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Notes on Teaching and Learning

Transparent Learning Goals as a Way to Improve Teaching Effectiveness

October 6, 2022
ND Learning

By Benjamin Garcia Holgado

When I reflect on my own experience as an undergraduate student, I remember reading books during the weekend, completing assignments late at night, listening to long lectures, and asking myself a frustrating question: “What’s the point?” I remember thinking multiple times: “What a waste of time!” The fact that I was at a total loss about the purpose of what I was asked to do, directly affected my learning. The best way to avoid these kinds of situations is to organize our teaching around transparent learning goals. 


Transparent Learning Goals

Many times professors are primarily concerned with which authors they want to teach, and then organize their courses, individual classes, and assignments to cover specific topics and readings developed by particular scholars. What could be a better approach?

At the Kaneb Center, I learned that it is better for instructors to first delineate the specific cognitive outcomes, or “learning goals,” they want students to accomplish (see, for example, the classical taxonomies by Bloom; Fink; Anderson and Krathwohl) (1). After that, instructors can design the syllabus, individual classes, and specific assignments that help students achieve the learning goals (2).


Why should we care about transparent learning goals?

 Students learn more and better when they understand the purpose of what instructors ask them to do. If students understand the importance and value of the learning outcomes established in the syllabus, they will be more motivated to accomplish them. 

Clear and transparent learning goals help professors: 

  • decide the most appropriate content for their course
  • design dedicated active learning activities for the classroom
  • designing better and clearly focused assignments

When the learning goals of the course are clear, students will 

  • have clear expectations of what they will be doing during the semester
  • know which specific skills they will be developing
  • feel that class discussions and activities are not going off on a tangent. 


Transparent Learning Goals in Action

When I taught my own class at Notre Dame on “Global Populism” (Fall 2020), two of the learning goals were that students were able to (a) evaluate how clear, consistent, and precise diverse definitions of the term “populism” were and (b) decide which real-world politicians and parties can be considered populist. 

I explained to my students how accomplishing these goals was going to further their capacity to define with precision and clarity other important political phenomena (beyond “populism”) and, in consequence, better identify real-world manifestations of these concepts.

Given these learning goals, we spent the first classes of the semester dissecting how different authors define populism, what the different parts of their conceptualizations are, how these parts relate to each other, and so on. Then, we watched many political advertisements and speeches of political parties and politicians in order to train ourselves on how we should identify empirically what specific characteristics of a politician makes him populist. I always explained how these in-class activities were helping students to develop general skills to know how to conceptualize important phenomena in clear, consistent, and precise ways as well as being able to identify these concepts in the real world. 

These two learning goals also guided how I designed my assignments. For the midterm, students had to analyze diverse primary and secondary sources about George Wallace (former governor of Alabama and staunch defender of racial segregation) and identify Wallace’s “populist characteristics.” I explained to my students that the purpose of this assignment was to further their skills in applying the different ways of conceptualizing populism to analyze real world cases. 


Summing up

After talking to my students and reading their feedback, I realized that having clear learning goals and articulating those to them was very effective. They explicitly indicated that it was useful for them to understand the purpose of specific in-class activities and assignments within the more general context of the course (and their whole experience as undergraduates). In particular, many of them emphasized how well the activities, readings, lectures, and assignments connected to each other and helped them learn better. For example, one of them was “shocked how well each reading corresponded with the class and my synthesis of the material” and other stressed that “the class activities inforced my understanding of the course very effectively.” In my case, outcomes-centered course design had a positive effect on my student’s motivation and  performance.



(1) Action Verbs Using Bloom’s and Fink’s Taxonomies, Syracuse University

Frameworks & Taxonomies of Learning, DePaul University

(2) Backward Design, University of Colorado Boulder


Further Reading

Wiggins, Grant and Jay McTighe. 2005. Understanding by design. Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development. (Chapter 1)

Nilson, Linda. 2010. Teaching at Its Best : a Research-Based Resource for College Instructors. 3rd ed.. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. (Chapter 2). 

Ambrose, Susan and Mayer, Richard E. 2010. How Learning Works : Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. 1st ed.. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass (Chapter 3)

Christopher, Kasey. “What are we doing and why? Transparent assignment design benefits students and faculty alike.“ The Flourishing Academic: A Blog for Teacher-Scholars, 2018. 

Volk, Steven. Revealing the Secret Handshakes: The Rules of Clear Assignment Design.” Teaching and Learning at Oberlin College, 2015.