E-Learning Course Objectives

No one cares about learning objectives.

Think that’s a rogue statement? Perhaps it is, but it’s one of many positions recently debated with zeal in the E-Learning Heroes community when community member Angela Kaufman asked, “Do learners really care about learning objectives?

The community’s response to her question surfaced loads of creative ideas and plenty of food for thought, along with references to valuable research that illustrates the nuances around this hot topic. What follows is a compilation of their responses, grouped into some common themes—The Value of Learning Objectives, Creative Ways to Present Learning Objectives, and Research into Learning Objectives.

The Value of Learning Objectives

As with any rich topic, there were lots of different perspectives on the real and perceived value of learning objectives.

For instance, community members James Morris, Dave Neuweiler, and John Nixdorf all felt that learning objectives are of value to learners.

James: “...providing learning objectives to learners with strong prior knowledge may help them assimilate the new information and pair it with older information stored in their brain.”

Dave: “...consider that if you don’t tell the learner up-front what they’re expected to accomplish in your course, they will never know whether they’ve succeeded.

I think it was Mager who described this perfectly: ‘If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know when you’ve arrived?’”

John: “Objectives provide a definitive statement of ‘here’s what you will get out of this course.’ They answer for the student the question, ‘why am I taking this course?’

Probably they’re as much use keeping the SMEs and development team on track as they are for the student.

I’ve never had a development project with a good statement of objectives and content outline run off the rails. Almost every development project without objectives and content outline has been a trial at best, and sometimes a nightmare.”

As a recent learner herself, Rachel Barnum shared an interesting perspective:

Rachel: “I care about learning objectives when I’m learning on my own, not necessarily when I’m being ‘forced’ to learn through compliance, etc. For example, I’m taking an online course right now about writing for the web, and I was especially attracted to this course because not only did it go over the writing itself, but how to lay out a website for optimal readership and the types of graphics to include. I wouldn’t have known that these topics would be in the course if it weren’t for the learning objectives.”

Meanwhile, Alexander Salas and E-Learning Hero Steve Flowers concurred that objectives are valuable for the design process, but not necessarily valuable to learners unless they’re rewritten.

Alexander: “I think the main flaw many designers have is that they do not modify the wording for the learner.”

Steve: “Learning Objectives help to shape the specification and constraints for your design. As many of the replies have indicated, definitely hold onto them for your purposes.

However, the blueprints are not the furniture. And, in my opinion, our artifacts of design should almost never be passed verbatim onto the learner.”

And Cary Glenn offered this practical rationale for withholding learning objectives entirely:

Cary: “On an all-day instructor-led course I might have well over 60 objectives. I do not list the objectives in a course. I go over a general goal of the course. I find listing objectives a waste of time. Most learners don’t care about them and they don’t really accomplish anything. It seems to me also a little conceited on my part to say by the time we’re done here you will be able to do this, as I don’t know if they will or not. Also the learner may learn other things that I didn’t think of and I don’t want to limit or assume what they may learn.”

E-Learning Hero Bruce Graham also took exception to the notion that learning objectives are inherently valuable to learners.

Bruce: “Do we need objectives at all? On the basis that the learner/(intended learner) is taking the course as part of a development plan and/or corporate communication programme, it will presumably be launched from an email/LMS/LRS etc., perhaps with a communications plan upfront, or certainly linked to objectives.

So — why does the course need an ‘Objectives’/‘Purpose’ section, as those will already be known by the audience?

If they do not already KNOW the objectives of the course, why would they bother to take it?”

Creative Ways to Present Learning Objectives

The majority of community responses acknowledged that learning objectives are valuable for designers and stakeholders, but they need to be rethought if they’re to add value for learners.

For example, Jessica Nelson suggests reframing objectives as “purpose.”

Jessica: “Instead of labeling my objectives as ‘objectives,’ I’ve replaced the term with ‘purpose.’ What a difference this slight change has made! Learners are able to relate better to the ‘purpose’ of the training rather than the ‘objectives’ of the training. I find replacing ‘objectives’ with ‘purpose’ flows nicely into the course WIIFM (what’s in it for me) slide I incorporate in all of my e-learning and instructor-led courses.”

And Steve Flowers chimed in with some clever ideas for reframing objectives:

Steve: “... story is one good way to frame expectations. So is framing up a problem and outlining an expectation for what the company/agency wants them to do and how the course will help them get there (and serve as a resource for when they encounter problems).

Leading with a conversation is another way to do this. Asking a question and adapting feedback to the answer.

'So, how much do you know about X?’

- Nothing at all. I’ve never heard of it.

- I know a little.

- Are you kidding? I’m an expert in X.”

