Writing strong learning objectives is one of the most important skills in instructional design.
Learning objectives establish the ultimate goal of your project, and clearly define what you want the audience to be able to do as a result of completing your learning experience.
In the article, we will answer two questions:
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As we already established, learning objectives specify what observable skills or knowledge the audience should have when they complete your learning experience.
Examples might include:
There are two important factors to think about in these examples.
First, each of these objectives is measurable. You can see whether someone performs the actions correctly or not. Second, they are meaningful. They help people perform their jobs better.
These two factors are what set good learning objectives apart from ineffective learning objectives.
Effective learning objectives are observable. They allow you to clearly see if learning has taken place.
You want to avoid vague terms like “understand,” “learn,” or “know” because there is no metric for whether learning has occurred or not.
Let’s look at some examples to see this in practice:
‘By the end of this lesson, students will understand why World War II started’ is not a measurable objective. What does “understanding” look like?
A much better example is ‘Students will be able to explain the three main causes of World War II.’ It is easy to observe whether a person completed this objective or not.
In the workplace, a poor learning objective might be: ‘Employees will know what to do in case of a fire.’ “Knowing” is vague.
Instead, try this: ‘Employees will be able to locate the fire escape on each floor.’ The observable action of “locating” is a lot more specific.
We will go into more depth on how to write measurable objectives later. But for now, keep in mind that all effective learning objectives allow you to clearly demonstrate that learning has taken place.
Want to check if a learning objective is measurable or not?
A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself whether you could film a person demonstrating that objective. If you could, then it is measurable.
The next step is to make sure that the learning objective will actually help your audience or your stakeholders.
Solid learning objectives help people do something in the real world.
Your learning objective should provide value, either directly–by allowing the audience to practice something they will do in real life–or by giving them the knowledge that enables them to do something at a higher level.
Direct learning objectives provide practice for what the person has to do on the job. For example: ‘By the end of this training, employees will be able to locate documents in the company’s database.’
If the employees need to be able to navigate the database, then this training will provide a critical skill.
An enabling learning objective is a learning objective that doesn’t directly teach people about a task in their job. But it gives them secondary information that helps them at work.
For example, the main learning objective in a customer service training could be: ‘By the end of this training, employees will be able to calm down and assist angry customers.’
An enabling objective could be: ‘Employees will memorize the don’ts list for customer interactions.’
This list might include: ‘Don’t accuse the customer of wrongdoing.’ or ‘Don’t leave the customer on hold for more than two minutes without checking in.’
Just telling employees what behaviors to avoid isn’t sufficient. They still need to be trained on how to work with angry customers. However, knowing what not to do will help them avoid costly mistakes.
Another example of an enabling objective might appear when training serving staff at a restaurant. The main learning objective is:
‘By the end of this training, serving staff will be able to accurately take customer orders in under two minutes.’
For this project, the enabling objective is: ‘Serving staff will memorize the vegan and gluten-free options on the menu.’
On its own, this objective doesn’t help employees take customer orders. However, it does allow them to answer questions quickly meaning that the order will be completed faster.
So long as the objective helps the audience do their jobs more effectively it is meaningful.
A good way to see if your learning objective is meaningful is to figure out what behavior your stakeholder is measuring and wants to change.
Then ask yourself if your learning objective would improve that behavior.
In the restaurant example above, the stakeholder was measuring how long it took their waitstaff to take orders.
The wait staff was spending up to five minutes at every table and often went to the kitchen to ask questions about the food.
The objective: ‘Serving staff will memorize the number for each item on the menu.’ is meaningful. If the server can just write down the numbers of each item, they will save time taking orders.
Let’s look at one more example: A factory is having an issue where workers aren't being careful around the machinery.
The employees are averaging about twenty workplace injuries a month. The factory wants to reduce this number.
If you write a learning objective that, directly or indirectly, decreases the number of injuries, that is a meaningful learning objective.
By the end of the training, factory workers will be able to identify the safety code violations that lead to the most injuries.
If you can clearly show that your learning objective improves your audience's performance, then it is probably a good starting point for the rest of the project. However, certain projects will require one more layer of detail.
The learning objectives we have seen so far work great in most circumstances. But they don’t work for tasks that have a lot of variability.
If you are teaching someone to drive a car, they need to be able to drive comfortably in a lot of different circumstances.
In tasks that have many variables, or when you are trying to measurably increase the learners’ performance, you can include these metrics.
A learning objective using these metrics would look like this:
You can usually get away with only listing the performance component.
However, it is important to consider conditions and criteria when you are designing for jobs with high variability of conditions or when accuracy is extremely important.
You wouldn’t want to be on an airplane where the pilot had only learned how to fly in good weather.
Now that you can identify a good learning objective, let’s look at a hypothetical ID project so you can see how to write measurable objectives for an ID project.
Imagine this: A local phone service company is having trouble acquiring new customers. They have many people signing up for the free trial period, but only 30 percent of those people become paying customers.
The company analyzed the problem and discovered that the sales team was recommending service plans that didn’t match the customers’ needs.
Even though the company had service plans for a wide variety of customer needs, the sales team ignored most of the options.
Some team members pushed all the clients to either the most expensive service plans or the cheapest.
The problem is clear. For this example, we’ll use an eLearning experience to address it.
The first step is quite straightforward. You need to establish in broad terms what you want the audience to be able to do by the end of the project. In traditional teaching, the stem would be:
By the end of this lesson, the students will be able to:
This isn’t a school setting so we want to change this a bit for our project and audience. The new stem becomes:
By the end of this project, the sales team will be able to:
You want to keep this quite general at the beginning. The purpose of the stem is simply to give you a starting point. So, for our project, we will make the stem goal:
By the end of this project, the sales team will be able to match new customers with the best plan for their needs.
