Learning Goals

23.09.2018 |

Episode #2 of the course The science of learning by Benjamin Keep


Welcome back!

This lesson is about defining learning goals. This is about taking what experts do and breaking them up into definable, achievable chunks. Learning goals make learning efficient because they structure the learning process.

It may seem trivial to make learning goals: “I want to learn mathematics” or “I want to learn how to scuba dive.” Seems pretty simple. But these learning goals are not very helpful. It’s hard to evaluate whether—or when—you’ve accomplished them. At what point have you “learned” mathematics? How would you know that you learned it?

Good learning goals are precise, measurable, and linked to identified expert skills. Crafting learning goals that have these attributes, however, takes practice.


Make Learning Goals Precise

Precise learning goals are specific and concrete.

Take the goal “to learn mathematics.” This goal is too general. Mathematics is a HUGE subject: algebra, trigonometry, calculus, complex analysis—the list goes on and on. Learning mathematics is just too big of subject to grapple with at once. A better learning goal might be, “to be able to solve algebra equations with two unknown variables,” or, “to be able to translate algebraic problems of two variables into geometric problems.” These goals target a very specific skill.

Now take the goal, “to appreciate Baroque architecture.” This goal is too abstract. What does it mean to “appreciate” something? Perhaps we mean something more like the following: “to be able to identify Baroque architecture through its characteristic features,” or, “to be able to distinguish examples of Baroque architecture from examples of Renaissance and Neoclassical architecture.” The revised learning goals are more concrete.


Make Learning Goals Measurable

The other major mistake that people make when establishing learning goals is to not make them measurable. Goals aren’t very useful when we don’t have a good way of measuring whether we have met them.

You may have noticed how I have framed all my good examples of learning goals: “to be able to …” The best learning goals are framed in terms of what you will be able to do. This comes back to the expert practices that we identified last lesson. This framing automatically implies a way of measuring whether you have met the goal: Are you able to do what the goal says you should be able to do?

What if you just want to “know” something? I’m interested in Chinese history. Maybe I just want to know a little bit about it; I’m not planning on “doing” anything with it. If you feel this way, ask yourself this question: What could you do with this knowledge? Maybe it’s “identify important periods in Chinese history,” or, “understand how events and themes in Chinese history shaped modern Chinese culture,” or any number of other things. From there, I could derive more precise learning goals.

Of course, our learning goals also have to be feasible. In many cases, we have to build up to complex learning goals. Depending on our prior knowledge, we may want to first learn basics about architecture before tackling our Baroque architecture goal, for example.


How Can These Ideas Help?

There are many teachers who don’t establish precise and measurable learning goals at the beginning of the course. In this case, try to establish learning goals yourself. It will make your learning more effective when you can refer to these goals periodically as both a motivator—“I can now perform learning goal X!”—and as a guide for the future.

Writing good learning goals can be challenging. An example goal for learning Chinese might be: “I want to be able to ask for directions to some place and understand possible responses.” Try this: Write down at least three learning goals for a target topic. Are they precise, measurable, and linked to the expert practices? If not, improve them.

Next lesson, we’ll discuss an important idea that underlies all effective learning strategies: cognitive load.

Happy learning!



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Unlimited Memory: How to Use Advanced Learning Strategies to Learn Faster, Remember More, and Be More Productive by Kevin Horsley


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