Learning Goals: Faculty and Students Don’t Agree

The findings of a recent study documenting differences between the priorities that faculty and students give to various learning goals will not come as a surprise to many. Those differences are an undercurrent that flow through most classes.

The goals reviewed in this particular study were a version of goals offered in Angelo and Cross’ well-known Classroom Assessment Techniques handbook: critical thinking, basic academic skills, career preparation, scientific reasoning, personal development, mastery of discipline content, citizenship and values, and art and cultural appreciation. Both students and faculty were asked about the importance and priority placed on each of these eight goals.

How would you prioritize that list of goals? If your list includes critical thinking, basic academic skills, and mastery of discipline content, then your priorities are the same as those most common to faculty surveyed in this research. Would you do as well identifying what students consider the most important goals for a course? Those surveyed for this study also gave high priority to basic skills acquisition, but just as high on those student lists were personal development and career development.

“These results suggest that faculty and students differ both statistically and practically on the values they place on six of the eight learning goals under study.” (p. 56) More statistical analysis revealed an uncharacteristically large difference between the value that faculty and students placed on the development of critical thinking, with faculty giving it a much higher priority than students did. Bottom line, according to this research: “[F]aculty and students not only have a different set of learning goals that each prioritizes but … they also disagree more than they agree on the value of eight common learning goals.” (p. 56)

Is such an extent of disagreement a problem? Yes! It means that faculty and students aren’t always on the same page. Faculty craft assignments to develop critical thinking skills, and students devote little time and energy to their completion, because what faculty have asked them to do doesn’t seem relevant to preparing for anticipated careers.

These goals are not discrete, independently operating premises. An assignment that seeks to develop the ability to think critically can be very relevant to career preparation. But those connections may not be clear to students. A discussion of how learning to think critically relates to career preparation may be what’s needed to motivate students.

The more interesting and less easily answered question concerns the extent to which students’ goals and priorities ought to be considered in development of curricula. That question can be asked about the collection of courses that make a major as well as about an individual instructor’s objectives for a particular assignment. Should faculty be giving more weight to the personal development of interest to students? Obviously, the answer depends to some degree on the course content, but that consideration aside, do learners have a role setting the educational agenda?

The quick response of most faculty is “no.” After all, we are the ones with the knowledge and expertise. But the author of the study pushes the issue by identifying several educational ideas that “strongly suggest” (p. 53) incorporation of student perceptions, goals, and expectations if the goal is to create educational experiences that foster growth and learning. Might it be possible to give students a role while at the same time allowing faculty to retain the responsibilities that come with content knowledge?

Reference: Myers, C.B. (2008). Divergence in learning goal priorities between college students and their faculty: Implications for teaching and learning. College Teaching, 56 (1), 53-58.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, June-July 2008.