Do learners really care about the course objectives?

How much time do you devote to the course objectives? Being a "doer" type person, I scan them (at best) and ignore them completely (most often). While I realize their importance when designing the course, are they necessary to the learner.

Is it enough to link to them on the player? How do you provide them for those who want them and not waste time and audio budget for those who don't?

45 Replies
James Morris

There are some differing opinions on this topic. Robert Gagne, Kempf, and many others state that informing the learner of the objective is helpful, but I have also seen other research (I will look for it) showing that it did not have any influence on the learner outcome. 

Personally, I think it would depend on numerous factors . For example, 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.

I would't write it off completely. I would definitely  consider it during design.

I would advise the client on which method you recommend for the project, and give them the option if it influences the budget.


Alexander Salas


Learning objectives are a must for the design process as you mentioned.  I think the main flaw many designers have is that they do not modify the wording for the learner.  This is probably the key differential.  I'm a learner-centered designer so, from that perspective, a well written terminal objective meeting the Bloom's Taxonomy or Mager's theorems doesn't do much for the learner.  For example; "Given that learners have access to all learning materials and accomplish all curriculum requirements, they will be able to dissect a frog." as opposed to "This course will show you how to dissect a frog."

From a learner's perspective, learning objectives should demonstrate the "What's In It For Me" or WIIFM of the training.

Steve Flowers

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 on to the learner. Unless the goal is to perpetuate a bad design habit, show the learner how smart and structured we are as designers, or to reduce credibility with the audience by opening up with snooze-phrases. Ditch the clinical language. There are lots of other ways to set expectations, call attention, and get folks to focus. We don't need a 3 part objective in the presentation to do that.

The only time I received complaints that objectives weren't stated "properly" was from instructional design folks that immediately lost points in my book:) Ack! And this "our process is so important that we must impart it on our audience" sentiment is pretty common. 

Will Thalheimer put together a presentation a few months ago that illustrates what the research says about learning objectives. I take research with a grain of salt but this feels dead on based on my experience and user testing.

Blooms can be a useful tool if it's not used as a dartboard to pick a verb. An even better exercise is breaking down the performance using some kind of rigorous analysis and map what's contained in the course to what folks need to be ready to do:)

Steve Flowers

James makes a good point about the linkage between objectives and assessments. Part of the issue with a lot of design is folks start with objectives and work out from there. To me, this is skipping a heap of considerations. This can make the objective definition an arbitrary exercise (one I call verb darts) that makes a poor foundation for everything that follows.

Here's my mental frame for where objectives should appear in the procession, starting at the bottom with performance requirements. 

Mixed with a shift away from the assumption that information=knowledge=readiness=behavior (a false set of assumptions, IMO), the objective can take on multiple facets. Not just what we want the performer to do but how we want to frame an experience that helps them get ready to do those things, to grow, and to flourish.

Jerson  Campos

I still use objectives in my courses because I feel it provides a good road map of what the learners are going to learn and for me its a good place to refer back to make sure that I'm sticking to the what the purpose of the course is when SMEs dump a bunch of information on you.  But I have changed on how I present them so that users don't just skim over them. I've started to present them in a "explainer video" kind of format. Where, through visuals and animations, I explain to the learner what is going and and what will be learned in the course. So far, it has been very successful and well received by the targeted audience.

Dave Neuweiler

Just to keep it simple, 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?"


Cary Glenn

I write learning objective when I am designing the course but these are my end goals not the learners. On a all-day instructor-led course I might have well over 60 objectives. I do not use 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.

Cary Glenn

I was thinking some more about this issue. When I see a list of learning objectives (as written for by the designer), "By the end of the this course you will be able to list 8 ways tie a shoe lace" I get bored. Instead why not start with a story, "Billy-Bob tripped and broke his arm, all because he didn't know the best way to tie his laces". Get my attention, make it meaningful, make it emotional, make me care. Then I am ready to learn something.

Steve Flowers

Thinking about Dave's response, I do think folks gain better trajectory when they know what direction they're pointed in. I guess my hesitation with putting all of my eggs into a traditionally executed objectives screen includes -

  • Folks should have opportunities to begin shaping that expectation before they even launch the course. So there are some advance organizers that appear before a module is launched. If folks are just finding out why they're there once they enter the course, seems like it's too late.
  • As Cary indicates above, we have some general goals but as a designer I want to help folks reach the minimums, not constrain them from going beyond. Depending on the type of resource, this consideration might affect how I frame up expectations for what the participant will accomplish. 
  • Many objective screens are more about what the course will accomplish than what the participant will accomplish. This seems wrong-headed to me. If we are to focus on the audience, the language, the hook, and the tone should focus on 1) getting the job done that needs done and 2) making sure we aren't turning folks off with too much suck. 

