Writing Learning Objectives

Writing Learning Objectives

Improve the effectiveness of your training programs by writing clear learning objectives.

Why Write Learning Objectives?

Photo of grey blocks with letters LEARNWhy go to the bother of writing learning objectives for your training program? I see many programs that simply wear participants out by being “nine miles long and one inch thick” with little opportunity to engage learners and practice skills and in the end serving no useful purpose for the organization paying for the program. These programs have a heavy emphasis on what needs to be “taught” with little regard to what participants will need to be able to do when they get back to their job. A focus on writing effective learning objectives tied to real organizational needs is what is missed in a lot of cases.

What is a “learning objective”? What is called a “learning objective” is variously named “learning outcome” and “learner objective”. Sometimes the term “student” or “participant” is used in place of “learner”. In any case, a “learning objective” is what the training participant is intended to have actually learned at the conclusion of the training program. “Learning” encapsulates new beliefs, new attitudes and new practical skills and the unlearning of outmoded beliefs, attitudes and skills.

What are the benefits of defining and articulating a well-constructed learning objectives statement? I see the benefits for your program as including the following:

  • Learners can focus more easily on what is important to their actual workplace performance.
  • Learning objectives form a solid basis for sequencing and chunking program content and activities.
  • Participants’ managers can be assured that training addresses actual organizational goals.
  • Learning objectives determine the relevance of program design features and content, allowing you to weed out easily what are just peripheral sideshows.
  • Trainers can better focus on the key deliverables of the training program, without being too sidetracked to the detriment of the program.
  • Learning objectives allow learner tests to be checked for relevance and completeness.

The writing of well-specified learning objectives plays a central role in any training program. Formulating and documenting such objectives serves to guide the activities of all of the people involved in its development and delivery; course designers and developers, participants’ managers, trainers and the learners themselves.

The Learning Objectives Process

How do you write effective learning objectives? As with all good outcomes, I see the trick as following the right process. Effective training program needs analysis and high-level design consists of four basic steps.

Figure 1 – Phases of training program design

Learning design process diagram

The first step involves working with client managers to determine the organization’s purpose for the training. This purpose should be stated in organizational terms and not in training terms. In Step 2, the organizational unit’s objectives are expanded in order to clarify what it is employees will need to be able to do following the training for the organizational unit to be able to achieve its stated objectives. The behavior statements documented in Step 2 are then converted into the language of training in Step 3. Step 3 culminates in a document specifying behavior-based learning outcomes for the program. In the following Step 4, the designer determines the basic course design and delivery parameters.

My resource kit, Writing Learning Outcomes, will walk you through the first three of these steps, laying a solid foundation for you to progress to Step 4.

Step 1: Identify Organizational Unit Objectives

In this first step, determine clearly who are your clients (CEO, department manager, project manager, etc). Review the appropriate organizational documents (strategic, project and operational plans, etc) and conduct joint meetings with your clients. Ensure that the objectives agreed with your clients are SMART objectives; that is, that they are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time framed

My book, Writing Learning Outcomes, will help you identify and frame the organization’s objectives for designing and conducting the training.

Step 2: Determine On-the-Job Behaviors

In this next step, determine what behaviors participants must demonstrate back in the workplace following the training for the organization’s objectives to be achieved. To do this effectively, ensure that your behavior statements:

  • are directly linked to the organization’s objective,
  • contain active verbs, and
  • refer to actions that are publicly observable.

To stay in touch with reality, gather a cross-section of stakeholders to thrash out what learner behaviors are really required. At the least, invite client managers, subject matter experts and prospective training participants. At this stage, you will need to work hard to make sure that stakeholders stick with what participants are required to do back on the job, and not what they will need to know.

This site hosts cost-effective tools to help you conduct the proper training needs analysis required in Steps 1 and 2. My Training Management and Training Projects Template Packs contain the necessary templates and guides for identifying organizational objectives and required on-the-job behaviors.

Step 3: Write Learning Objectives

Only now that you and the organization are clear on business objectives and workplace behaviors are you ready to actually write the learning objectives. Translate the behavior statements formulated in the previous step into performance-based learning objectives. Begin by writing them in the form:

At the conclusion of XYZ program, participants should be able to:

anticipate …

consider …

create …

Make sure that the learning objectives are learner centered and not centered on what the trainer or program will do or provide or cover.

Now add the performance standard to which training participants are expected to perform back on the job. A racing car driver, for example, is expected to drive at a higher skill level than an ordinary road user. Also now add the working environment that the participants are expected to perform within and their available resources back on the job. Will they work autonomously or within a team? Will they have access to user manuals, or will they be expected to remember the process steps?

These now constitute the terminal learning objectives – the highest-level outcomes specified for the entire training program. Many of your programs will span several modules or sessions. For each of these discrete components, now formulate enabling learning objectives. To do this, think about what it is the training participant will need to learn to be able to satisfy each terminal objective.

For each enabling learning objective, make sure you consider each of Bloom’s three learning domains:

1. cognitive
includes knowledge, beliefs and reasoning,
2. affective
includes values, feelings, attitudes and motivation, and
3. psycho-motor
includes physical movement and co-ordination.

Once again, make sure that you use active verbs to describe the outcomes. My resource kit, Writing Learning Outcomes, will help you structure your terminal and enabling learning objectives and contains tables of suggested active words for you to use.

By writing learning objectives that are both meaningful and practical, you will enhance your credibility with your clients and improve your effectiveness as a training designer.

For a step-by-step guide on writing learning objectives with lots of templates and examples, check out Leslie Allan’s learning outcomes resource book. As you complete each step in the guide, you will write the results for your particular training project in the workbook provided. When you have finished working through the workbook, you will have a complete set of documented learning objectives for your project.
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