Humanists feel that there is more to a college education than merely instrumentalist aims. We argue that there is a larger purpose, a broader range of learning and development that takes place beyond simply acquiring job skills. But, do our students know what we mean by this?

In the interests of making the value of humanities courses, and the degree as a whole, explicit for students, I have created a “learning objectives master grid” [PDF]. This document outlines what I believe are the core academic and life skills that are acquired over the course of a college career in the humanities. I hand out this grid in all of my classes, adding check marks in the right hand column for the skills that are being targeted in each particular class. That way, students can both see what skills they will acquire during the semester and also see where those sit within the grander scheme of their overall college education.

The master grid [PDF]

The document is divided in to four sections. The first three represent different approaches to information (consumption, curation, and creation of knowledge) that each comprise specific elements of critical thinking. (I have discussed these “three Cs” further in another post.)

High school humanities courses largely emphasize what I call the consumption of knowledge (i.e., the skills needed to take in information effectively). But, in my experience, the modern American college classroom cannot proceed on the assumption that all students in the class have been equally prepared by their secondary education in these areas. Entry-level humanities courses in college thus need to ensure that all students have acquired these skills before moving further. My lower level General Education courses heavily emphasize assignments focused on consumption, particularly early in the semester. With my entry-level learning objectives clear, I design assignments and assessments to teach and measure students’ ability to consume information by reading closely, listening carefully, taking notes, retaining information, and so forth.

Students who have been well served by their secondary education usually have begun to curate knowledge before they arrive in college, and as the semester progresses my General Education classes begin to increasingly emphasize these skills. Whereas the consumption phase emphasizes how one internalizes information presented by others, here we are developing the ability to analyze, combine, synthesize, and construct novel arguments of one’s own. At this point there is also a lot of technical detail that students need to learn about how to put together curated projects, such as lit review papers or presentations in various multimedia or digital formats. Assignments at this stage thus involve both critical thinking about what to say, as well as the particular mechanics of presenting their ideas in professional ways.

Image by Fredler Brave, Wikimedia Commons.

While my General Education courses usually start with consumption and peak with curation, I typically include an option for more advanced students to engage in the third phase, the creation of knowledge. (I usually require this option for honors students.) In upper-level courses for humanities majors, on the other hand, creation is usually the major focus of the semester. I ask students to use the paper and presentation formats they have learned to produce in the past in order to offer new critiques, perspectives, or interpretations of existing knowledge. Or, to work with primary sources such as historical documents or ethnographic interviews to uncover new information that adds to the knowledge base of a particular academic field. In this phase, new forms of critical thinking are required in designing the project and understanding how to contribute something new and useful to a field of knowledge.

Finally, the fourth section of the master grid represents a set of “life objectives,” learning objectives that apply across multiple dimensions of life in and outside of the classroom. These are traits, skills, or perspectives that are not usually explicit parts of the explicit humanities curriculum, but are vital nonetheless. Some people learn these lessons in middle school, and others spend a lifetime coming to terms with them. My feeling is that every college student should ideally have the opportunity to develop in all of these areas throughout their college career. But, this can’t happen as effectively if these domains are overlooked or ignored by faculty. Writing these learning objectives into the grid that I share with students tells them that I recognize them as whole persons, and makes explicit how I think my class can benefit their development in the broadest terms.

Earlier this summer, I was a mentor at a workshop for young faculty. Part of my responsibilities for the week was to lead break-out sessions discussing teaching strategies in smaller groups. I almost always found myself introducing the participants to the idea of learning objectives for the first time, which tells me how little attention this tool receives in graduate training. As a graduate student and young faculty member myself, I always treated learning objectives as an afterthought, preferring to put much more time into developing course content. However, these days, I have come to think of learning objectives as one of the most important tools in my course-design toolbox. Having clear and explicit ideas about what exactly we want students to get out of our classes, and how our classes fit into their overall educational and personal development, is the paramount first step to building a course that is meaningful for students and faculty alike. 

What would you add to this master grid? Please leave your ideas in the comments below.

Pedagogical Transparency & the Master Learning Objectives Grid