Organizing Course Learning Goals

Organizing Course Learning Goals January 9, 2014

I tried something new in my two classes at Butler in the fall semester, and I liked it enough that I’m going to continue it in my spring classes and also share it with you all here.

Often, when I am writing syllabi and constructing my first-day “let’s all get oriented” lectures, I find myself trying to balance my broader learning goals (instilling critical thinking skills, attentive reading skills, and so on) with my discipline-specific goals. In the case of folklore classes, it’s important to learn what we do differently when studying folklore than, say, literature, but also to learn about the topics at hand, which is more of a methods vs. facts distinction.

Then there’s this issue: articulating a balance of learning goals that is helpful to me when writing the syllabus is a different thing than trying to convey this information to my students, so they can know what’s expected of them. I think the idea I’m going to share here is more helpful for the latter, but maybe it’ll work well when kept in mind for the former, too.

In both of my classes last fall, I told my students that they were going to be learning three main types of things in the class:

  • Objective
  • Subjective
  • Critical

I’ll explain this with examples from my Folklore of the Midwest class.

  • Objective knowledge about folklore in/of the Midwest: we learned how to identify various folklore genres and texts; we learned the terminology used in folklore studies; there IS a right and a wrong answer for this kind of thing (don’t try to convince me that a riddle is a legend; it will go poorly for you)
  • Subjective knowledge about folklore in/of the Midwest: we learned how to identify folklore in our own lives, which would be different for each individual student; here, students might make connections between folklore items discussed in class and items known in their folk groups, ranging from family folklore to occupational folklore; there’s not so much a right or wrong here since this is very personal, but you should still be using folklore terminology correctly
  • Critical thinking about folklore in/of the Midwest: we learned how to apply concepts from class to not only our lives, but also the world around us; this is less easy to gauge than the other two elements, but it emerges when I have students design their own fieldwork projects, and when we discuss current events in class and I can see students making connections between class concepts and superficially unrelated topics

I came up with a similar breakdown of concepts and knowledges in my gender studies class last semester, which had even more of a subjective component to it since we were discussing marriage, relationships, sexuality, and gender, which people often respond to emotionally. Both of my classes seemed to respond well to this paradigm when I presented them with it on the first day of class, and I reminded them of it throughout the semester and at the semester’s close. I suppose this is what’s referred to as “scaffolding” in course design and lesson plan design – having a concrete idea of where the class is supposed to go, and giving your students the support and structure they need in order to think and explore in that direction.

This semester I’m probably going to stick closely to this course concept in one of my classes, and try something different in the other. I may well apply it in my class on fairy tales, sexuality, and desire, since as we all know, things tend to come in threes in fairy tales. I’ll try a different learning-goal paradigm for my class on dance, gender, and the body, and I’ll report back on any notable successes or failures in a few months.

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