A lot of elearning starts with a list of formal learning objectives. “By the end of this course, you will be able to…” But should we really start our elearning this way? Is that really the best way to communicate with learners about the goals of training? No, I think we can do better.
The argument in favor of listing learning objectives
I don’t want to directly pile on this person any further (I already ratioed him with my comment on his article), but someone recently shared some elearning tips on LinkedIn. This was his first tip:
Clear Learning Objectives: Your eLearning should have clear learning objectives that are communicated to your employees. This helps them understand what they are expected to learn and how their progress will be assessed.
At first glance, that seems reasonable, right? We want learners to understand what they’re expected to learn. We already have the learning objectives and used them for designing the training, so let’s use them again here.
Or maybe not.
The argument against listing learning objectives
I’m going to push back a little on the advice to explicitly tell participants the learning objectives.
Do we need clear learning objectives when we design training? Yes, absolutely!
Should we give those to learners with the same language we use for ourselves as designers? Nope, I don’t think so. And I’m not the only one who feels this way. Will Thalheimer, for example, has expressed skepticism at listing learning objectives (at least the ones we as instructional designers use).
Objectives are designed to guide behavior. So, how can it be that identically-worded objectives can adequately guide the behavior of two disparate groups of individuals (learners and instructional designers)? It just doesn’t make any sense!!-Will Thalheimer in Rethinking Instructional Objectives
What does the research say?
Thalheimer cites research on how objectives can help learners focus their attention. And they do help–objectives help learners identify what’s important and what they need to remember. But the only part of the objective that improves learning is identifying what will be learned. Any other information in the objective, such as the conditions for performance, don’t actually improve learning and may actually hinder it.
Listing learning objectives is also a bit of a double-edged sword. Quoting Thalheimer again:
You might be surprised to know that learning objectives help learners focus on the information targeted by learning objectives, but actually diminish their attention on information in the learning materials not targeted by learning objectives.
In other words, we need to be careful with the objectives we list. They do work to focus attention on what’s critical…and anything we don’t say is critical will be less likely to be learned and remembered.
Use focusing objectives, not learning objectives
I agree that we should tell learners what training is about. However, rather than telling them the formal learning objectives, we need something written for that audience–a different set of objectives or goals that explains “What’s in it for me?” to the learners.
Thalheimer has called these “focusing objectives”: the objectives we use to help learners focus on what’s important in training. They aren’t the same learning objectives in ABCD format that we use as designers though; they don’t need that formal language.
Focusing objectives help learners know what training is about and what’s important. They help learners use their limited attention to meet the goals.
Isn’t this “dumbing down” information?
In reply to my comment, someone asked, “Can you, please, explain, why that is? To me it sounds like dumbing down…”
I don’t think it’s “dumbing down” information for our learners. It’s a matter of writing for your audience. Maybe if you are training teachers or IDs, then I think the same formal learning objective language is probably fine to share with the learners. For those audiences, the learning objective language may be meaningful.
But in most workplace training, and in higher ed for non-teacher/ID audiences, we should rewrite those objectives in a way that is more appropriate for our audience. (And even for teachers or IDs, a plain language version to explain the goals might be just as effective or more so.)
Let’s take an example LO.
“Given photos of locations in the city, municipal employees will differentiate between environmental conditions and situations that may result in stormwater pollution and those which do not require reporting or remediation with 80% accuracy.”
That’s an objective in Mager’s full ABCD format. It’s pretty wordy and clunky, so maybe you’d write it differently. All the necessary objective information is there.
That is NOT the wording I want to use with municipal employees though! Instead, I use something worded specifically for that audience.
“This training will help you recognize potential problems that can cause stormwater pollution so you know when you need to take action or report an issue.”
I realize that may feel like “dumbing down,” but research has shown that a conversational tone like the second version leads to better learning retention. Plus, a boring list of very formally worded learning objectives is a great way to bore your learners. If we want to gain attention at the beginning of our training, we need to give them a reason. The conversational version is much more likely to help workers recognize the relevance of the training than the full learning objective.
Use questions to focus attention
But does it have to be just a conversational learning objective? We might have other ways of gaining attention and helping learners focus.
In fact, learners may learn better if they’re asked some questions first to help prime them for important information, rather than simply telling them what they’ll learn.
Paul Kirschner and Mirjam Neelen reviewed some of the history of learning objectives and research on their effectiveness. Some of this research looked at alternatives to focusing objectives. One study examined the effectiveness of using pretests at the beginning to focus attention. Participants in the study couldn’t necessarily answer the questions right before completing the training (as expected), but multiple choice questions about the topics helped learners focus on those specific topics.
“Learners get the best results when they have to answer questions first.“-Paul Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen in Learning Objectives: Goal!?!
If you’re interested in using questions at the start of training to focus attention, I recommend reading Kirschner and Neelen’s full post and the pretest research cited.
Further reading and resources
- Learning Objectives: Goal!?! by Paul Kirschneer and Mirjam Neelen
- Rethinking Instructional Objectives by Will Thalheimer
- Video on Learning Objectives by Will Thalheimer
- How to Learn about Learning Science. This post isn’t about objectives, but rather about how to learn about the kind of science I cite in this post.