Helping Students Understand Intended Learning Outcomes

Faculty who communicate intended learning outcomes help students to be more aware of their learning. The realities of “meta-learning” are that students gain practice in becoming more reflective on their experiences as learners—they start to see the why and how of education as it translates into knowledge and skills. Just as important is how they begin to view the educational experience in its entirety.

With intended learning outcomes stated for the students, a number of shifts in the student/faculty relationship can take place, paving the way for a better educational experience:

  • Faculty can more clearly talk about the “why” of the curriculum. Readings, projects, and even tests, set within the context of anticipated learning outcomes, provide a readily identifiable set of values that the faculty can discuss with students.
  • Students can now see that their faculty have their best interests at heart. Rather than making random requirements that, to many students, correlate to academic hazing (“the professor had to learn this stuff, so we do too”), the students have a better sense of why they need to learn certain material and processes for a particular purpose that correlates to particular contexts.
  • Once students understand the intended outcomes, they can more readily talk with their professors about their progress in a course beyond just completing a reading or project assignment or discussing how they did on a test. With a clear sense of where they are supposed to “end up,” students can more effectively talk about the journey itself—and about possible roadblocks or detours as well.
  • Similarly, students can more readily participate in the advising process, understanding that they may still choose, for example, which humanities course to take based on what time they want to take it or which professor they want to get, but that a third option also exists as a basis for making that decision: how the course’s content and approach will actually contribute to their goals for learning—either for their personal growth or for what they will need to know and be able to do as they enter the world of work.
  • Students can begin to see the faculty member as their coach or mentor on this journey. Although this role is uncomfortable for some faculty, the reality is that students’ lifelong partners in both their learning and social development are rarely the one-time faculty member (although such faculty can have a profound “turning-point” effect on a student) but, more likely, mentors or bosses or others who fill a similar long-term role. Such a recasting of characters helps students to see their faculty as professionals who (a) have their best interests at heart (again), (b) are far less concerned with their grades than with their development (as we encourage our students to be), and (c) encourage them to stretch, to aim higher, and to expect more from themselves than the bare minimum.
  • Students can better understand the breadth of expertise their faculty actually hold, beyond being good in whatever discipline they teach. Students can now see faculty as experts in learning—in articulating specific values for students’ knowledge and skills and designing the curriculum and its assignments as specific means of promoting the development of that knowledge and skill set. And they can do so in the context of what the faculty value most—deep, meaningful engagement—as well as what most students value most: getting a job and, ultimately, progressing through a career.

As the public arena becomes more contentious for higher education, faculty are increasingly admonished to be more transparent with what they are doing, why they are doing it, and whether they are succeeding. We may certainly lament the passing of the golden age and its heady adoration for the professoriate, but we are unlikely to resurrect it. We would be wise to make our intentions clear to our public—and to our students.

Friedman, T. (2004). The world is flat: A brief history of the twenty-first century. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005.

Light, R. J. (2001). Making the most of college: Students speak their minds. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Pascarella, E. T., & Terenzini, P. T. (1991). How college affects students: Findings and insights from twenty years of research. Jossey-Bass.

Jo Allen is senior vice president and provost at Widener University.

Excerpted from Beyond Serendipity: The Value of Intentional Learning, Academic Leader, October 2008.