Explaining course content so that students understand the material taught is critical to effective learning. Research bears this out. Studies on college classroom behaviors have coded more than 20 separate instructional dimensions important to student learning, suggesting the multi-dimensionality of teaching. At the same time, studies have identified characteristics of teaching most strongly related to student achievement. Without fail, two dimensions stand out—teacher clarity and preparation/organization. For example, an in-depth meta-analysis and a multi-institutional study of student responses to instruction indicated that of all instructional dimensions identified, teacher “clarity and understandableness” and “preparation and organization” had the highest correlations with student achievement (1, 2).
Further, studies suggest the specific teaching behaviors that define high teacher clarity and highlight the linkage between teacher clarity and learning, especially for undergraduate students. For example, behaviors such as putting an outline on the board or computer projector, signaling transitions between key points, using relevant and multiple examples during explanation, repeating difficult ideas, stressing important points, and reviewing material are consistently shown to have a positive influence on student learning outcomes (3). Similarly, lecture cues that are written or oral dramatically improve undergraduate students’ notetaking, and the organizational points recorded in students’ notes are positively related to their learning from lectures (4). Studies also have found that teacher clarity has a positive and significant relationship with students’ motivation, affective attitudes toward the teacher and course, and cognitive learning (5).
While there are a range of behaviors related to high teacher clarity and studies on the topic in various disciplines, taken together they point to the importance of communicating subject matter to students in a way that makes the content intelligible and thus enables their learning. Item 10 correlates strongly with Item #3 (scheduling course work that lets students keep up), Item #6 (making clear how course topics fit together), Item #12 (gave tests, projects, etc. that covered the most important points of the course), and Item #17 (provided timely and frequent feedback on tests, reports, projects, etc. to help students improve). These relationships reinforce the importance and interconnectedness of teaching skills in planning, organizing, sequencing, clarifying, and assessing instruction.
Presenting and explaining course material clearly and concisely can encourage students to more effectively process and retain course content. Since this item focuses on teachers’ explanations of material, the following hints are phrased in terms of lectures. However, these hints can apply to other instructional formats such as managing group work, the publication of study guides or notes on course web pages, and technology-based presentations, particularly in distance learning.
Don’t make assumptions about what students know. Gather information about the students in your class such as their year in school, major, related courses and prerequisites they have completed. Administer a short diagnostic pretest or background knowledge survey to identify what topics or skills students already have mastered (6, 7). After preparing class notes, review them carefully and ask yourself what might students find hard to follow and what examples might make a concept clearer. You might highlight the parts of your presentation that students are likely to find difficult and make a special effort to make those points very clear.
Define what you want students to learn. Let students know in advance what you expect them to do with the information presented. Some faculty preview learning goals by posting them online before class or on a PowerPoint slide at the start of class. This provides students with an outline or list of questions or problems that will be focused on during class.
As subject matter experts in their field, faculty know almost intuitively what the most important things are that students must master. In order to develop learning goals, faculty should answer the question, “What do I want my students to know or be able to do by the end of this course?”
Developing a set of learning goals for a course takes what faculty know but don’t always state and puts it into a short list of real concepts that can guide students and add clarity to teaching and learning. The overall goal for teaching should be learning. When students know what they should be able to do by the end of a course it will be less of a challenge for them to meet that goal.
Clearly defined learning goals contribute to a structure that surrounds a course and can aid in selecting appropriate graded and ungraded assessments, selecting relevant content for the course, and enhancing the assessment or grading practices.
- Remember that learning goals do not place limits on what you can teach in a course. Instead, goals provide a map or signposts that tell students where the course is going.
- Learning goals can add to student’s sense of ownership in the learning process helping them feel like they are on the inside logic of the course instead of the outside.
- Learning goals can be a useful communication tool. Faculty can describe their course to colleagues and students by beginning with their goals.
- Departments can gain a sense of curricular cohesiveness if multiple courses have learning goals.
You are the expert in this process. Begin by relying on what you know about the subject, what you know you can realistically teach in the course, and what your students can realistically learn. As you begin developing learning goals think of concepts, topics, important skills, and vital areas of learning connected to your course. Make a list and don’t worry about developing full goal statements. That will come later. The list you develop is perhaps the most important step in this exercise; it will form the basis for goals, assessments, and the overall teaching and learning process. Share your list with colleagues. Let them help you critique it. Keep returning to “what can you realistically teach and what can your students learn” as a way of editing the list to something that is manageable. Your list should help you answer the question, “What do I want my students to know or be able to do by the end of this course?”
Consider the following points as you develop learning goals:
- Don’t get trapped into thinking that you will only be able to teach to the goals. Your learning goals point out the high points and learners always need to know all of the supporting content, theory, data, different points of view, and relevant facts that support the high points.
- Keep the number of learning goals - manageable and realistic. The first time you go through this exercise opt for a shorter list knowing that you can edit it as needed. Five or six goals might be a good starting point.