Learning Objectives: Who Cares?

What Really Matters When Documenting Course Goals

When I started in the world of L&D, one of the biggest shocks I had was the battle over the learning objective. I had moved from my life as a small-town newspaper reporter to a supporting role on an e-learning development team. At that point, I had no formal training in instructional design, so listening to people go back and forth about the correct verb to use in an objective seemed a little bizarre. 

Once I was in my master’s program to become an instructional designer, I learned more about objectives and why they’re important in setting yourself, your learners, and any learning event up for success. I even had a favorite website that used a Qbert-esque interactive pyramid of Bloom’s Taxonomy, and I’d meticulously reference the site when determining where on the spectrum of learning my design needed to be. But now I find myself wondering, “Who cares?”

The Battle of the Verb

The main discussion around learning objectives centers on whether learners can realistically achieve the objective as a result of the learning event. For example, can a person really “demonstrate” that they can troubleshoot an issue after an e-learning? Similarly, can it be proven that someone “understands” a concept after a webinar?

I’ve been exposed to a lot of e-learnings, and in that context there is a lot of back and forth about what can realistically be expected of learners after they complete a self-paced event that often lasts about 30 minutes. These e-learning courses are usually a way to spread awareness, explain a concept, showcase examples, and give learners a safe place to practice applying a concept or test how much knowledge they’ve retained. For example, although it may be a stretch to expect learners to leave this kind of course with a nuanced ability to formulate a response to a unique situation, it may be completely within reason to have them list components of a successful response or identify what makes a situation unique.

Up to this point, this is all sound rationale that I can follow. But I think the execution can get muddied by how strictly the designer focuses on the action words at the start of the objectives. I’ve even seen the extreme loss-of-plot when people want to change the verb in the objectives list just so that the same one isn’t being used “too much.”

Ultimately the proof of learning in the workplace is going to be seen in application on the job, so it’s important to remember that the purpose of the learning event is to be a building block to support the learner on the path to application. Learning objectives should be written to structure the building block correctly, and that takes thinking beyond the verb and looking at the objective as a whole. After all, the goal is for learners to achieve the objectives and apply them on the job in order to improve performance.

All this leads to my next point…

Who Cares (Really)?

Formally written learning objectives are for instructional designers and stakeholders invested in a learning event. These objectives provide a road map and set clear expectations about what a learning event is supposed to achieve. However, I’m not convinced that learners need to see objectives as learning professionals document them.

For years there’ve been discussions and debates about whether the learner needs or even wants to see formally written learning objectives. I suggest we consider adult learning principles. These include concepts, such as adults being goal-oriented and relevancy-oriented. When we overtly list the parameters of a course, are we adhering to these principles?

For example, instead of writing:

By the end of this course, you will be able to differentiate between Box 1 and Box 2.

Can we relax a little and write:

In this course, you’ll learn about boxes, including the differences between Boxes 1 and 2 and how your responsibilities differ regarding each.

While we can go back and forth about whether the objective above starts with “differentiate” or “identify” or “recognize,” the point may be lost when it comes to the learners. Let’s not only keep in mind what the course is supposed to do so we can build it correctly, but also think about how you’d explain the objectives of the course to the intended audience.

Don’t get lost trying to reach a “better” action word by where it lands in the hierarchy of a taxonomy or try to “mix things up” by picking a different verb. Let’s focus on what learners can reasonably expect and clearly see as they work through the course content.

Ultimately, the learning objective is a key component in the world of learning, but we should not only focus on who cares, but why we care.

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