Program and School Learning Goals at Fordham

We have summarized some key ideas in curriculum design below to provide a concise guide to the formulation and use of program-level learning goals. By the conclusion of this summary, we hope that you will be prepared to integrate your disciplinary knowledge with an understanding of the desirability of expressing the educational aims of your program to articulate your own program learning goals. Links and references to more in-depth resources are provided at the end.

Every major and minor curriculum at the University was created with goals in mind. Though learning goals are present at the inception of every program, they are often left implicit, especially in long-ago established programs. Making a program’s learning goals explicit benefits faculty responsible for maintaining a vital and well-designed curriculum and students determining how to pursue their educational interests.

Learning goals are a description of what students who successfully complete a major (or minor) are expected to know and be able to do. They may also include what students are expected to value, or thoughts and actions to which they are disposed. We’ll explore these more later, but for now, consider these examples of learning goals:

Skills: Upon completion of the major, students will be able to analyze dramatic texts, theatrical events, and experimental forms with critical intelligence. (Theatre major)

Knowledge: Our students will understand fundamental biological principles from the major areas of biology (cell and molecular biology, genetics, evolution, ecology, organismal, and population biology). (Biology major)

Dispositions: A graduating student will contribute to the common good by displaying a disciplined sensibility and commitment to engagement in response to complex challenges facing local, national, or global communities. (Theology major)

Values: A graduating student will respect a range of perspectives as contributing to co-operative group activities. (General education)

Note that the statements above describe goals, the qualities students are intended to possess when they complete their degrees. They are not descriptions of actual outcomes. Note also that these are also not descriptions of what faculty do when they teach, but descriptions of what you and your students intend to achieve in the process of teaching and learning.

Program learning goals possess these basic qualities:

  • Clearly describe the knowledge, skills, dispositions, or values that students will achieve in this program
  • Important and meaningful to the program faculty
  • Translate into measurable outcomes, i.e., the program will be able to ascertain with clear evidence whether it has been achieved
  • Aligned with the program curriculum, including course goals and outcomes

Program learning goals that are most effective also have these qualities:

  • Aligned with faculty expertise
  • Aligned with the standards of the discipline’s professional organization or accrediting body, if applicable
  • Indicative of the program’s unique contributions to student learning

Uses of Learning Goals

By describing what students should learn in a program, learning goals provide a shared foundation for decision-making.

Department/Program Planning and Decision-making. Program-level learning goals explicitly or implicitly shape decisions that faculty make in deciding which courses to offer, which to require of majors and minors, when new courses are needed, whether existing courses need to be revised.

  • For example, the English Department at University A adopts a goal of preparing students to write in multiple genres. In order to provide students the opportunity to achieve this goal, it requires majors to take 3 of 5 possible writing courses: fiction writing, creative nonfiction, business writing, journalism, or scientific writing. With the anticipated retirement of their scientific writing specialist, they plan to search for a replacement in that area in order to sustain the diversity of course work available that meets their program learning goals.
  • The English Department at University B adopts a different goal. It seeks to ensure that its students understand and value the qualities of literatures from multiple cultures. To provide students with the opportunity to achieve this goal, it requires majors to take courses in works from at least three different regions: the U.S., South America, Asia, Europe, or the Middle East. It also requires a major capstone course in which students compare literatures.

Though the departments represent the same discipline, they have different learning goals for their students and thus different course requirements and course offerings. As a general rule, the learning goals of individual courses will reflect program-level learning goals insofar as the courses provide students opportunities to achieve the program goals. Decisions about course offerings and requirements also influence decisions about hiring and instructor retention. Program-level goals, course-level goals, and instructor expertise should align.

Student Decision-making. Students are most engaged and satisfied with their courses and major when they choose these with an understanding of what the courses will entail and what they themselves will achieve from their pursuits. Consider this example:

  • Student A is interested in Chemistry. Her university offers two programs, Chemistry and Chemical Engineering. Each program promises opportunities to develop foundational knowledge of chemistry, but with different aims. The Chemistry major is designed to give students “a firm foundation in the theories and models that form the basis for reasoning about molecular systems” whereas the Chemical Engineering major is designed to foster the ability to “design a system, component, or process to meet desired needs within realistic constraints such as economic, environmental, social, political, ethical, health and safety, manufacturability, and sustainability.” Student A, who prefers the campus “maker space” to the Science Olympiad, can make a better informed decision with the program learning goals available to her.

Program Review and EvaluationPeriodic program reviews ensure program quality and vitality. In a program review, faculty undertake a self-study, reviewing their accomplishments relative to their goals. In that context, program-level learning goals can shape the following fact-finding questions:

  • Are majors and minors developing the knowledge, skills, and dispositions the program intends?
  • Does the department or program offer courses that facilitate that development? In sufficient number and variety?
  • Do the courses permit progressive development of increasingly advanced skills and knowledge?

External evaluators are typically tasked with reviewing department operations and resources in relation to the department’s goals and objectives. Unless those learning goals have been articulated, the visitors are left to infer them, possibly incorrectly, from available information.

