Much of instructional design and online learning focuses on objectives which gauge student progress by measuring what students do. This is important because teachers ought to know the degree to which student mastery results from the instruction of the course. Yet, those objectives cannot get at the immeasurable benefits of learning that we hope students take from the course and transfer to their lives outside the classroom. Essential statements are where instructors articulate those big ideas which make the course meaningful for students and allow the course to live on in the minds of students long after they have forgotten many of the specific details they learned.
Essential statements work hand-in-hand with course objectives. The essential questions allow instructors to remain focused on the big important ideas of their disciplines even as the course objectives try to give a measurable shape to those big ideas. Essential statements help instructors answer the question: Why am I having students complete these objectives? While the objectives help instructors assess: How will I know that students grasped the essence of this course?
One way to think about the essential questions of a course is to ask: What do I want students to remember about the course five years from now? Students will probably not remember specific objectives, but hopefully they will remember some enduring question, such as:
- Whose perspective matters here?
- What is the relationship between truth and fiction?
- How does what we measure influence how we measure?
- What Makes a Question Essential? from Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development.