How to Write Effective Learning Objectives
Good learning objectives are essential to the success of your learning programs; but what makes them good or bad? This article will examine the characteristics of effective learning objectives and offer a guide to writing them.
Have you ever sat through a class or workshop wondering, "What's the point? Why am I here?" Most of us have. As an Instructional Designer, my goal is to make sure my learners don't have cause to ask those questions.
If I want to achieve my goal, I have to make sure learners can achieve theirs. That means writing a set of effective learning objectives that let me ensure :
- Learners know why they're there and what they're supposed to be learning
- Learners can follow individualized learning paths, focusing on the skills and knowledge they need rather than on things they already know
- The content I select is meaningful, relevant and what learners need to accomplish their learning goals
- Assessments are fair and effective
What are Learning Objectives?
Learning objectives, also called performance objectives and behavioral objectives, are concise statements describing what learners will be able to do at the end of a learning event. According to Robert Mager (1984), Preparing instructional objectives, learning objectives have four components:
- Audience - Who is expected to complete the performance
- Performance - What do you expect learners to be able to do or perform after completing the learning?
- Condition- Under what conditions must learners complete the performance? Can they use a job aid or other reference material?
- Criteria - How well do they have to complete the performance? Is there a time limit? A degree of accuracy required?
Let's take a closer look at each component and discuss what makes it effective.
1. Audience - Learner-Focused Objectives
Effective performance objectives are learner-focused. A common mistake is to focus on the instructor or content developer. Consider the following learning objective examples:
- This module will describe the login process for the Stellex system.
- At the end of this module, learners will be able to log in to the Stellex system.
The first example is instructor- or content-focused. It's also too vague. Will it describe how to log in, or will it describe the way the software processes logins?
The second example describes a specific skill that learners will be able to demonstrate. It defines the required content - whatever learners need to know and do to log in - and leads to an obvious assessment.
Additionally, learner-focused objectives tell learners exactly what they will get out of the learning event.
2. Performance Statement - An Observable, Meaningful Behavior
The performance statement describes what learners must be able to do to demonstrate that they have achieved the performance objective. The following guidelines will help you write effective performance statements:
a. Effective performance statements are observable - they can be seen or heard.
A common error is to begin with non-observable verbs like "know", "understand", "comprehend" or "appreciate". These are unclear. You can't see or hear someone "knowing" or "understanding" a topic, so they do not describe a performance.
Take a moment to think about the difference between the following pairs of statements.
b. Refer to Bloom's Taxonomy for help finding effective verbs for cognitive objectives.
Benjamin Bloom developed a taxonomy of educational objectives in the 1950s. He divided objectives into three categories: the cognitive or thinking domain; the affective or feeling domain; and the psychomotor or physical domain.
- Verbs for psychomotor objectives tend to be straightforward: Ride a bicycle or Measure an insulin dosage.
- Affective objectives can be difficult to teach, complicated to write and even harder to assess. These objectives are often converted into cognitive or psychomotor objectives that allow an observer to infer a feeling - or at least the appearance of it.
- For example, since "respect your patients" isn't an effective objective for a medical student, a series of cognitive and psychomotor objectives might be used instead: address all patients by name; describe active listening; explain why patients report better outcomes when practitioners use active listening techniques.
- Cognitive objectives can also be difficult. You can't see or hear people's thoughts, but you can often observe the results of those thoughts. Bloom's taxonomy divides the cognitive domain into six categories or levels. His original levels have since been updated, and the current hierarchy is:
Source: Learning Theories
To craft effective learning objectives, you must give careful consideration to where your objective lies. In many cases, you will find it best to use multiple objectives at several levels. Learners must remember before they can understand and understand before they can apply or analyze.
The cognitive level of an objective will inform your selection of a verb. Many lists of verbs for learning objectives based on Bloom's taxonomy are available on the internet. You may find some of these links useful:
- Bloom's Taxonomy of Measurable Verbs by SAE International
- Writing Learning Objectives for eLearning: What eLearning Professionals Should Know by Christopher Pappas
- Revised Bloom's Taxonomy by Iowa State University
Be careful when using verb guides such as these. Their quality varies, and I've often seen non-observable verbs included.
c. Performance statements must be specific, clear and meaningful.