Accreditation. Our regional accreditation requires that every degree- or certificate-granting program at the University articulate its goals for students on its public website and that departments assess the achievement of those goals regularly.

Formulating Program-level Learning Goals: First Drafts

What will students know and be able to do upon successful completion of your program? Typical descriptions of program-level learning goals take the form of a list of 5-20 brief statements, though a list form is optional. The essential quality of the description of program learning goals is that, as a whole, it captures and makes explicit what all of your students will learn in the major (or minor). Because of the general nature of the statement, it is best to think of higher-order ideas, the “big ideas” central to your discipline, and skills your seniors or graduates should be expected to demonstrate. Some students may be well-versed in Geometry, for example, and others in Number Theory, but consider what they all should be able to do. Programs may also refer to their respective professional associations for ideas. Here are some tricks you might find useful in drafting your learning goals for the first time or revising existing ones:

  • Imagine yourself at a dinner party, chatting with someone you don’t know. An issue arises that someone in your discipline would likely be able to contribute to. What might your dinner companion say or do that would demonstrate to you that they’d studied the discipline?
  • The dean has tapped you to give a brief presentation to prospective students who are generally interested in your discipline. You have 5 minutes and no more than 3 Powerpoint slides to describe to the students reasons they would benefit from pursuing your major.
  • Professional associations for your discipline may have articulated core learning goals. Check their websites, searching broadly under topics like undergraduate education and curriculum design.

Consider your audience: Typically, programs develop one statement of learning goals for all audiences--themselves, their current and prospective students, and the community at large. For such a general audience, your statements should be accurate, honest appraisals of intended student learning outcomes framed in language that students, prior to studying your discipline, can appreciate. Ideally, the language you choose can also serve your students as they progress through your program, providing them an understanding of how their courses cohere, what they can achieve in the program, and even how to express those achievements to others (e.g., family, prospective employers, graduate or fellowship admissions committees).

For your statements to have use in guiding departmental decision-making or grounding a review or evaluation of your program, they should be specific enough that, at some later point, they can be translated into something observable that can indicate whether students have achieved those goals.

Formulating Program-level Learning Goals: Advanced Work

In formulating learning goals, many faculty gravitate toward statements of content knowledge and use relatively generic terms to describe the acquisition of that knowledge. Students will “understand the role of theatre,” “recognize which real-world problems are subject to mathematical reasoning,” “explain the basic tools of historical analysis.” Understanding is foundational. Nonetheless, most Fordham programs aspire to developing more advanced cognitive skills in their students.

Educational researchers have developed frameworks and taxonomies for ordering cognitive skills from elementary to advanced levels to provide a common language for describing educational goals. The most common, Benjamin Bloom’s 1956 taxonomy, is excerpted as an appendix. In Bloom’s taxonomy, understanding and conceptual knowledge are prerequisites for more sophisticated processes like critiquing and producing, knowing when to apply specific procedures and thinking strategically. Consider whether your program is intended to help students develop advanced skills and identify those. Making those aspirations explicit will help you plan your curriculum to support their achievement.

Appendix 1: Bloom’s Taxonomy

Developed by Benjamin Bloom and his colleagues (1956) and revised in 2001, this taxonomy provides a framework of cognitive activities involved in academic work. The revised version also includes a taxonomy of the knowledge these cognitive activities engage:

Cognitive Processes

  • Remember
    • Recognizing
    • Recalling
  • Understand
    • Interpreting
    • Exemplifying
    • Classifying
    • Summarizing
    • Inferring
    • Comparing
    • Explaining
  • Apply
    • Executing
    • Implementing
  • Analyze
    • Differentiating
    • Organizing
    • Attributing
  • Evaluate
    • Checking
    • Critiquing
  • Create
    • Generating
    • Planning
    • Producing

Kinds of Knowledge

  • Factual Knowledge
    • Knowledge of terminology
    • Knowledge of specific details and elements
  • Conceptual Knowledge
    • Knowledge of classifications and categories
    • Knowledge of principles and generalizations
    • Knowledge of theories, models, and structures
  • Procedural Knowledge
    • Knowledge of subject-specific skills and algorithms
    • Knowledge of subject-specific techniques and methods
    • Knowledge of criteria for determining when to use appropriate procedures
  • Metacognitive Knowledge
    • Strategic Knowledge
    • Knowledge about cognitive tasks, including appropriate contextual and conditional knowledge
    • Self-knowledge


graphical illustration of the relationship between cognitive processes and kinds of knowledge is available from Iowa State University.

Appendix 2: Resources for Further Reading

Curriculum Design

A strategy for evaluating how well your course offerings support your program goals is to create a “curriculum map.” The National Institute on Learning Outcomes Assessment offers a useful guide to curriculum mapping.

Course Design

How do you design or revise a course? The Vanderbilt Center for Teaching offers this abbreviated version of Understanding by Design (Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, 2005). Understanding by Design outlines a systematic approach to course design which starts with the course-level learning goals--what should students know and be able to do at the end of the course.

Learning Goals

The Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard offers a thoughtful piece on academic freedom and course design in the context of coherent major programs.