Once the stem is finished you can start refining it.
You, the stakeholders, and the SMEs must decide whether to include conditions or criteria. For this project, it is probably unnecessary to include conditions. The sales team will either be working in person or over the phone.
These two conditions are too similar to pay attention to in this context.
The criteria metric is also unnecessary. The sales team is working with customers. You can’t set a standard for your audience that requires another person to act a certain way.
To ensure that the learning objective matches the needs of your stakeholders, compare your learning objective to the business objective to determine if it will actually address the business goal.
Currently, the sales team is only seeing a 30 percent conversion rate from trial customers. The average conversion rate for free trials is roughly 50 percent.
It is highly likely that if the sales team accurately matches customers to the best service plan, sales will increase.
The next step is to break the learning objective into micro-goals with Bloom's Taxonomy.
Bloom’s Taxonomy is a framework for writing objectives for cognitive tasks.
The structure is designed with the most basic level of understanding at the bottom, building to the highest forms of understanding and knowledge application at the top.
When you look at Bloom’s Taxonomy the most important elements aren’t the words on the pyramid, but the smaller words on the right. Each one of those verbs can be used to make a measurable learning objective.
The first step when using Bloom’s is to determine what level of understanding you want the audience to reach based on your main learning objective.
Let’s look at our learning objective:
By the end of this project, the sales team will be able to select the best service plan for each customer.
This most closely matches the evaluation level. We need the sales team to be able to select the appropriate service plan for the client. They don’t need to design or create anything unique.
Now that we have a learning objective, we need to create a practice activity with Bloom’s Taxonomy.
As you can see, the training allows the sales team to practice exactly what they will need to do on the job.
The next step is to work backward and think about what knowledge or skills the sales team will need in order to accomplish this. These are the enabling objectives we discussed before.
So, in order to accomplish the main objective, the sales team will need to:
Once we establish these enabling objectives, we can return to Bloom’s taxonomy and write a learning goal and exercise for each one.
We would first create a goal and activity from the most basic skill, ‘Memorize each service plan,’ then build from that base.
When you use Bloom’s Taxonomy, you don’t need to use every level.
For example, if your learning experience teaches someone how to use an ice cream machine, it is sufficient to have them memorize the different buttons(remember), then practice making ice cream(apply).
You don’t need to include an (understand) section in your training.
The best Bloom’s Level for this goal would be: Remember. So we build a learning objective with one of those verbs.
Now that they have memorized the learning objective, we can use that foundation to teach further skills.
The sales team now knows all of the sales plans. Now they need to understand which customers would want each service plan.
Once the sales team understands which kinds of people need each payment plan, they need to practice questioning and interpreting the information they get from customers.
After they press all the buttons, the sales team member must then select the best payment plan based on the information provided.
After the sales team has gone through these enabling objectives, they will be ready for the main learning objective.
Once the sales team goes through this process, they should be able to comfortably match clients with the best service plan for their needs.
(You usually do this kind of planning in the storyboard phase of the project. You can read more about how to make effective storyboards here.)
This process takes time to get right, and you should be patient with yourself as you get comfortable writing learning objectives for projects.
Before we’re done, let’s go over a few common mistakes that can slow down your development.
Most of these mistakes are quite easy to make. Keep an eye out for them.
As well-written your objective might be, you don’t want to show the audience something like this:
The sales team will use their knowledge of the service plans to match them to the corresponding customer persona.
This will cause people to immediately disengage, if not fall asleep. These learning objectives are for you, the instructional designer, not for your audience.
You want to show the audience something conversational that states the value of the eLearning experience using clear language.
Today you will learn how to help customers find the best service plan for their lifestyle.
Using a more conversational tone creates more engagement for your audience.
As we already established, it is critically important to set measurable objectives. It is also incredibly easy to ignore this rule. This is partly because setting measurable objectives takes more effort.
The second problem is that we use ‘understand’ and ‘know’ as catch-all terms when we are talking about learning and instruction. It's very easy to start using these words in learning objectives without even thinking about it.
Consistently check back and make sure that your objectives are measurable. Remember: Could you film a person performing each objective?
This is a very common mistake where you confuse a training activity for an objective. For example, the following statement may look like an objective, but notice how it describes an activity.
‘The sales team will use their knowledge of the service plans to match them to the corresponding customer persona.’
While this activity will help the sales team eventually match real clients to service plans, it doesn’t actually reflect what they will need to do in the real world.
There is a reason that Bloom’s Taxonomy is structured like a pyramid. The base supports the higher functions. If you want someone to operate at the highest levels, they need a solid foundation of knowledge and understanding.
Make sure that you have structured your learning experience so that you are giving the audience what they need to complete the main objective. Doing this will help you avoid frustrating your training audience.
Finally, be honest with yourself and your stakeholders about what you are hoping to accomplish with your project. People often write impressive learning objectives like:
‘By the end of this eLearning experience, the audience will be able to design an ID course.’
In reality, their goal is something much smaller, like ‘The audience will be able to explain the differences between the three most popular authoring tools.’
Be frank about what your goal is from the beginning, and don’t market your project as being more than what it is.
If you can design meaningful and measurable learning objectives, then you can open new doors in your career and better serve your audience.
The process for writing strong learning objectives in this article will help you design engaging, effective learning experiences: whether they’re for your portfolio or a global audience of learners.
To view a video recap of this article, check out the How to Write Learning Objectives with Bloom's Taxonomy video.
If you want to learn more about how to create amazing eLearning experiences check out this article.