Anyone reading a performance statement should know precisely what behavior is required of successful learners. Think about how learners will respond to a statement like "show leadership". Most will ask "how? What do you mean by leadership?"
To be effective, this performance statement must be replaced by a series of statements describing the specific behaviors and activities that constitute leadership.
3. Condition - How the Performance Must Be Completed
Condition statements describe any conditions that apply to the performance. They often start with "given", "with" or "without", and describe any information, materials or other resources learners may use or are not permitted to use. For example:
- Given a patient's age and weight and a calculator, learners will be able to calculate the correct dose of amoxicillin for the patient after completing this module.
- At the end of this course, learners will be able to ride a bicycle without using training wheels.
- Using any references they choose, learners will be able to...
Conditions aren't always present in a learning objective. They should be included when more clarity is needed. 'Without using reference material" is often omitted as it tends to be the default. However, when a particular resource is commonly used for a task, it's best to specify whether or not it will be available.
4. Criteria - How Well the Performance Must Be Completed
Like conditions, criteria are added when they are necessary to clarify the expected performance. Criteria answer questions like:
- How long?
- How fast?
- How far?
- How accurately?
Let's add criteria to the objectives in the last section.
- Given a patient's age and weight and a calculator, learners will be able to calculate the correct dose of amoxicillin, to the milligram, for the patient after completing this module.
- At the end of this course, learners will be able to ride a bicycle for 30 meters without turning without using training wheels.
3 Key Traits of Learning Objectives
When you've identified your audience, crafted your performance statement and added key conditions and criteria, you're well on your way to building an effective learning objective. Now it's time to look at the objective as a whole. Effective learning objectives need the following traits.
1. Effective learning objectives must address the learning need.
It's possible to write beautiful learning objectives that accomplish nothing.
You might describe a series of skills clearly, but your learning program still won't be effective if those skills are already present, aren't needed or aren't paired with others that make them valuable to your organization.
If you're dealing with a skill or knowledge gap, or if you want to find out whether that's the problem, a needs analysis is crucial. It's a process for identifying gaps and what's needed to fill them. Once you've identified the missing skills, you'll know what learning objectives will provide them.
2. Effective learning objectives must be assessable.
To be fair to learners and stakeholders, learning objectives must be assessable.
This can be an issue in corporate training when a learning objective specifies an on-job performance. For example, if your objective is "all learners must wash their hands before and after changing a child's diaper", the only fair and accurate assessment is to observe the learners on-the-job to see whether they wash their hands as required.
On-job observation is an effective assessment technique, but it's also an expensive and effortful one. Make sure you have the organizational will and ability to follow through with a valid assessment before writing an objective like this.
3. Effective learning objectives must be realistically achievable as a result of the learning.
In corporate training, it's easy to mistake business goals or course aims for learning objectives. Remember that employees can learn techniques to improve business processes, but they can't necessarily learn a business outcome.
Think about learning objectives for a customer service facility. A call center wants to reduce average call time by 15%. This objective is observable; it's clear and assessable; important criteria are present, but is it really a learning objective?
Try putting it the question another way. Is it possible to learn to reduce call time by 15%? Not really. Learners can learn and apply techniques or strategies for reducing call time, but their average call time reduction will be affected by any number of factors that are out of the learners' control, like the complexity of the issues callers have, or the effectiveness of the techniques and strategies for call time reduction they're provided with.
In this article, we've covered the components and key traits of effective learning objectives, so you know what goes into them. But what comes out of them? Effective learning content and assessments, if it all goes according to plan.
Jill is an Instructional Designer at BaseCorp Learning Systems with more than 10 years of experience researching, writing and designing effective learning materials. She is fascinated by the English language and enjoys the challenge of adapting her work for different audiences. After work, Jill continues to leverage her professional experience as she works toward the development of a training program for her cats. So far, success has not been apparent.