Simon Blair also shared a helpful idea for making objectives more relevant to learners.

Simon: “What I care about (as a learner) is getting things done. As an ID, I believe it’s my job to understand the learner’s job well enough that I can speak to them in those terms.

For example, e-mail training isn’t about starting the mail client, opening e-mail and replying to messages. It’s about staying in touch with your colleagues/clients. Macros training isn’t about nested functions, it’s about automating simple tasks so that you can get more done or focus on more important ones.”

Research into Learning Objectives

Along with lots of opinions and ideas, the E-Learning Heroes community demonstrated their industry know-how by recommending several resources for exploring the research on your own.

Several community members also debated the efficacy of Bloom’s Taxonomy as a tool for formulating learning objectives. There’s a lot of great content on the web covering Bloom’s, but for a succinct overview, check out this article from International Community Manager Allison LaMotte.

Summary

Whether you’re a die-hard devotee of traditionally framed learning objectives or a rogue designer who’s cast them aside, learning objectives are undeniably the framework we should use to structure and imbue learning content with purpose.

If you enjoyed reading the perspectives and ideas of your peers, you may also enjoy reading these great articles in the ELH archives:

What’s your take on learning objectives? Do they matter to your learners? Share your experiences by leaving a comment below.

And be sure to follow us on Twitter and come back to E-Learning Heroes regularly for more helpful advice on everything related to e-learning.

19 Comments
Trina Rimmer
Leslie  Johnson
Paul Moraga
Nicola Macdonald
Tim Danes

Let me start by saying, I love a movie that doesn't tell me the ending before it starts. Recently I've begun to use a phrase that I merged from UI and UX. I call it Learner eXperience (LX). For a product that is truly a LX, I find the objectives are more for the developer and I try and start by jumping straight to an applied scenario (like a narrative with an antagonist that creates a problem that needs solving). I also understand that there are some learners where the tension is too much (like my daughter who reads the back page of a book to see what happens). For these learners, I might place an 'Easter Egg' (hidden object or tucked away menu that they will find if they look) into the product so they can cheat if they need to. For a 'transferred responsibility' situation, wher... Expand

Arthur Barrett
Michael Hulsey

In attempt to engage students in my ILT technical training, I started my classes with the learners stating their name, what they did at work, and most importantly, what they wanted to get out of the course. As the learners said what they wanted to learn, I paraphrased the objective it to make sure I understood what they wanted and then wrote it way off to the side of the white board. When a student said something that was already in the course, I said very good. If they said something that was not in the course, but not to fare out of scope, I said very good and made a point to incorporate it into the class. When a student said something that was way out of scope, I said we wouldn't have time to go over that topic in the classroom, but I was happy to get together with anyone who want to l... Expand

Carlos Soto
Michael Hulsey

Carlos, I cant agree with you more. Apparently I didn’t explain myself very well. I didn’t mean to imply that the course didn’t have objectives or that they are not important. When designing a course, I strongly agree with everything you wrote. I just didn’t use the objectives included with the course. I let the students come up with the objectives. I felt by creating a student driven set of objectives, it got the students engaged right from the get go. Also, I thought the learners would feel the course was relevant to them personally. In this particular case, the class was a maintenance course. So, although there were a number of objectives included with the course, the only one that mattered was to be able to fix the machine. To that end, the final exam wasn’t a written test, ... Expand

Tara Aiken
Carlos Soto

The theme I keep hearing is that objectives are not necessary for the students. Well suppose you needed a course on using variables to create advance training modules in Storyline 2. You decide to get the training either at a school house or at training conference. You see a course titled, “Essentials of Storyline 2”, do you go ahead and pay several hundred dollars based on the title alone in hope that it teaches you the skills you need or do you take a look at the objectives of this course to see if it meets your needs? My point is that objectives are not just for developers. The objectives are for students and any stakeholder that wants to know how this training that they paid for is going to benefit them and their organization. Is it providing them the skills they need to improve overal... Expand

Derek Young
Bonnie Taylor
Michael Fimian

Wow! Great discussion... After 20 years of generating and communicating instructional objectives, I've come to realize that. to the average person, the learners glance quickly at them and move on. Then, we have the "instructional" modules that are "only" 120 slides long and have a dozen objectives, which are mostly ignored due to the numbers of bullets on some slide... When I used to teach college on a F2F basis, I used to start my lectures with "Well, what are we going to learn today?" Then I'd tell them -- without conditions or criteria. Then we'd proceed and that worked just fine. More recently I started doing the same thing for my eLearning pieces, mostly following a microlearning model, and it seems to be working out very well. Students know what they're getting in to the... Expand