Advice for Getting Hired as an Instructional Designer or eLearning Programmer #4: Write Good Learning Objectives

August 22, 2022

We get so many requests from visitors on the best way to break into the field of instructional design or eLearning design and programming. Our advice so far has to be is always centered around being learner focused, be completely comfortable with adult learning concepts, and to learn an authoring tool (beyond the basics of course). This post is a bit of secret sauce that will catapult you into a new level of instructional design.

Write good learning objectives. Darn it, it sounds easy and self explanatory, but you would be surprised as to how many seasoned, experienced learning developers can’t do it well, or frankly, can’t do it at all.

Every learning project begins with a performance gap. Employees are doing or not doing something a certain way, and they need to be trained how to do something a different way. That’s the summary for every learning project: to change performance.

A learning objective describes the new behavior in such a way that there is no question whether or not the learner achieved their goal of learning something new. A learning objective should be so clear, that any observer at any time should be able to identify that the learner “got it” in training.

Which is why most learning objectives are awful. Most learning objectives describe a learning concept in the abstract and don’t describe observable behaviors. Good learning objectives are like a light switch. Either its clearly on or clearly off. Let’s explain.

Good learning objectives describe an observable outcome of the training. It’s a new skill, a new behavior, a new demonstratable bit of knowledge. Good learning objectives are measurable. You should start your list of learning objectives with the following statement: 

At the conclusion of this course/ learning/ web session/ eLearning/ unit, the learner will be able to: 

What will they be able to do? Describe something? List something? Demonstrate something? Do something? Yes. These are all observable. For example:

At the conclusion of this leadership development course, the learner will be able to:
  • Define the five steps to effective feedback
  • Create a project plan for corporate change initiative
  • Describe the four categories of emotional intelligence
  • Identify their communication behaviors, assess the behaviors of their team, and change their style based on the communication styles of others

Each of these begins with an action verb. Define, lead, describe, identify. Others to consider are: allow, alter, analyze, change, compare, design, draft, evaluate, execute, itemize, measure, state, write.

These are all observable. Anyone can watch the learner and comment whether or not they are performing these actions. Is Mr. Smith able to create a project plan? Change their communication style? Compare two contracts and find errors? Evaluate employee performance? Write a business plan?

Lousy learning objectives begin with abstract words like “Understand”, “Know” and “Think about”. These don’t mean anything. Can you observe someone and decide if they “know” something? Not at all. 

“At the conclusion of this class, the learner will know the fifty states.” Really? Prove it.

“At the conclusion of this class, the learner will be able to recite the fifty states.” Great! Reciting the fifty states is something that can be observed.

Don’t be afraid to review learning objectives and re-write them to be more specific, be time-based, be measurable and most importantly, to be observable. The proof of the learning is in whether or not the learner can do something different after the learning event.

Also, great learning objectives can help steer course development as well. Linking the content to learning objectives is critical to the success of the learning. Someone has a great idea? Does it link back to a learning objective? Does it achieve one of the goals of the learning objectives? A “yes” means put it in, a “no” means cut it out. No matter how cool or interesting it is, cut it out. It doesn't fit. It doesn't mean it was a bad idea, it means it doesn't work in the way the current class is being structured. Of course, if you are open to it, maybe the course might need another learning objective, but usually when you’ve started the content build, the objectives are set.

Learning to write great objectives will differentiate you from other instructional designers and get you noticed. Don’t take objectives lightly – they can make or break your learning project. 
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