December 28, 2021

Getting students to create a course purpose statement

Posted by Laura Guertin

I apologize that I cannot credit the presenter and webinar where I first heard this idea – although I always jot down the webinar title and date for each one I attend, the top of my page of notes is empty for this one!  🙁


I attended a webinar that presented several ideas for engaging students in a course at the beginning of the semester. One suggestion made by the speaker was that, during the first week of class, ask students to write a response to the following: Why are you studying geology? (*or insert the subject of the course) I have jotted down in my webinar notes that this question prompts students to write something referred to as a purpose statement.

I wish I had taken more notes on this idea. I have found several websites where K-12 teachers blog about something similar, such as co-creating a class mission statement, but an individual purpose statement is different. As I was teaching an introductory-level course on climate change in only an asynchronous web format for non-STEM majors in Fall 2021, I thought having students generate this statement would not only get them to think about why they signed up for my course, but then I could learn a bit more about each student and their motivations early in the semester.


This was the writing prompt I gave students, and their responses had to be submitted to me within the first three days of the semester (before they continued on with the course content presented in the Canvas module):

The purpose of a Purpose Statement, in the context of EARTH 103N, is to provide you an opportunity to articulate why you selected to study climate science (beyond just to complete a general education requirement), your overall learning goals, and what you aim to accomplish in this course. What is the pathway you are setting out on for EARTH 103N (don’t think of what I’ve outlined for the course in the syllabus – you should think of your mindset and mission in your journey forward this semester). Be open and honest. This is not graded, and there is no set word limit to meet. That being said, you will revisit what you write here and use this material in your final exam (so the more information you provide yourself here, the more you have to work with for your final). I will be resending this purpose statement to you the last week of the semester.

I decided to repeat this activity at the end of the course by having students go back and revisit what they wrote at the end of the semester. And I did email each student their purpose statement and included the following three questions as part of their take-home final exam:

[A] Did you satisfy the purpose you set for yourself in EARTH 103N (as you defined above, back in Week 1)? If you did, how were you able to accomplish this? If you did not, why do you think you missed meeting your goal?

[B] I know that for the majority of you, this is your first and last climate science course you will ever take – and for that, I am honored to have served as your instructor in your learning of climate change. But let’s say, hypothetically, there is a second introductory-level course on climate science that follows from this one (it’s not a two-semester course, but let’s pretend there is another semester of EARTH 103N). How would you revise your purpose statement? What would be your new purpose statement going into another Earth science course focused on climate science?

[C] This course will be offered again online next fall semester (Fall 2022). What would you say to someone who has never taken this course before as they write their purpose statement? Certainly, there is alot of individual motivation for signing up and learning about climate science, but I’d like you to write a paragraph where you lay out for another student some recommended learning goals and what they should aim to accomplish in the 15 weeks of EARTH 103N.

The responses students shared at both the beginning and end of the semester were informative and unique to each student. For FERPA reasons I will not share any individual responses, but I can’t emphasize how valuable these responses were to me as an instructor. Almost all students stated changes and a shift in focus from their original purpose from the beginning to the end of the semester. Many students said in their original purpose statement that they wanted to learn how to talk about climate change with confidence, especially how to talk to family members that are “non-believers.” This information helped me shift some of my assignments and materials I had students engage with to help them improve their climate literacy and ability to communicate about climate change. There were a handful of students at the beginning of the semester that stated they knew everything there was to know about climate change – yet at the end, they admitted how much they did not know and still had to learn!

I encourage other instructors to try this quick and easy exercise, at least at the beginning of the semester. Allow the students to keep their responses private (just between you and them). If teaching in a face-to-face setting, perhaps give students time in class to complete this activity. Having students reflect not just on what they will be learning, but why they want to learn the material, benefits not only the students but the instructor no matter which mode of course delivery.