Developing Purpose Statements to Shape Our Courses

I have found that the starting point for turning routine courses into transformative learning experiences is the formulation of a purpose statement that puts into words the potential long-term benefits of the course content. This purpose statement is the very first thing that students read on my course syllabi. It even comes before the course description. The purpose statement then governs the shape and content of the course in its delivery. It is this search for purpose and significance—and not the learning outcomes—that communicates a potentially contagious passion for the material.

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Over the past few decades, significant progress has been made in giving purpose to courses by developing learning outcomes. However, the focus of most learning outcomes is the end of the course, and the learning outcomes reflect the teacher's perspective rather than the students' concerns. They convey little in the way of long-term value to the students. Sometimes this is because the instructors themselves are unsure of the long-term value of the material they are teaching. As R. Barth writes in his book Learning by Heart, “Most of what teachers teach is of no real interest to them; it is only what teachers think someone wants students to know.”

D. Sousa suggests in How the Brain Learns that the key to long-term learning is significance. The material must have lasting relevance and meaning to the learner. It is not sufficient that teachers see value in the material. Significant learning will take place only when the learners understand that the course materials have meaning and importance for their future life and work. I have found that the starting point for turning routine courses into transformative learning experiences is the formulation of a purpose statement that puts into words the potential long-term benefits of the course content. This purpose statement is the very first thing that students read on my course syllabi. It even comes before the course description. The purpose statement then governs the shape and content of the course in its delivery. It is this search for purpose and significance—and not the learning outcomes—that communicates a potentially contagious passion for the material. Here's a sample purpose statement from a culture and leadership course I teach at my theological school. Please don't let the religious focus of the statement distract you from the educational principle I'm trying to illustrate. This statement reflects the identity and purpose of my institution, as purpose statements you might write need to reflect your institutional setting and context. The vision of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary is to see God glorified, people reconciled, and communities restored through the Church in the Arab World. For the church to fulfill this mandate it needs quality leaders who recognize and engage the latent gifts that exist in themselves and others. The church in the Middle East (as elsewhere in the world) has a crisis in leadership. We don't have enough leaders. Many of those who hold leadership positions do not know how to reflect theologically on what they are doing. The cultural pattern of vertical top-down dictatorship and a concern for image rather than substance is common in many churches. In sum, there is a tendency for leaders to be more influenced by culture than by the self-giving principles of Christian leadership. The course seeks to provide tools for reflecting upon the relationship between culture and leadership, allowing theological principles to assess culture both in terms of features that reflect Christian values and those that do not. These tools are important for you as you seek to play a redemptive leadership role in church and society. A good way to develop a purpose statement is to imagine that you have a group of students in front of you who have the choice of whether or not to take this course. Your task is to persuade these students that the content of this course is absolutely critical for their future effectiveness. What would you say to convince them? Colleagues in other disciplines can be good sounding boards for the reasons you come up with. Would they take the course for these reasons? Here's a set of components that I try to build into a course purpose statement (as seen in the example): 1) a short summary of the overall vision and purpose of the program of which this course is a part, 2) a brief description of some of the specific contextual challenges or learning needs that this course is seeking to address, and 3) a description of how the content and methodology of this course might help the learners to be better able to address these challenges and to help others address these challenges. You will note that the purpose statement does not begin with the course content but with the context and concerns of the students. The content and methodology serve the learning needs that the course will address. As I move to the final phase of the purpose statement, I frequently include phrases such as “This course will be important in your future life and/or work because …” or “This course will have a significant impact on your future effectiveness because …” Terms such as “important,” “significant,” or “meaningful” press us as instructors to wrestle with why we are teaching the course in the first place—and that will inevitably change the way we approach the course delivery. The challenge of quality education is to transform our instructional design from the mere transfer of information to the holistic training of a generation of reflective practitioners. Students' long-term embrace of learning is directly related to the extent to which they perceive meaning and value in the material they are studying. Clear and significant statements of purpose can be effective tools along that path. Contact Perry Shaw at PShaw@abtslebanon.org.