Most clients have a specific outcome in mind for learners when they initiate an e-learning project. So how do you make sure learners reach the desired learning destination? By creating clear objectives, or milestones, that move learners toward the goal in a specific, measurable way. 

In this article we’ll look at why learning objectives are important, what makes them “good” (or “bad”), and how to craft solid e-learning objectives for your courses. Here we go!

Why Learning Objectives Are Important

Learning objectives are the cornerstone of every e-learning course. They’re the reason you’re creating the course. They guide you as you select the content and activities to include. And they help you determine whether your course has been effective.

So basically, without learning objectives you won’t know why you’re creating the course, what content to include, what activities to choose, or how to gauge the success of your course. Seems pretty important when you put it that way, doesn’t it?

What Makes Learning Objectives “Good”

Despite their importance, all too often learning objectives are vague and unclear. Say you’re creating a course for mortgage company employees on how to process FHA loans. The goal may seem clear on the surface: you want learners to understand how to process FHA loans. But how will you know if your learners have reached that goal? You won’t—because understanding isn’t something you can measure. 

“Good” learning objectives are SMART objectives. They’re:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant 
  • Time-related

Let’s take a closer look at how to use this simple formula to write your learning objectives. 

Writing SMART Learning Objectives

How do you write SMART learning objectives? Start by taking a step back. Think about the smaller tasks that learners need to accomplish to achieve the larger goal. 

Then choose a specific, measurable action verb that accurately describes what learners need to accomplish. For example, do they need to be able to recall a product name? Explain a concept? Evaluate the risks and benefits of different choices? Avoid using verbs like understand or know; they’re difficult (read: impossible) to measure. Check out Bloom’s Taxonomy for a list of verbs that work well for learning objectives.

Instead of: 

At the end of the course, learners will know how to process an FHA loan

Try:

At the end of the course, learners will be able to:

  • identify the documents required
  • identify the credit requirements
  • identify the employment requirements

Let’s check those objectives against our SMART criteria to make sure we’ve covered everything:

  • Are they specific? Yes. They outline three specific requirements the learners need to be able to identify. 
  • Are they measurable? Yes. You could present learners with a multiple response question for each to determine whether or not they can correctly identify the requirements.
  • Are they achievable? Yes. If the course explains to the learners how to identify these requirements, they should be able to do it.
  • Are they relevant? Yes. Assuming the course content is focused on how to identify these requirements.
  • Are they time-bound? Yes. When will the learner know how to identify these requirements? At the end of the course.

Now those are some SMART objectives! You’ll be able to use them as a guide to build a helpful course and measure its effectiveness.

The Bottom Line

Without solid learning objectives, you’ll be hard-pressed to build an effective e-learning course. After all, how can you choose relevant content and activities if you don’t know what learners need to be able to do after taking the course? And if you can’t measure whether they’ve reached those objectives, you won’t know whether your course was successful in helping them do that. 

So next time you start a new e-learning project, be sure to think carefully about your learning objectives and ensure they’re SMART before you start building out your course. 

Looking for more instructional design tips? Check out these helpful articles:

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6 Comments
Heather Steckley
Peter Rushton
Paula Obrien

Hi Heather! A lot of people encounter this situation when designing a new course. The goal is to begin the performance-based part of training with participants who share a common skill level in the basics. In setting measurable learning objectives around base knowledge such as the architecture, consider focusing on lower-level skills. For example: recite the parts of the architecture, recall the purpose of each part of the architecture, etc. For participants who can 'do' that already, consider learning objectives around mid-level skills, such as: chart the workflow for [xyz process using the architecture], list common failures that occur [in the xyz process they charted], explain underlying causes of common failures in [doing xyz with the architecture], describe how to recover from [xyz fa... Expand

Paul Desmarais

Hi Heather. For me good objectives start with accurately selecting verbs to describe what students will do in the course so the objectives can be used to guide the content, activities, and assessments. When the instructor is not clear on what they want you see phrases like: "Students will be able to demonstrate..." when they do not actually demonstrate anything. I find a backwards design approach can help in these situations. How does the instructor plan to measure whether students have the prerequisite knowledge? If it is an automated quiz, for example, what actions will they take to answer the questions? What will students actually do during the quiz to show competence? A matching activity? Create a list? Order the steps of an analysis? Students will match the physical structures... Expand