eCoaching Tip 73 Developing Explicit and Personal Learning Goals

January 08, 2010

eCoaching Tip 73  Developing Explicit and Personal Learning Goals

Have you ever asked yourself,  “How do I get my students excited about the course content and what we will be doing?” In addition to being excited, enthusiastic and energized about the course yourself, one of the best ways to engage learners quickly in a course is to have them customize their learning goals.  And to do it very early, as in a discussion forum the first week of the course.

The process for customizing the learning goals for a course requires students to do the following:

  • Analyze — and often synthesize — the generic course goals
  • Review and scan the readings, assignments of the course
  • Consider what is of most interest and importance to them during the course and after the course
  • Develop, record, share, discuss and possibly modify their customized learning goals with the other learners

Examples of Customizing Learning Goals

Here are three examples of generic course goals and how learners might customize them.  Learners may want to personalize goals to fit current work or life interests or to fit anticipated future work and life challenges.

Example 1: Music – The Enjoyment of Music

Generic Learning Goal

  • Develop a genuine desire to pursue music as a lifelong enjoyment.

Note:  This is a good generic goal that takes the learner “beyond the course” into applying and using the course content over a lifetime.  It includes an affective dimension as well, such as enjoying music.

Customized Learning Goals

  • Get to know two additional genres of music, branching out from what is now familiar to me.
  • Expand my music collection for my iPod or CDs to include music from the 16th(possibly madrigal) and 19thcentury (Romantic).
  • Learn to play or sing music from my familiar or new repertoire

Note:  As learners review the syllabus and the activities for the course, they refine the generic goals to be very specific, personal and do-able.  This also provides a foundation, basis for assessing the success of the student for the course.

Example 2: Comparative Leadership Studies

Generic Learning Goal

  • Understand and articulate the changing roles of the global leader

Note: This generic goal integrates a number of concepts, such as the fact that global leaders are sensitive to the needs of a particular time and a particular set of circumstances, including the various needs and interests of populations.  Examples of how the roles of leaders are changing over time are needed to make this understanding rich and useable.

Customized Learning Goals

  • Identify 3-5 countries of interest, such as China, Afghanistan and India and define the particular needs of leaders for these countries
  • Identify one-two leaders in these areas and follow their work through one or two crises or initiatives, linking their actions to the research, and suggesting alternatives
  • Analyze the changing role of the global leader, such as from the decade of the 1990’s to the current decade within the context of the personally developed scenario

Note:  As learners personalize their goals, they can identify projects and content that may have particular relevance to their current work environment.  By sharing these goals, other learners see other examples of how the course content can be used in their own careers.  More specifically, learners are able to focus their time more specifically to the particular country or regions that the learner is interested in developing expertise and competence in.

Example 3: Cell Biology

Generic Learning Goal

  • Relate the structure and patterns of basic cell types to the activities of the cells

Note: This generic goal is more knowledge-focused as it depends on understanding basic concepts and functions in a scientific discipline.  This generic goal does not extend to applying this knowledge in problem-solving, so it also might be described as a lower-level goal, but a necessary foundation for solving complex problems or understanding the complexity of scientific challenges.

Customized Learning Goals

  • To develop an understanding of the structure and activities of the basic cell types, I will (develop a concept map, draw a series of diagrams, develop a way of explaining it to my family/friends, find and share with others examples of two research studies that focusing on solving a particular cellular disease.)

Note: Refining and personalizing basic knowledge goals might be a little difficult for initial concept building as learners may not have sufficient knowledge to figure out how to apply or use this knowledge.  These types of goals may represent a new knowledge area for students, an area for which they may have little prior knowledge or understanding. Part of the value of personalizing knowledge goals can be in articulating what or how they “may” want to use this in the future, and then reviewing it at the end of the course.

How do Customized Goals Relate to Course Goals

One question that you may have is how the customized goals relate to the generic goals.  For example, you may wonder if these customized goals arein additionto the generic goals or if they supplantthe generic goals.

The answer is not quite either additive or instead of.  Rather, customized goals are a way of operationalizing the generic goals.  For example, most courses have project or report requirements.  Making the requirements flexible so that they can accommodate the customization of goals is the way to make the goals real and personal while meeting larger program goals.


Creating customized goals can be likened to creating a “to do” list for the course, encouraging learners to embrace, define and specify next steps for their own learning.  Another benefit is that it is easier to make progress on and complete more of the tasks that we take the time to consciously record and write down.

Customizing the learning goals of a course also immediately draws learners in and creates and suggests specific learning actions much earlier.


Bonus Idea:  Thinking about Learning Outcomes

If you have been teaching a long time and feel the desire for a fresh approach to developing learning goals, you may want to consider the six thinking dimensions discussed by Daniel E. Pink, political speechwriter turned author, in his 2005 book. Pink suggests that the 21stcentury is a new conceptual age that is encouraging, even requiring, a shift from left-brain thinking to right-brain thinking.

Pink describes six new “right-brain” abilities that we should focus on:

  • Design – It’s no longer sufficient to create something for functional purpose but today it also has to be beautiful and emotionally engaging.
  • Story – At the heart of any argument is the ability to also shape a compelling narrative that goes beyond a simple line of reasoning.
  • Symphony – The greatest demand today, according to Pink, is not analysis but synthesis. It is about seeing the big picture and crossing boundaries.
  • Empathy – It is the capacity to go beyond logic and understand others and forge relationships.
  • Play – Seriousness has its place but everyone needs some lightheartedness and time to play.
  • Meaning – In a world of abundance and disparities encourages the pursuit of transcendence and spiritual fulfillment.

Integrating Right-Brain Thinking into Learning Goals

The challenge in revisiting our learning goals for our courses is to think about how the goals can encourage developing these kinds of right-brain skills and thinking.   If we return to the examples above, such as the learning goal for the music course, we can be sure to include the fun and enjoyment of creating and sharing music. This would encourage the “play” dimension.  For the comparative leadership course, the dimensions of “empathy” and “story narratives” might be highlighted; for the course in cell biology, the dimension of “symphony” and “design” might be integrated.

Here is a link to a review of Pink’s book, A Whole New Mind- Why Right-Brainers will Rule the Future  and a link to a Pink video/audio interview on Oprah.


Lynd-Balta, E. (2006). Using literature and innovative assessments to ignite interest and cultivate critical thinking skills in an undergraduate neuroscience course. CBE Life Sciences Education.5, 167–174.

Pink, D. H. (2005). A whole new mind – Why right-brainers will rule the world.New York Penguin. Pp. 275.

Note: These E-coaching tips were initially developed for faculty in the School of Leadership & Professional Advancement at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. This library of tips has been organized and updated through 2016  in the second edition of the  book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips coauthored with Rita Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached judith followed by

Copyright by Judith V. Boettcher