Solid foundations

Write effective learning objectives and the rest will be easy!

Most people involved in designing a training program know that preparing a learning objective is an important initial step. Being able to describe what a learner is supposed to ‘get out of’ a training session establishes:

  • Why they should attend the training
  • What content they will be taught, and to what level of detail, and
  • How they can be assessed to determine if they have correctly learnt what they needed to learn.

In my experience, however, I find people tend to deal rather glibly with the learning objective stage.  Sure, they’ll write them, and the learning objectives will often be listed at the front of workbooks or slide presentations.  But when it comes to concise statements of what a person will learn and how they’ll demonstrate that learning, the learning objectives often fall short. 

 Watch out for the ‘U-word’

 A word I watch out for in learning objectives is the verb ‘to understand’.   It often appears at the beginning of learning objectives, like this:

 ‘At the completion of this course, participants will:

  • ‘understand the accounts receivable process’
  • ‘understand how to install a thermal geo-membrane layer’
  • ‘understand the Complaints Handling procedure’.

At first glance, these objectives might look ok.  The problem with them, though, is that they’re quite abstract and not particularly measurable. How will participants demonstrate that they ‘understand’ what they’re meant to know? There’s no implicit way of evaluating, measuring or assessing if the objectives have been met or achieved by participants.

It’s easy enough to add the measurable dimension.  The following objective, for example, does it:

  • ‘At the completion of this course, participants will demonstrate their understanding of the accounts receivable process by correctly entering accounts into the ledger’.

… Or here’s the objective without the word ‘understand’ at all:

  • ‘At the completion of this course, participants will be able to correctly enter accounts into the ledger’.

The goal, or ‘terminal objective’ is still for participants to ‘understand’ the accounts receivable process. However, each of these objectives now contains an implicit ‘enabling objective’; people will be required to demonstrate their understanding of the process by doing something, and doing it correctly.

It’s not semantics, it’s a question of precision

When I ask Instructional Designers why they use abstract verbs like ‘to understand’ in their objectives, they often reply that they ‘don’t want to scare the participants off’ by suggesting they’ll be tested. Or they say the training is simply to ‘raise awareness’ of a process or policy.  

To me, training, to some degree or other, involves a transfer of knowledge and tests whether the transfer has taken place. This is particularly the case where a competency is being taught, but even if you’re just educating an audience, there’s room for comprehension activities or discussions to see if the key points have been learnt.  If a session doesn’t test the transfer of knowledge in some form or other, I don’t believe its training, it’s an information session, or a speech, or something else.

So my advice is: If you’re writing training, take the time to write measurable learning objectives

Ok, we’ve established that a good set of learning objectives create the framework for a transfer of knowledge.  What if you don’t have the time to write them?

I would argue that taking the time to craft a good set of learning objectives will actually save you lots of development time.   To prove this point, look at our re-worked example again:

  • ‘At the completion of this course, participants will demonstrate their understanding of the
    accounts receivable process by correctly entering accounts into the ledger.’

It’s one sentence, but it contains a lot of design information:

  • We know that participants attending the course are people who will be entering accounts receivable into the ledger.
  • We know that we need to tell them or show them the correct process for entering accounts into the ledger and (potentially) demonstrate it
  • We know that they will then need to demonstrate that they can enter accounts into the ledger.
  • ·It’s implicit that there’ll need to be an exercise to test comprehension of the principles and application of the process (the next question the ID might ask is how many accounts would reasonably demonstrate this capability? What types of ‘typical’ accounts would we use in an exercise?)
  • We know that we’ll need to assess the exercise to ensure the accounts are correctly entered.

So, right there in one learning objective you’ve got the recipe for the training, including the recipe for assessing participants.  You could show this objective to various stakeholders and get their agreement to it, prior to developing the content.  It’s then just a question of following the recipe to draft the session.

And finally…

Even abstract concepts benefit from precise learning objectives. For example, let’s say you’re simply providing contextual information about a change in work practices.

Where you might be tempted to write:

  • ‘At the completion of this course, participants will understand the reasons for the new garbage disposal policy’

… you could make the transfer of knowledge measurable by writing:

  • ‘At the completion of this course, participants will be able to correctly explain the reasons for the new garbage disposal policy’.

See the difference? Even if you don’t intend to get each participant to explain the reasons, you have set up the objective so that the transfer of knowledge could be tested.  The training you write will almost certainly leave the participants able to explain the new policy.

If you’d like to learn more about writing effective learning objectives; how it saves time, helps you design your content, exercises and assessments, and creates more effective training, download our Learning Objectives masterclass. Avoid lengthy books on Learning Theory or Instructional Design. This fun and interactive one-hour training module will reveal tips gained from 20 years of training experience and give you examples, templates and tools that you can use right away[J2].