) describe how these theories can be applied to evaluate the morality of actions, policies, or individuals
    4) identify argumentative considerations that favor each theory and their respective strengths and weaknesses in satisfying the theoretical and practical aims of moral theory"

    Not trying to toot my own horn here, but I think these goals combine knowledge or information in a narrow sense with goals that require genuine understanding on the part of students. And I tend to think that meeting narrow knowledge/information goals are precursors to understanding. So, for instance, using these goals as an example, meeting goal 4 (looks to me like an 'understanding'-type goal) requires meeting goal 2 (more of a 'knowledge/information' goal).

    I think most philosophy instructors want students not simply to master a body of information, but also to understand systems of ideas, the contours of philosophical debates, etc. And it's part of the art of teaching to instill understanding, to fashion learning tasks that develop understanding, and to craft evaluative instruments that measure this understanding accurately.

    Perhaps your worry is that the clear articulation of course learning goals, itself a byproduct of the emergence of assessment in higher ed, encourages dumbing down in the sense that it encourages us to focus on easy learning goals (narrow knowledge/information goals) that can be readily met and assessed instead of more ambitious 'understanding'-type goals. I agree that this can be true, but it need not be.

    One last thought: Something in your post suggests to me that maybe you fear that being too goal-oriented makes the act of teaching too teleological and too intentional — that excessive focus on goals S crowds out the possibility of students' serendipitously achieving valuable learning goals T. Sort of a law of unintended consequences concern?

    I'd be interested to hear more about the worries in your post.

  2. Hello,

    I am a senior in high school and from a student's perspective (albeit a high school student's) I think the answer lies in what you think is in what you can give your students that no one else can. There is probably a large amount of tidbits about college classes that I do not know anything about, but I have still been a professional student for about 11 years now.

    Another thing I have been thinking about, since I am at the dawn of higher learning, just beginning to explore more sophisticated ways of analyzing the world, I find myself stripping youthful curiosities and replacing them with the way adults view the world. In other words, say I read a novel, now I analyze it by looking for literary "clues" as I have seen professors and teachers do.

    That being said, I feel like I am loosing valuable unique insight by, basically, learning to think like scholars do. Not that I do not also GAIN insight that way, but there is an honesty in that initial skepticism that children approach new methods of thought. What I am trying to say is that perhaps you should aim to preserve your students' originality when approaching philosophical texts.

    If what I say is useless or naive, well I guess I will realize it shortly as I embark into college life myself.

    Best of luck,


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