"Success is neither magical nor mysterious. Success is the natural consequence of consistently applying the basic fundamentals." ~Jim Rohn

I not only resonate with this quote, but it's also one of my core principles in designing learning or training programs of any nature. In my experience, when I've ensured that the basics are done right, the programs I've designed have been quite successful (at least in my opinion anyway). Conversely when I've slipped on the basics and gotten caught up in embellishments & style, I've ended up with average interventions at best and weak, forgettable ones at worst.

In this post, I wanted to share one of the most fundamental things about training design - crafting effective learning objectives. Unfortunately, I've so often seen this most fundamental aspect get ignored or done poorly, that I feel compelled to share some simple ideas about it. I hope that it will help designers pay more attention to them, and consequently create effective, high quality learning interventions.

I've borrowed ideas from books I've read on crafting effective instructional design objectives & summarised them in the following sections.

I. What is an effective training intervention?

A training or instructional program is effective to the degree that it succeeds in:

  • Changing the learner
  • In the desired direction
  • Not in un-desired direction

II. Main steps in creating an effective training program

There are 8 main steps in developing a learning program / intervention:  

  1. Analyse requirements
  2. Identify learning objectives
  3. Develop design
  4. Develop outline & prototype
  5. Develop detailed content
  6. Deliver training
  7. Evaluate impact
  8. Improve

In this article, I'll elaborate on #2 - Identifying learning objectives.

III. What is a learning objective?

"A learning objective clearly communicates what we want the learners to achieve" Some key pointers to bear in mind:

a) Objectives articulate intended outcomes, not the process for achieving the outcomes.

Eg. “Be able to perform well in pairing role play” is process, not outcome. “List at least 5 characteristics of effective pairing” is an outcome.

b) Objectives are specific and measurable

Eg. “Understand the financial statements of the company” is general and non measurable. “Be able to explain the meaning of Net Operating Income accurately in verbal or written form”, is specific and measurable.

c) Objectives are concerned with learners, not trainers

Eg. “Conduct an exercise on story writing” is an administrative objective, i.e. concerned with the training method and the instructor. “Be able to write concise user stories with clear acceptance criteria” is concerned with the learner.

IV. Why care about learning objectives?

If the training / program doesn’t change anyone in desired ways, it isn’t helpful. It’s tough to know if this is happening unless there are clearly defined objectives that can act as anchor to determine this.

Also, the objectives eventually help achieve the following:

  • Sound basis for material and methodology selection
  • Consistent results
  • Measurable results
  • Instructional efficiency
  • Allows for instructor / trainer creativity (the process doesn’t have to be consistent as long as objectives are met)
  • Act as goal posts for learners (create clarity for learners, help bridge the gap between what they already know and what they need to focus on improving)

*When objectives are drafted for courses already in existence, they can serve to spotlight opportunities for improvement!

V. Craft effective learning objectives

An effective learning objective communicates:

  1. Performance: What should the learner be able to DO?
  2. Conditions: Under what conditions?
  3. Criterion: How well / To what degree of competence

1. Performance

Performance can be:

Visible / Overt Performance:

  • Visible or Audible
  • What a learner can “do”
  • If it isn’t yet visible, it isn’t a useful objective
  • Performance has to be a “doing” word not a “being” word (eg. Understanding, appreciating that can only be inferred from what a person is actually “doing”)

Invisible / Covert Performance

  • A lot of performances we want to develop are covert and we can’t ignore them. Examples, recognise, solve, recall etc. These are mostly internal.
  • The rule with covert performance is to add a simple, indicative behavior that illustrates that the performance is happening. Eg. Identify (underline) the elements of the balance sheet accurately

Note: The objective should always state the main intent, not just associated or peripheral activities.

2. Conditions

These are the conditions under which the performance should occur. Questions to ask:

  • What will the learner be expected to use while performing? Tools, forms, equipment etc
  • What will the learner not be allowed to use — eg. “Without reference material, be able to recall (list) the various financial statements of the company.
  • Where or which real life situation is the performance expected to occur in — eg. In front of audience, on a project team etc

This helps eliminate the risk of misunderstanding of the objectives and how & where the learning is applicable.

3. Criterion

This is the standard against which to measure the success of the instruction. This tells us how well the learner must perform to be considered competent and for us to know that the objectives of the instruction have been met. It often tells us the characteristics of the final product. Any of the following may be considered as criterion:

  • Speed: how fast, within what time limit should the learner perform
  • Accuracy: how accurately (often times 100% accuracy is unrealistic and costly)
  • Quality: To what level of quality (eg. During the interview, the learner must be able to answer questions courteously and clearly. Jargons must be defined when first introduced)

What a good learning objective does NOT contain

  • Instructional Procedures
  • Target Audience (The same objectives can be applicable to a different audience, eg. Laterals instead of grads)
  • Format or Methodology (All objectives can’t conform to a specific format)
  • Words open to misinterpretation and those that do not communicate a specific performance / outcome (eg. think, develop, understand, internalise etc)

You can use this article as a checklist of sorts to figure out whether your learning objectives are sound & make improvements if required.

Cover Image Credit:  Jordan Madrid on Unsplash

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