By the end of this blog you will:

  • Know what a learning objective is and why you need to write them.
  • Understand why it’s so important to write learning objectives.
  • Be able to write good learning objectives.

I’ve gone mad with learning objectives recently. Yes, there is something cheesy about learning objectives. If learning objectives could talk they’d probably say: ‘Before you can plan your journey you must first know where you want to go.’

But they’re also very useful for those of us designing training. Before you can design your training you need to know what the learners need to learn. The intended outcome should always determine what goes into your course. Why?

  • Keeping the end in sight will also help you to select the content that you choose to include in your programme much more wisely. For example, you’ll be less likely to add in token ‘background’ information to provide ‘context’ – if you’re writing a course on the Bribery Act for the entire staff base of an organisation, they don’t need to know that the UK Bribery Act 2010 was legislated in order to bring UK law into line with European law. Remember, you’re not training people how to be lawyers.
  • Once you’ve agreed on your learning objectives it will help you persuade your SME that you don’t need to include that drop down menu with all of the Bribery Act’s clauses.
  • Most importantly, it will help you keep focused on behavioural change. As the old Saffron saying goes, it doesn’t matter what you know but rather what you can do.

Consider the following learning objectives, which I’ve just put together for a fictional anti-bribery course.

By the end of this course users will:

  • Know what the Bribery Act is and what it prohibits.
  • Understand why it’s so important to behave in line with the Bribery Act.
  • Understand what the Bribery Act stops them from doing in their role.
  • Be able to take the right actions when someone offers them a bribe.
  • Be able to get on with their day to day duties without breaking the Bribery Act.

What do you think of them? Okay, so we can eliminate the first one. As you will have thought the moment you read it: people don’t need to know what the Bribery Act prohibits, they need to be able to do their job without breaking it. It’s not a knowledge thing, it’s a behaviour thing. With a learning objective like this, the only thing you’ll be sure of is that by the end of the course users won’t be able to get on with their day to day duties without breaching the Bribery Act.

But what about the second one? Or the third? Well, there’s nothing wrong with motivating employees to contemplate the consequences of breaking the law. Someone who’s thought about the consequences of breaking the law is probably more likely to behave in a way that does not break the law. But if all you want is for your employees to behave in line with the law then why not miss out this understanding step? There’s no need to enshrine understanding within a learning objective when teaching someone how to behave in line with the Bribery Act will involve teaching them why it’s important to do so. Unlike in Maths, there’s no need to ‘show your working’ – just keep it simple.

So that takes us to the fourth one: ‘At the end of this course users will be able to take the right actions when someone offers them a bribe.’

This is more like it. It focuses on a specific behavioural change and a good one at that. If an employee is to avoid breaking the law they’re going to have to take the right actions in those difficult situations in which they feel that they might be being offered a bribe. But doesn’t being able to avoid accepting a bribe just fall under the wider umbrella objective of being ‘able to get on with their day to day duties without breaking the Bribery Act’ (our last learning objective above)? So why bother with it?

Perhaps I’ve taken this a bit too far. After all, the reason we want to keep the fourth learning objective is that it helps us, as trainers, tailor our training so that it teaches people how to do the things that they need to do in their jobs. The last one, although behaviour focused, is too general. Of course an anti-bribery course should teach users how to avoid breaking bribery laws. But how will it do that? Well, firstly, by teaching them how to behave when confronted with someone who is offering them a bribe.

But what of that tendency that trainers have of informing users of their learning objectives for the course? Many a time I have seen an e-learning course, for instance, that begins with a bullet pointed list of what the learner can be expected to have learnt by the time 60 minutes has elapsed in front of their PC. In fact, I do this in my own courses.

But why do I do this? Does it really help the learner to learn? Let’s reconsider the learning objectives that I gave you at the beginning of this blog.

By the end of this blog you will:

  • Know what a learning objective is and why you need to write them.
  • Understand why it’s so important to write learning objectives.
  • Be able to write good learning objectives.

I think you’ll agree that the first two aren’t particularly good. But putting aside the issue of what makes a good learning objective, do you feel that having these objectives helped you gain something valuable from this blog? Put another way, did my telling you that ‘by the end of this blog you will be able to write good learning objectives’ make it easier for you to learn how to write good learning objectives? If my blog is helpful then surely it would be because it contains useful information or guidance and not because I warned you ahead of time what I intended, or hoped, you would take from it?

If you agree, then perhaps people don’t need to be that self-reflective about their learning. After all, we’re providing training, not therapy. Shouldn’t we allow our courses to speak for themselves?

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This article was written on Monday, June 13th, 2011 by Moira Nicolson

Category: Blog, e-Learning, Instructional design
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