Learning Objectives: Do You Make Them Measurable?

Community Manager Allison LaMotte recently shared a great article about Bloom's Taxonomy (An Introduction to Blooom's Taxonomy for Instructional Designers) which led to a great discussion in the comments section about the importance of learning objectives. 

One thing that I don't think anyone mentioned is how important it is to create MEASURABLE learning objectives. 

I can't tell you how many times I see lists of learning objectives that contain objectives like: "Understand the theory XYZ" and "Recognize the top 4 components of ABC".... These sound good, but they aren't truly measurable objectives.  How do you measure if someone understands the theory? How do you measure if someone recognizes something? Instead, measurable objectives would be "Write a brief paragraph summarizing theory XYZ" and "List the top 4 components of ABC". 

I'd love to hear the community's thoughts about crafting measurable learning objectives. Does it matter to you? Do you always make your learning objectives measurable? Any tips of your own to share for how to accomplish this?

18 Replies
Allison LaMotte

I totally agree with you, Nicole. It is SUPER important to make sure the learning objectives are measurable. Otherwise, how will you (and the learner!) know that they have been reached?

In my experience, it can be difficult to impress this upon certain clients who don't really know what learners need to be able to do. They were told to make e-learning courses, so they are doing it (or rather, having someone else do it!). Has anyone else been in a similar situation? If so, what did you do?

Shari Hanlon

Nicole and Allison, this topic is one of my "hot buttons!" My department works constantly to refocus on performance, since that is the end goal of training. When a client says to me they want the learners to "understand" something, I ask them, "what does that look like?" I keep returning to the notion of "what do you want them to be able to DO?" and although I feel like a broken record sometimes, it is worth it...they typically come around. :-)

Lynn Wahl

I recently came across a learning objective that stated: By the end of the course, "learners will feel better about themselves." I shudder to think what would happen during accreditation if that program were asked to define how they assess their learners. Creating measurable learning objectives makes it easier to create assessments that accurately measure what the class is supposed to be teaching. As Shari mentions above, what is it that you want students to be able to do? If you can't define it, how can you teach it? I try to point out to the instructors I work with that at some level they are delivering measurable objectives and materials, they just need to articulate it in case anyone asks.

Bob S

One cautionary note; I sometimes see business/project outcomes creep into learning objectives.   So it's important to keep the two separate..... even if our stakeholders don't want to! :)

For example:  "You will be able to increase sales of XYZ product by 10%"   ...... Ummm, no.

Our job as IDs is to look inside that business objective and find out the knowledge/skill improvement necessary to fulfill it.

So maybe instead it's: "You will be able to identify the most sellable features for all three customer profiles"..... Yes!

So as long as our learning objectives are truly that (not business objectives), then we should always work to make them measaurable.

Shari Hanlon

All such great insights here! I have a poster on the wall that says, "If I saw it in action, what would it look like?" Sometimes I use those words with clients to help them get beyond the nebulous objective or business outcomes. I also ask "what do you want the learners to be able to do after completing the course?" :-)

Keep the ideas coming, folks!

Gordon Clogston

Over the last 45 years I have seen many trends come and go but, the NEED for measurable objectives has never gone away. I am in the middle of a multi-year project to shift our company from a "training" focus to a "learning" focus. The primary difference in my view is in answering the following: Who is responsible for the desired outcome?

In a training focused environment, the only ones responsible for the outcome are the course designers, developers, and where appropriate the instructors. Shouldn't the learners be held accountable as well? And if you say yes, of course, then you are agreeing that the learners must be tested. And I would argue that the testing is not just done at the completion of the learning event/activity but, the assimilation of the learning must be periodically tested to ensure the learning is affecting the behaviors that we determined were necessary to achieve whatever goal the learning event/activity was created to affect.

Having clearly stated measurable objectives is vital to creating learning programs that hold the learning accountable for learning. Obviously, this is one of my hot buttons as well but, when I came into this field, Mager and Pipe. Pretty basic stuff but, effective.

Marty King

The biggest problem I see where I work with learning objectives and measurement is the elimination of needs analysis. My department was more of a training order taker.  The internal customer tells us what they want and we create a course.  Many of these courses are nothing more than information dumps. 

Now that I'm the manager, I want to change the perception and function of the department.  We are ISO certified so I have the Quality Manager demanding that we provide training effectiveness so we can meet the ISO certification and pass audits.  In my six years the previous manager, though Kirkpatrick certified, didn't require anything beyond tests after a course. 

I plan to focus on better objectives as a starting point for design, which means ID's will have to do more of a needs analysis and ask the question "what do you want the learner to be able to do after completing the course?" 

Gordon Clogston

I am reminded of another aspect of using measurable objectives. If you have defined measurable learning objectives, then it is easy to determine what the knowledge checks, quiz questions, and final exam questions should be testing. Most of the negative  feedback i have received on these items been in projects where there were no measurable objectives which allowed the test items to become trivia questions versus questions related to the value of the knowledge and the job functions of the students taking the course. 

With measurable objectives and valid test items we have only been challenged when the question was unclear. There have been no challenges (yet) with respect to the validity/relevance of the knowledge being tested.

Minh-Triet Nguyen

Regarding learning vs. business objectives, I think you shouldn't shy away from linking the training project with actual business results. One way to identify what part of the business is impacted is to ask what would happen in the absence of training, during the needs assessment.  

You then have to make sure that the business objective you're targeting is realistically impacted by your training. 

Jeanette Cereske

One of the first things I learned when I began taking Instructional Design courses way back when, is that you never use the word "understand" in a learning objective. Why? Because learning objectives have to be measurable and observable and you can't measure or observe understanding. 

I beg to differ with a couple of your points. You can measure recognition and I have used it many times in learning objectives, e.g. "The student will recognize the three situations that require supervisor approval". Then you provide a a list of situations and they have to choose the right ones. That's measurable and observable. So is "list the three situations" but listing is not the same as recognizing and depending on the content of the course it might be an important differentiator.

Learning objectives also need to be specific, so I wouldn't use your example, "Write a brief paragraph summarizing theory XYZ" since it's pretty vague and subjective. What's brief to me, might not be brief to you. And summarizing is a vague concept as well.