The value of intentionality for teaching and learning

February 27, 2017 | Claudia Stanny

What does it mean to be intentional?

In teaching, we are intentional if we have specific learning goals for our classes. The learning goals tie everything together. They guide our choices when we assign reading materials, whether we select a textbook for a lower-division class or gather articles and chapters from the scholarly literature for a graduate seminar. They shape how we spend time in class, which topics we talk about, and how much time and detail we devote to each topic. We ask students to engage in specific in-class activities because they will help students practice critical skills. We design assignments to create opportunities for additional practice and for students to show us what they can now do. We select questions for tests to focus on the learning outcomes that define “successful completion” of the class.


Students can be intentional in their learning if they can articulate their learning goals. Our best students may have personal learning goals for their college education. Ideally, these align with instructor goals, although exceptions occur. (In this case, an instructor might believe that their high-ability student is “underperforming.” The student, however, might be working toward a different set of goals than those held by the instructor.) Unfortunately, many students have vague personal goals for learning. A few students might believe their primary goal is to simply complete the class with a passing grade and earn credit toward a degree. A few students will recognize how important the skills and knowledge they can learn in a class will be for their future professional self.


Instructors can help students articulate more specific personal learning goals and, perhaps, articulate goals that align with instructor goals, when they articulate specific learning goals for their courses. These goals will be more credible to students if instructors can also describe how elements of the class (readings, assignments, in-class activities) support those learning goals.


 Why is intentionality valuable for effective teaching?

  •  Clear alignment of learning goals with class elements motivates students to complete readings, engage in class activities, and take assignments and exams seriously if students share these goals.


  • Explicit learning outcomes guide students toward more effective study behaviors. If students believe the goal is to memorize facts, they will study differently than if they believe the goal is to apply disciplinary content and thinking to solve specific types of problems. If an instructor articulates learning goals for high-level thinking skills (analysis of evidence, solving problems, applying content to real-world situations) but tests students on fact retrieval, the disconnect will create problems. Regardless of claims to support higher-order thinking skills described in learning outcomes on the syllabus, if an exam questions require only fact-based retrieval and recognition, these become the de facto learning outcomes for the course. Students will adjust their study behavior accordingly.


What do your lectures and PowerPoint slides suggest about your learning outcomes? Can you identify the learning goals that guide you lecture series for a class module? Can your students identify the learning goals you value or had in mind when you prepared these classes? If they can’t, how can they choose study strategies wisely?

Lectures and PowerPoint slides that are dense with content send an implicit message: Fact retrieval is important. Where are the opportunities to evaluate evidence or engage in critical thought about the content presented? If these goals are important to you as an instructor, reflect on your presentations and assignments and consider the message they send to students.

Simply listing student learning outcomes on a syllabus or assignment handout will not guarantee improvements in student learning (Jiang & Elen, 2011). Students must interpret the outcomes correctly, identify the tasks implied by these outcomes, and select appropriate cognitive activities to complete the tasks and achieve the learning outcomes (e.g., determine whether they should memorize facts, analyze evidence for competing explanations, apply models to solve specific problems). Jiang and Elen note that students are more likely to misinterpret vague or overly-general learning goals and fail to identify the activities required for them to achieve these goals than when learning outcomes describe a more specific the knowledge, skills, abilities, or task demands required to complete an assignment successfully.



 Fink, L. D. (2003). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


Jiang, L, & Elen, J. (2011). Why do learning goals (not) work: A reexamination of the hypothesized effectiveness of learning goals based on students’ behavior and cognitive processes. Educational Technology Research and Development, 59, 553-573. doi:10.1007/s11423-011-9200-y


tmd 2/27/2017