What are Residential Curriculum Goals and Narratives and How to Write Them

Goals and narratives are perhaps the least appreciated, understood, and often confused components of a residential curriculum. In reviewing the cascade of learning objectives in a curriculum, one starts with an educational priority. An educational priority is a broad summary statement of what students will learn as a result of their participation in the curriculum. This educational priority is then delineated further into a set of (typically 3-4) learning goals and related narratives. Learning goals seek to provide more specific statements of what students will learn in a curriculum. They focus the educational priority into sets of more narrowly defined thematic learning outcomes. Each learning goal also has an accompanying narrative. Narratives are brief paragraphs that define terms and set the philosophy and reasoning behind the choice of learning goal.

Learning goals and narratives can be confused, conflated, or ill-defined in practice. When developing these components of your curriculum, if you can develop a focused set of goals and narratives, it will likely make your work significantly easier the further you get into the curriculum planning process.

Learning Goals

After developing your educational priority, a department or division will settle on a set of learning goals. When developing learning goals, it is important to remember they are statements of student learning. In some of the curriculum plans that schools develop, learning goals are stated as themes as opposed to statements. For example, a department may state that their learning goals are “interpersonal development, citizenship, and diversity and inclusion.” Although these themes may represent the content of the learning goals, they are not, in themselves, learning goals. They do not state what a student will learn or what these “categories” mean in practice. Although these quick shorthand methods may be useful in communicating a curriculum’s focal areas to a broader audience, they should nevertheless be backed up by statements.

For example, “Leadership Skills” is, in itself, not a learning goal. A more properly developed Leadership Skills-focused learning goal might read:

GOAL: “Students will develop leadership skills that allow them to set and achieve organizational goals and collaborate and communicate with diverse others.”

While this may be shorthanded in discourse to the “Leadership Skills” label, it nevertheless does not replace the learning goal statement. In practice, educational professionals should be utilizing the goal statement as a means of describing what is specifically meant by the term “Leadership Skills.” There can be many definitions as to what this entails. The risk posed by utilizing just the label is that staff may interpret it differently–leading to a disjointed curriculum.

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This is where narratives come in. They provide further context and help other educators understand what is meant by the terms used. An accompanying narrative for a learning goal such as this would define what leadership theories the department draws from, why it is important, and how it fits into the overall educational priority of the curriculum. For this reason, narratives are often brief paragraphs providing further specificity and context. Although these narratives may not be widely communicated externally, they can be of critical importance internally to staff members when developing a curriculum. Narratives ensure there is consistency in understanding and interpretation of learning goals. An example narrative for a Civic Engagement skills goal may read:

NARRATIVE: “Civic engagement is an important goal of higher education in the United States in developing an informed citizenry that actively engages in their communities and democratic government. Furthermore, the nature of work requires that individuals work in collaborative environments to make changes and succeed in achieving goals. Our notion of civic engagement is built off the social change model of leadership  recognizing that leadership is process-oriented rather than positionally-related. As such, civic engagement involves service to others and is rooted in an understanding of self and one’s position in the world and social systems relative to others.”

The above narrative gives significantly more content beyond what one may glean from just a learning goal statement, and much more than just a learning goal label. Having this narrative can help direct staff in designing more educationally purposive activities with greater focus and consistency. It can also serve the help campus partners understand the goals of a curriculum better. Engaging campus partners in the creation and refinement of goals and narratives can ensure the consistency of the learning experience across campus. The goal of curriculum is not to create an entirely new set of goals devoid of campus context, but one that brings together all of the pieces of the co-curricular experience into a coherent whole. It may also draw on expertise more present outside of your department and insulate a learning goal from being interpreted differently according to the whims and interests of an individual staff member.


Goals and their related narratives are key components of the curriculum. They are what provide focus and consistency to your educational plans. They should be constantly reviewed, communicated, and revised. As new staff come in or as you develop partnerships with others, goals and narratives can serve as a means of centering the conversation and your work more squarely on the student learning experience. When developing goals and narratives, don’t be tempted to take short cuts. A robust set of goals and narratives is key in developing your curricular framework.

Key Questions

  • Do you have well written and defined learning goal statements?
  • What theories, philosophies, and approaches inform each of your learning goals?
  • Have you developed narratives? Do you share these with internal and external stakeholders and partners?

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