Aiming for course learning

When talking with peers about courses we teach, most instructors can identify our teaching goals—what we hope students will learn, what we plan to cover, and what we believe students should learn in our courses. Writing up these ideas as Student Learning Aims to anchor our course planning practices is a more difficult task. In part difficult because we need to shift into writing for an audience of learners rather than of peers. With students as the main audience, we shift to writing for people new to our courses, our fields, our core concepts, content, and practices. A second aspect of this difficulty comes from needing to devise a sequence of aims that is logical from a beginner’s, rather than an expert’s, point of view.

This page incorporates questions and resources to draw on in shaping course aims, which will later inform your decisions about activities, assignments, and assessments students will engage to develop knowledge, monitor progress, and demonstrate learning in your particular course.

Course Learning Aims

Think about the big picture

Rather than begin with content, begin with developing, drafting, and devising specific course learning aims that you will share with students. These aims will name your expectations about the level and types of learning that learners will need to demonstrate to successfully complete your course.

The short Aims video (~4 minutes) provides an overview of three levels of aims: ultimate (course level), mediating (assignment/exam level), and foundational (preparing for and in class activities at recall/retrieve/application level).


Key questions for generative thinking at this stage

  • What do I want my students to know, do, and demonstrate during, at the end of, and beyond their time in my course?  These overarching, cognitively complex aims are often named as “goals”, “objectives,” or “outcomes.” In this resource we use the term “ultimate aims” (Nilson, 24).
  • What might be the “mediating” or “foundational” aims that a novice or beginning learner might need to engage and accomplish on the way to demonstrating the ultimate aims I have identified?

Refer to Nilson’s “Outcomes-Centered Course Design” in Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (John Wiley & Sons, 2016) for further discussion of aims aware – or outcomes-centered – course design.

Draft learning aims for your course

Begin drafting your learning aims as statements of what students will know or do by the end of your course, remembering that aims written for students should be performance oriented and measurable. When drafting your aims, these questions help keep learners and learning in mind:

  • Do the verbs I use in my aims clearly indicate the knowledge or skills I want students to achieve?
  • Are my aims measurable? What learning activities and assessment possibilities come to mind when I consider these aims?  

Resources to consider in the drafting and revising process:

  • Examples of Learning-Centered Aims
  • “Converting Class Syllabi to the Outcomes Based Teaching and Learning Format” - article that draws on Biggs and Tang “aligned course design” process

Clarify and communicate your learning outcomes

In revising learning aims, plan for how you will support the aims within other segments of your syllabus, and about how you will speak about the aims when you initially introduce the course—its aims, activities, assignments, and assessments—to students. Mulling your responses to the following questions will help you refine your learning aims:

  • What do these outcomes look like from a learner’s perspective? Remembering that novices will see the aims differently from experts who suffer from “the curse of knowing”—or forgetting it was we came to learn what we now ask learners to master.
  • What will a student DO to practice and to demonstrate achievement of these aims?
  • How will these outcomes guide your further course and class session design?


  • Folder of 3 aims - writing resources linked to Bloom’s and Fink’s learning taxonomy as a resource to support instructors in identifying specific, unambiguous verbs to serve as anchors for the aims we compose.  Once you’ve established learning aims, reviewing course content to discern what must be included to support learning and learners relative to the aims can begin.
  • Choosing content to achieve overarching goals (The Science Education Resource Center) - an excellent resource guide for filtering content at this stage—whatever your discipline.