Tag Archives: Intsructional design

The problem with learning objectives….

…is the confusion over what they really are.

Metal confusion 1 by shho on stockxchange.The debate over the importance of learning objectives continues. I enjoyed reading a recent post by Clive Shepherd and more particularly the responses it generated. I like to think I have a fairly open mind and welcome reading debates around various doctrines in the L&D arena (perhaps it’s my equal left brain/right brain split that helps – or hinders – or am I just indecisive?). It’s healthy to question and to see the other point of view. But before we can really decide whether learning ojectives should or shouldn’t be used, surely it’s important to first establish what exactly a learning objective is before we condemn?

Might objectives have such a bad press because of their misuse and poor construction? I’ve often seen lists of key learning points posted at the beginning of a lesson or course. These are not learning objectives and certainly, if faced with a whole list of key learning points that early on, would probably send the best of us running to the hills. When someone sees a list as long as your arm, of all the topics they are going to be taught at the very start of a course, session or module it is certainly understandable that their hearts will sink. Any motivation and buy-in that may have already been established is likely to be lost and all they hear inside is “I’m never going to take all that in!” or “it’s going to be a long day”.

Then of course you have a poorly constructed learning objectives. An example of a poorly constructed learning objective could be “you will understand the interview process”. At least it is succinct. But it could do with being more specific and measurable (how do you prove understanding?).

Even if you do have well constructed learning objectives, it’s best to only offer the overall learning objective at the start of the course. When it comes to listing all of lesson objectives at the beginning of the course/programme/module this should be avoided for the same reasons as highlighted above.

A good learning objective is a succinct, clear description of the task that proves learning has taken place.

Clive’s post gives us pros and cons of learning objectives. I agree with the pros as you might expect and to a great extent I agree with some of the cons but would like to explore these and some of the responses a little further.

Yes learning objectives are usually seen as directed from top-down. They give the organisatioin and the learners progress markers in their development which can be measured. They are certainly required from a development point of view to help the instructional designers construct learning that is logical, specific and relevant.

In Nick Shackleton-Jones’ response to Clive’s post, he recommends learning objectives should appear only in the catalogue and not the course. Certainly, when looking to register for a learning programme, we all need to know what’s in it for us – what we’re signing up for. But learning objectives (specific, well constructed and valid learning objectives) are also important progress markers within the course. The help us as the learner measure our achievements along the way and we can see how our skills are building. They help us, as learners, build confidence in our abilities.
Although I loved his film analogy “I can’t imagine a movie opening with the title ‘in this film you will learn that good eventually triumphs over evil, though this may require car chases and romantic interludes”, what Nick is referring to here isn’t what I would call a learning objective at all. It’s the aim or the message of the film. And, agreed, in the credits we wouldn’t see an overview of what the film was about to tell us. This message appears in the marketing of the film, oiceovers in the trailers and film reviews which would help you decide whether or not you wish to see the film. But these are still not learning objectives. If we were to write a learning objective for the film, first we’d need to establish a task for the viewer to do to prove they understood the message. Perhaps something like “using a your choice of media, submit a critque of [the film] citing at least 2 scenes where good overcame evil”.

In effect, the learning objective is a succinct description of the task that proves learning has taken place. When we have established that these are learning objectives, then including these within the course makes more sense. Throughout a course, whether it’s a classroom course, an eLearning course or a blended course, the programme will very likely consist of a series of progress checks (preferably skills checks not just quiz checks but that’s a whole different topic). For example, if a session in a ‘presentation skills’ course culminates in a progress check task where the learner has to apply the visual design elements covered in the session to a number of PowerPoint slides’ then it’s only right that the learner knows at the beginning of that session that they will be undertaking that task. Telling them at the beginning of the session is in the form of their learning objective e.g. “apply the 5 key design elements correctly to at least 1 of your PowerPoint slides”.

Now it can become very boring, even though it’s what we all expect, to see a slide titled ‘Learning Objective’ followed by “by the end of the session/module you will be able to….” at the beginning of every session/module (yawn!) Yes – even I get bored of that. Especially when considering an eLearning course. As long as everyone is clear of the task that’s expected of them why not break out from the mould and try saying it slightly differently “Your mission is to apply …. etc”

As we’ve heard, learning objectives are more often than not driven from the top. However, even from a personal learning point of view, without individually establishing a goal – an end result i.e. a learning objective, how would we as individuals be able to measure how well we have achieved our own personal learning goals? I’ve done more self-learning in my adult life than have undergone formal training courses. Of course a lot of my development has been serendipidous but where I have made a conscious decision to do something I have, in effect given myself a learning objective. Recently, I’ve been interested in creating and editing video in my spare time. It’s a minefield and in order to establish where to start I had to give myself a specific performance objective. I decided on a task which was “to create and edit a piece to camera about tips for writing book reviews”. This was my learning objective. It wasn’t a top-down initiative. It was a personal learning goal but a learning objective nonetheless. I’ve been doing this with the help of the eLearning Organisation’s mentoring scheme (slowly because of work commitments but am pleased with my progress so far – and if my mentor is reading this, I haven’t forgotten).

I certainly agree with Clive’s suggestion that where “participation in an intervention is determined by employees themselves, then their goals should surely over-ride any objectives set by the designer/instructor – at very least they should be negotiated”. This becomes more important in today’s climate where change happens at such a fast pace and the way we deliver learning needs to adapt. Enabling employees to have more of a say in their learning and negotiating their own personal learning goals is more achievable when applying more of a flexible and blended approach to learning. Nevertheless, negotiating and agreeing a real, learning objective which is task based is still as important as ever.

