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February 27, 2024 | Curriculum mapping

How to Develop Program Goals in Higher Education

Setting rigorous growth goals for your students is critical to their academic success. Assessment data provides the insights needed to set those goals—and to deliver instruction and support to ensure students are on track as they move through the curriculum to completion. Tracking progress on program goals linked to educational experiences such as courses and co-curricular activities is critical. In addition, these goals need to be associated with assignments and other measures to ensure that students know and can apply these goals into practice. But how does this all come together? And who needs to be involved in the design and application of these goals?

What are Program Goals in Higher Education?

Program goals in higher education are the broad objectives that define a program’s purpose and ultimately the ideal graduate it will produce. Goals are the foundation upon which a program is built, enabling program faculty to develop and align student learning outcomes, plan and map curriculum, and eventually, support program evaluation to ensure the program continues to meet the evolving needs of today’s students.

How Do You Create Effective Program Goals in Higher Education?

You create effective program goals in higher education by beginning with the end in mind and  focusing on the student, the key stakeholder of the program. Ultimately, your program goals should provide a strong framework for who your students will become after completing their program, what they can do to impact the profession they choose, and go on to achieve after graduation.


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A great way to approach this exercise of designing program goals is through intentionally engaging program faculty in an active discussion, having them reflect on and cover the three focus areas below:

Knowledge & skills

What knowledge will learners have gained from completing this program? What will a student be able to do? What does the student care about?



What experiences will a student have after completing this program? What experiences will have the most impact on their success while they are with you? Be sure to include both curricular and co-curricular activities in your discussion.

Overall outcome

Synthesis: when you think of alumni from this program, what have they gone on to achieve? This doesn’t have to be entirely theoretical. Research and discuss what alumni have accomplished since their time at your institution. Good tracking of your alumni data is critical and can’t be done without collaboration from other parts of your institution. You may also want to engage with your employers—what have they observed about your graduates' readiness in the job market? You could consult resources published by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) for example, to look more closely at the expectations from employers. 

Meet Your Student’s Needs

Ensuring that you are meeting your current student’s needs is extremely important not only to your bottom line, but to ensure you’re preparing students for opportunities to be successful in the field for which they were prepared. In that vein, the changes to rules around gainful employment are important to debt and financial aid requirements for students. 


Program goals you have designed and are assessing should also be linked to the objectives of your strategic plan. As the Chronicle of Higher Education points out in its article, What’s Really Behind the View That Higher Ed Isn’t Worth It?: “We need to communicate that there are a lot of different models for a successful life." The pathways to degree, certifications and the like we design need to be relevant and accessible to students. This also means that our curriculum, its outcomes and what students are doing to practice skills that they will need to be successful in their careers all need to be meaningful to them. 


For instance, if you say you offer High Impact Practices throughout the curriculum, what experiences do students have and what evidence can they take with them to talk about these experiences?  As Jillian Kinzie of NSSE stated in her keynote during a previous TxAHEA Conference: “When done well there are select practices that engage learners in ways that boost their performance across a variety of educational activities and desired outcomes.” Linking your goals to immersive learning inside and outside of the classroom bolsters confidence and empowers students to stay on task toward meeting and exceeding program goals. I point to the strategic connections that Ball State University is making across student learning and achievement through the lens of immersive learning, which is present in every program throughout the institution, and these experiences are linked and highlighted in their assessment of their strategic plan. 


With these points in mind, what are two steps you can take today to address these challenges and meet student needs?

Figure out what’s going well and what’s missing from your program today

Based on what you’ve learned from discussion with program stakeholders, now engage in what is missing from your program as it exists today that is needed for your student to succeed? This can be coursework focusing on the application of a specific set of skills, co-curricular experiences that would reinforce their learning, or something else entirely. Start with what you know your program is achieving when it comes to producing your ideal graduate, and then work from there to identify gaps and areas for improvement.

Identify What Data is Needed to Measure Program Success

Once you have identified what is needed to improve your program and meet your goals, you need to identify how to measure them. What data is needed to measure student success and ultimately evaluate your program’s success? This could be assessment data on co-curricular experiences, student satisfaction ratings, progression metrics, obstacle courses, LMS insights and more. 

Revise Your Program Goals to Maximize Learning Outcomes

Effective program goals are foundational to student success. They ensure that your program is designed to meet your student’s needs and facilitate their growth - so they can be successful both within and beyond your institution. However, designing effective program goals is a process that must be done intentionally. That means engaging faculty in meaningful discussions around program goals, identifying the right metrics to measure success, and learning best practices from your peers. Doing so will enable you to more effectively develop student learning outcomes, map curriculum, account for curricular and co-curricular learning, and identify opportunities for program improvement down the line. 


Need some help revising program assessment at your institution? Check out our Program Assessment Toolkit! Based on the best practices of our client institutions, we created resources to help you improve and streamline program assessment on your campus from goal creation to program evaluation. The Toolkit contains a Program Goals Worksheet to facilitate your conversations with program faculty, engage them in the program redesign process, and ensure you’re getting the feedback you need to create effective goals. We also included in the Toolkit a Program Scorecard Template which can serve as a conduit to identifying and collecting the data you may want for a larger program review. This will enable you to begin compiling key data points now, saving time and effort in gathering this data just for a larger program review -— but rather have it in front of you day to day. Download now!


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