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Breaking up with best practices; Hooking up with learning goals

Last weekend* I heard two sentences that sparked one of those great “ah hah!” moments. A writing center director said, “We’ve moved away from best practices and toward learning goals. This helps us prioritize and it helps us evaluate whether we’re accomplishing what we wanted to accomplish.”

I’ve talked before about how learning goals keep me focused and keep me from burning out on instruction, but it occurred to me in what felt like new says how the framework of learning goals could solve a lot of problems for me in ways that their less actionable cousins (like “best practices” or “standards” or even phrases like “user centered”) couldn’t.

Here’s what I mean in three examples:

  • In my own teaching, there are usually 15 or 20 Very Important things that I wish I could teach my students in any given session. Using learning goals helps me prioritize from among the very important things, feel less guilty about letting some very important things fall by the wayside, remember to think about what they’re learning rather than what I’m teaching, and feel connected to the broader, more interesting issues of information literacy.
  • In selecting a discovery tool, there are long, long lists of features and functions that user-centered design relies on. No interface has each specific feature, so how do we choose? How do we prioritize the list of very important features? What if we developed learning goals for our discovery system? What if these goals were something like being able to learn the differences between kinds of sources, be able to pick out important terms for the topic and field, and see where to go from here (different searches, different databases, different people). Maybe one system doesn’t have faceting but does have something else that reveals terms and directions. Maybe our usability tests could be more a long the lines of assessment of what the students learned by interacting with the system. Maybe this would all help us prioritize from the long list of important things to choose a system that functions in service of the mission of our library.
  • In first year seminars (the context in which the original phrase came up), focusing on programmatic learning goals could help prioritize from the long list of things it’d be nice if all first year students knew. Maybe it would help guard against creating impossibly long check lists of things students should be exposed to, and therefore guard against treating first year seminars as massive inoculations that transform high school students into college students. Maybe it would also grant the teaching faculty the freedom to explore interesting topics in interesting ways while having similar learning outcomes.

Or maybe I’m just creating my own buzz phrase. Or maybe everyone else already knew this.

But for me, at my institution, expanding this framework beyond my direct teaching or my department’s strategic planning is helping me make those hard decisions that crop up all over the place and to make them with more confidence.

* Last weekend I attended a workshop called Teaching and Maintaining Mulitdisciplinary First-Year Seminar Programs hosted at the gorgeous Pomona College campus. This is the second blog post drawing on my experiences there.

Published inSearch and DiscoveryTeaching and Learning


  1. I’m not a UX person (obviously) though I value it highly. So I ask in all curiosity, is user needs assessment the same thing with a different name? Or is there a way in which the goals or methods are different?

    Here’s a short gloss on how I view learning goals. We create statements that connect the concrete to the abstract along the lines of: “Students will” + [verb phrase] + “in order to” + [goal]. So we use action words from Bloom’s Taxonomy (the higher order the better, usually) to come up with the verb phrase describing what students would be able to do, and then we connect that action to a compelling reason for them to know how to do that, and the compelling reason is tied to helping the students function better as information literate critical thinkers.

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