As instructional designers we can do a lot more to improve the delivery of our learning objectives which will have a positive impact so they engage our audiences instead of switch them off. Not only can they then be listed in the catalogue (“by the end of the course you will be able to….”) but with a little creative re-writing, the same goals can appear in the course (“your mission for this morning is to apply the 5 design elements correctly to your PowerPoint slides before a run through with your colleague”). They are still the same learning objective but one is from the instructional designer’s perspective, the other for the learner.

I guess the debate will continue

E-Learning and the Science of Instruction by Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer: A review

Towards the end of last year I was asked if I’d like to contribute to the online e-learning magazine ‘eLearn Magazine‘ by writing a book review. I was honoured to be asked and eagerly agreed.

I was pleased to find out that the book chosen for me to review was Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer’s third edition of ‘E-Learning and the Science of Instruction: Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning’ to give it its full title.

Here’s an extract, hot off the press.

Transferring classroom courses to online delivery isn’t as simple as it might initially seem. In our eagerness to meet the needs of the organization, the needs of the learners are often overlooked. Even so, the trend for producing more efficient ways of delivering learning is set to continue. It also means more and more organizations are looking to produce eLearning in house. If this is the case, in order to leverage the benefits of eLearning we’ll need some guidance. And for that we do not have to look further than Clark and Mayer’s E-Learning and the Science of Instruction, now in its third edition.

Read the full article at eLearn Magazine here

You can’t create engaging compliance eLearning!

Or can it?

A strong statement indeed!  However, it’s one that does seem to be held (but I hope not by the majority).

I had an interesting debate about this recently on one of my courses about designing engaging eLearning.

Actually, the conversation we had was more about whether eLearning that is designed to cover what people should do rather than what they should know would be accepted by the stakeholders requesting the eLearning.  Previously we’d had some great discussions about how scenarios and stories can help the learning come to life and simulate what learners might experience when doing their jobs.  Most people, when asked what they dislike about eLearning, usually talk about the boring, information laden, page after page of text followed by the obligatory multiple choice quiz – or as Cammy Bean recently called “read ’em and weep” eLearning.

Great eLearning focusses on performance.  Allowing learners to exercise their cognitive skills and learn through problem solving.  All learning should be focussed on helping people do their jobs properly.  Classroom learning has improved by leaps and bounds packed full of case studies, role plays, realistic and work-based examples designed to replicate as closely as possible their own roles.  They’ve become sandpits where people can experience tasks, make mistakes and learn from each other with immediate, constructive feedback from the facilitator.  The great news is that eLearning can be designed along the same lines.  It doesn’t matter whether the topic is about learning to give great customer service, identifying fraud, the importance of hand washing in patient care or introducing people to a new purchase ordering software.  In each of these examples people are needing to learn how to do something to a given standard.

Then of course the question has to be how we might assess the learning more appropriately?  How else can we prove we are complying with legal or organisational policies and guidelines than to show we can apply critical thinking to a given situation in which we might be faced with during our day to day job.  Reading pages of dos and don’ts, why’s and wherefores and then testing how well we remember them doesn’t prove we can apply a particular piece of legislation to an unexpected situation at work.  The only way we can do that is put people in the situation.  Of course this can still include using multiple choice questions but not the type we are most familiar with.  We just need to be more creative with them by using mini-scenario questions or case studies so we’re testing actions rather than recall.

Is it really impossible?  If you put such a solution forward to address compliance training in eLearning would you be laughed out of the boardroom?  Would your stakeholders just summarily dismiss the idea as unworkable?  My argument is that its more than possible, complience is crying out for it but you’ll have to sell the benefits carefully.  Will you just assume your stakeholders won’t buy-into it or will you be prepared to spend time and effort in producing something you know will engage and produce real results instead of ticking the attendance boxes?


Why is there such resistance by some organisations to producing quality eLearning.  Why are we still faced with this situatioin where the goal is just to get as many people through the sheep dip as quickly as possible, so they all come out the other end with a stamp to say ‘done’ rather than ‘can do’. In Craig Taylor’s comment to an earlier blog post ‘How do we ensure competency’, he has been faced with the same brick wall.

Perhaps our stakeholders need more persuading.  Perhaps they aren’t aware how compromising the quality of the learning actually has a negative impact on efficiency.  If the learning is poor then organisations will still see costly legal procedures continue, mistakes may still be made and productivity may still be down.  Retraining may be required but if the learning is poor, the whole cycle starts again.

Perhaps organisations are under pressure from their governing bodies to meet ever more demanding targets in shorter time scales that it’s become more about counting virtual bums on virtual seats than making sure staff are fully equipped with the skills to do their jobs.

Perhaps instead of saying how high and jump to the orders from those who really have little experience in producing quality learning solutions, we should change our strategies from being order takers to becoming the consultants we really are.  Supporting learning and performance is everyone’s responsibility, not just the L&D but the line managers, the senior managers and those doing the learning they just could do with a little help.

Only when we know we have tried our best; only when we have put forward all arguments; only when we’ve provided a taster, a working example based on scientific and evidence based practise; only when we’ve managed to pilot and collated feedback; only when we have measured both the efficacy and the efficiency of the solution (like Craig Taylor)can we honestly admit defeat.  At least we can say we’ve done all we can to persuade the sceptics.

If, after all that effort, our conscience is still in turmoil and “if you can’t beat them, join them” is not an option for you, there is only one thing left to do …..

My advice?  Keep chipping away.  Even though your head might bleed from hitting it against that proverbial brick wall, keep going.  As Confucius said “a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step”. Before long you’ll have supporters walking along side and one day the rewards will be great.