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.
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.”
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.
- Steve Flowers recommends Will Thalmier’s comprehensive (video) overview of the research around learning objectives.
- James Morrison suggests Robert Gagne’s research would be of interest to designers wanting to learn more about the science of learning and instruction.
- And Cary Glenn shared a link to a circa 2006 research report he found helpful: The Impact of Instructional Elements in Computer-Based Instruction.
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.
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:
- Interactive E-Learning Objectives Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 by Tom Kuhlmann
- How Do You Identify Learning Objectives? by Nicole Legault
- How to Write Good E-Learning Objectives for Your Online Course by Nicole Legault
What’s your take on learning objectives? Do they matter to your learners? Share your experiences by leaving a comment below.
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