What’s the deal with learning objectives?

19 Jun

My esteemed colleague, Abby Yanow, recently posted about unanticipated consequences of organizational development – see http://ayanow.wordpress.com/2013/06/18/creating-organizational-learning-what-could-get-in-the-way/#more-341 .

What she says also goes for instructional design. When training teams don’t agree ahead of time, on specific, measurable, and time-bound objectives for their programs, a lot of unanticipated stuff can happen. Unplanned outcomes hamper the design process, they waste time and energy and hurt morale.

For example, I once joined a training team which had been working for months to develop a technical training program. They were tense because the deadline was looming and they were kind of stuck. Turns out, they had never agreed on specific goals of their training program and had not asked their learners “Is this what you need?” Because they were data research-driven types, they had collected a massive amount of content, but didn’t quite know what to do with it all. Once we were started to articulate some core program goals, they saw that a lot of the data they had worked to collect wasn’t needed. It was nice to know stuff, not critical. They agreed that the critical competency their learners needed was the ability to engage others in tricky conversations. The program ended up being a lot more about information sharing and group facilitation. We ended up allocating most of workshop time for practicing soft skills such as group facilitation, sharing information in fun ways, and summarizing key concepts. The data was needed, but much of it ended up in handouts and bibliographies they could read on their own time.

Here are some poorly written learning objectives:
By the end of this program learners will…
– be told how to communicate better with each other.
– understand why it is important to use good customer service techniques.
– appreciate why teamwork is a good thing.

These contain classic flaws. These are written as if the learners are passive, empty vessels who can’t wait to be told what to do. They are vague and not measurable. (How do you measure if someone “understands” something?)

A better way: write goals that include observable behaviors. For example:

By the end of this training program, participants will be able to demonstrate two ways to engage customers in conversations about our product.

This can be measured by a role play that asks learners to demonstrate how they would engage customers in product-related conversations. As they act out the role play you can witness them perform. Did they use at least two engaging techniques? Objective accomplished!

Another idea: test out your objectives ahead of time to make sure they resonate with learners.

If a focus group can say “Yes, we can see a real, practical benefit from a program that helps us develop these specific competencies….” you are on the right track. Pretesting learning objectives also has another great benefit. You can gauge what your learners already know and design solutions that build on their knowledge. Chances are you don’t have to start at the beginning with the basics. Your learners already have amazing experiences and insights to offer – pre-testing learning objectives with them is a great way to collect real life scenarios which can help you create true to life case studies and scenarios.

The process of creating agreement on program goals is a great way to build training team cohesion.

When a training design team grapples with writing strong objectives that include observable behaviors… it has a lovely effect on team morale. They focus more on helping learners succeed and focus less on what they plan to tell. This helps the training team appreciate how to empower others instead of trying to control things.

Well-written learning objectives build empathy and move everyone toward positive action.


One Response to “What’s the deal with learning objectives?”

  1. Abby Yanow June 28, 2013 at 9:11 pm #

    Nice blogpost Deborah. Love the “observable behaviors” at the training’s end. Asking what the participants need is key, as you said. I had a client that delivered the same team-development curriculum to teams that were at different stages of development: from just launching to long-term team (2 years). My advice to them: adjust the curriculum to the relevant stage of each team – that will engage them and get them off their blackberrys!

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