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The Power of Purpose in the Classroom

By Tomeka Wilcher

It is a new semester with new students and fresh perspectives. Because faculty want their courses to remain fresh, too, they work to revise each one, even if they have taught it for years and know it intimately. As they go through this process, they ensure all components align with course objectives and outcomes.

However, in the midst of these changes, faculty should also incorporate opportunities to help students develop or further pursue their purpose within that course. When students become aware of their purpose, they feel a strong desire to learn more about themselves, to explore topics further and to strengthen various skills - critical thinking, research, writing, reading, debate and so on. Their learning goes beyond the surface and extends beyond the classroom. Students become connected to the content, the classroom community, and the many assignments and projects as they progress. They understand its relevance because it is student-centered and engages all voices. Students can place themselves and their experiences within what is being discussed, written about and researched.

Early in the semester and after the course overview, give students time to reflect and respond to the following questions:

  • What do you want to get out of this course?
  • What skill (skills) do you want to strengthen by the end of this course?
  • What are some topics you want to explore within this class? Why?

Tell students that these questions are designed to help them gain a better understanding of their purpose within the course and to help them guide their learning. Tell them further that their responses will be revisited periodically throughout the course as well as at the end.

As the course progresses, faculty can incorporate purpose-defining opportunities:

Content - Allow the content within lectures, articles, textbooks, videos, and/or audio resources to provide various perspectives.

Discussion - Create whole-group or small-group opportunities where students can voice their opinions and give their perspectives on the topic being discussed.

Writing Opportunities - Incorporate quickwrites, blogging or journaling so that students can explore their thoughts as they encounter new content and new voices.

Research Opportunities - Provide opportunities and assignments where students can research their interests.

Collaboration - Have students partner with classmates with similar interests who can aid in deepening each other's understanding of the topics explored within the course.

Reflection - Provide moments where students can reflect on what they have learned. They can do this in written form or as a video or audio.

Faculty may hope for a specific outcome or outcomes, but if students show growth and have found their purpose or have moved closer to understanding their purpose as it aligns with the course content, learning has occurred on the deepest and most significant level. When faculty members encourage a purpose-driven course, they challenge their students to have agency and autonomy as they become active in their learning. Understanding purpose is essential and powerful, and it is a journey that will transcend the classroom. "In the larger society, the world beyond academic settings, everyday folk are concerned with the issue of purpose. They want to have a clearer understanding of life, of what gives life meaning" (hooks, 2010, p. 33).

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