To Cary's point, 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

A chief complaint we've seen in the course feedback collected and focus groups we've conducted is the course is too general for an audience and at the same time too specific for others. These courses are rated 4 out of 5 stars but still... that 20% that don't feel it was a great fit seems like a lost opportunity.

A little bit of adaptive conversation seems like it could help. We study the audience and identify where most folks are and where the gaps are. But rarely have I seen much training that really adapts to the specific position based on recognition through inquiry. This is where live training shines. There isn't any reason why a self-paced program can't move in that direction. Doesn't seem like this is an objectives strategy, but I think it is. Figuring out where individual folks are is a step towards knowing what they need. And tuning responses to what folks need is a better way to prefix an experience with expectations than mechanically painting everyone with the same 3 part objectives.

Lots of opportunities that can be used to get folks in the mode and mood. To be ready to start the journey ahead. I could be wrong... But experience tells me robotic instructional design isn't as warm as it could be:)

Jessica Nelson

I utilize objectives as the framework for my course design and layout, so I take a lot of time and care in the creation of them.  I work for an accounting firm where stating objectives is a requirement in order for my clients to receive NASBA CPE credit.  I know that often learners and trainers soar past objectives, so I have recently made a change.

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 is in it for me) slide I incorporate in all of my e-learning and instructor lead courses.

Bruce Graham

Too often the objectives you see are those of the course sponsor, and have no "real world" relevance to the learners. So - there need to be 2 x sets of objectives.

Love @Jessica's concept of "purpose". I often go harder than this..."Once you have completed xxx you will be expected to do abc, which will become part of your objectives", (or whatever).

Steve Flowers

Me too! I love how it provides an opportunity to steer the conversation around how the participant feels or what they know about a part of a topic. It creates a sense of something other than a one-way monologue. 

We've also used it in some refresher materials as a pseudo-survey to gauge how folks feel they are doing and what they see as barriers.

Bruce Graham here's another question...

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?

Dave Neuweiler
Bruce Graham

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

A fair point! I can (cynically) think of a few instances where people might not know or even care what the course objectives might be:

  • Corporate "compliance" courses. (If I don't take these courses, someone from Human Resources is going to cast a long, dark shadow over my cubicle.)
  • CEU courses to maintain a certification. (I need any ten CEU's every year to maintain a certification/accreditation that looks good on my resume, and the extra letters after my name on my business card are pretty cool, too.)
  • A driver education course. (I can get a 10% discount on my insurance policy, just by passing the quiz after this course ...)

In each case, there would be learning objectives for the course, but the learner's objective could be quite different. In other words, the learner may not need whatever benefits that the course content provides, but rather just needs the "completion" to attain a separate benefit or avoid a consequence.

The "completion" becomes more important than the "content." This is probably how Machiavelli would design courses, don't you think?  


Bruce Graham

Well...I'd argue that the role of the ID is to show *WHY *the objectives
are deeper than just "tick in the box".
Corporate Compliance are, for example, to save on prosecutions, to reduce
the corporate insurance bills etc. Perhaps if these were explained in a
more positive or better way to learners, in terms of the *business* reasons
for the courses, they would be better received.
Perhaps HR and "Compliance" departments just need to understand the
benefits of learning a few selling skills, and adopt a "sell not tell"
approach? it may be a hard sell but it would help their credibility
a bit.

Ben Keszler

As someone who is cutting my ID teeth by gnawing on 'corpliance' by the mouthful, the notion of "sell not tell" rising above the box-ticking mire before me is a beautiful (albeit distant) dream... but it is a dream I strive to get closer and closer to each day.  Ideas here are very well put, and very much needed in environments where "completion becomes more important than the content". Thank you for the insight!

Rachel Barnum

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 layout 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.

For compliance courses, eh, I skip right over them. I do think they're important but I don't think it's necessary to be forced to watch each bullet point of the learning objectives come in with narration. A quick one or two sentence summary of what I'll be learning is a lot more useful and something I'm more likely to pay attention to. 

Joe Molnar

I would like to add that if you do use objectives, be mindful on how you word them. Objectives should be measurable or verified in some manner.

For example:

On completion of this module you will be able to:

  • Identify the hazards in your workplace
  • Locate OHS policies and procedures
  • Access the OHS website  

Each of these objectives could be tested in some way in an eLearning project.

But if you used terms such as:

  • Describe OHS policies
  • Explain the benefits of a safe environment
  • Understand Policies and Procedures  

How would you verify these? In an Instructor Led class you may well be able to do so, but on an eLearning platform verifying, describe, explain and understand is not really possible.