How Clear Learning Goals Enhance Teaching.

For most of us in education, we teach because we’re passionate about what we know, and want other people to know it, too! Formalizing our passion into a specific learning goal can keep a class focused so that it really sticks with the students. 

A Student’s Perspective

To illustrate, allow me to give a personal example of the lasting effects of a strong learning goal done right.

During my undergrad studies, I took a fantastic class with Harry Greene, Ph.D. The primary goal of this class was to master phylogenetic tree thinking, which means thinking about how living things are related in terms of their evolutionary histories. While the class did this in the context of reptiles and amphibians, I’ve thought about how all animals are classified differently ever since.

quotation mark
The class elicited a bit of cognitive dissonance by challenging “common knowledge”.

The Student Becomes the Teacher
luna moth
Image of Luna Moth
Photo credit: James Kopco While the luna moth (Actias luna) is certainly beautiful, it is most assuredly not a butterfly.

Fast forward a couple years, and I was an educator at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. At one part of the park was an animal scavenger hunt for children, where they had to find plastic replicas of a list of animals. There were two lists, and one included a butterfly (represented by a replica monarch butterfly), while the other included a moth (represented by a replica luna moth). Unsurprisingly, plenty of children had trouble distinguishing the butterfly and moth.

Often times parents knew which was which, and were baffled by my pattern of responses I accepted.

If a child is looking for a butterfly and points to a luna moth?
Try again.

If a child is looking for a moth and points to a monarch?
Good job kid, you got it!

The Learning Goal That Stuck
clearwing butterfly
Image of clearwing butterfly
Photo credit: James Kopco
Certain non-butterfly moths are more closely related to this clearwing butterfly (Greta oto) than they are to other moths. That means that this butterfly must also be a moth.

Why did I have such a bizarre pattern that let some of the “wrong” children get away with it? Because many groups of species nest within other groups, and common names often fail to reflect that. In the case of butterflies and moths, moths constitute a large group, while butterflies are a subset of that group. Therefore, butterflies are moths.

Phylogenetic relationships determined the overall structure of Dr. Greene’s class. For example, toads were discussed interspersed with the frogs rather than as a separate, parallel entity, because toads are simply a type of frog with warty skin. The class elicited a bit of cognitive dissonance by challenging “common knowledge.”

Dinosaurs went extinct?
No – there are roughly 10,000 species alive today as birds.

There is a very good chance I would not have understood these connections if the underlying biological principles were not that herpetology class’s core learning goal.



Jamie Kopco is finishing his Ph.D. in entomology. Among other pedagogical tasks, he is teaching an undergrad/grad class, doing science outreach, and generally trying to foster a sense of curiosity and discovery.



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