Learning Objectives? I Object!

objection That’s right. I object!

Over the years, I have spent a lot of time crafting them, chiseling them so they fit, viewing lists of verbs to ensure each learning objective (LO) began with the proper verb, reworking other people’s, and getting irritated when learning professionals commit the cardinal sin of starting their LOs off with the words “learn” or “understand”. (audible gasp) What madness is this?

I have diligently written learning objective statements at the front of every set of training documentation I’ve written, on one of the first few PowerPoint sides in the decks, woven them into CBT modules, and on flip charts when facilitating live. I would just as diligently use the learning objective statements when crafting or contributing to evaluation plans. And hated doing it all.

One day, I had an epiphany. What real good do these things do? What person in a leadership role somewhere decided that these things we call learning objectives justifies the existence of  training departments, the budget for them and we “trainers”? More importantly, that their existence proves that peopled learned what they were told to learn, as stated in the LO statements?  Being the rebel that I am, I started leaving LOs out of slide decks and off from agendas. Guess what? No one commented. Not sure they even noticed.

Let’s get real, just because these static statements appear at the front of content doesn’t mean that is what those who are engaged with the content will learn. (the “learners, participants, etc.”) What we call learning objectives are not “one size fits all”–or even most. If we’ve done our job well when conducting a thorough needs analysis, interviewing subject matter experts, synthesizing the information and crafting the information into what the “learners” need most to know to perform better on the job, then the job is done. Complete. Fini.

If your content and curriculum is designed and provided to address performance on the job, then what is to be different post-training has a place in performance planning documents and discussions. Not as a slide or items to be checked off while completing the content. Picture every participant of a “click Next” elearning module thinking, “Yippee! Three learning objectives checked off. Done.”  Perfect. No wonder we’re not taken seriously.

Here’s the thing. Having a plan for what the learning intervention is and is to be is absolutely a good idea. When that plan aligns with corporate goals and strategy is something I’ve been talking about, writing about, and striving for more years than I’m going to write here. But too often, these LOs, these things that people complete as a mandatory element to “good” training design don’t even come close to doing that.

I know what you’re thinking. But what about (so-called) compliance training? And, how will I provide completion data to leadership? While I have much to say about how ineffective so-called compliance training is, I won’t do so in this blog post. My response to those questions, and others like them is, nothing changes. Your involvement in making recommendations for the post-completion evaluation plan isn’t different. Performance planning documents and discussions with whatever metrics leadership requires don’t go away. I’m proposing that everyone in our profession get better at living in a world where the language of performance and outcomes is what we do and spend time on. NOT crafting those silly 3-5 learning objectives at the outset of any training documentation.

Shannon’s view:

objection sustained2

Objection sustained.

Too often we pat ourselves on the back when at the end of a course, instructor led training (ILT) session or PowerPoint deck, we have addressed all the stated objectives.  We have checked the boxes. But that is indeed where we fail, isn’t it?  We have “addressed” the objectives.  Not unlike dressing a turkey for Thanksgiving, we have made sure it was all stuffed and trussed and ready for the dinner table.  But have we made sure that learner leaves the training actually knowing what they are supposed to know or are they just stuffed with useless, easily forgettable information?

Have we actually ensured the learner will leave the classroom (or website) with the skills needed to perform the task?  Of course not, after all we are not possession of the magic crystal ball that tells us how people will behave after they leave the room. Or do we?

I concur with my esteemed colleague’s assessment that behavioral performance evaluations are truly the only way to go.  Proper planning and development of courses to address a specific business problem or need, to modify behaviors or performance on the job is the first step to evaluating its effectiveness.  Otherwise we are stuck in “training for the test” mode.  Start with the end in mind.

I quote an actual LO from a PowerPoint deck recently submitted to me. “State that it is every X positions responsibility to turn in two leads every month.” I kid you not.  I can see the classroom instructor now – “Okay, now – everyone stand up and repeat after me…” Great, class dismissed, we have accomplished our goal.  Yes, I’m aware that is a literal application of the LO, but if we fail to see the ridiculousness of this LO statement then we all need to go back to school.

So what is an L&D rebel to do?  Go back to the drawing board, and drag the defendant (course sponsor) with you.  When the learner leaves the warm fuzzy of the class where does the rubber meet the road?  What are they really being evaluated on?  What are the Key Performance IndicatorsThe Critical Success Factors? This is what your objective should reflect, and it is our role as rebels in the workplace to stop the lunacy.

“Your involvement in making recommendations for the post-completion evaluation plan isn’t different.”  Great point Dawn.  Don’t just drop and run.  Do your business partners a favor and be sure the follow-up evaluation plan is in place.  If your new LO is “Use this knowledge to improve leads submitted by X%” be sure there is a procedure or evaluation process in place to ensure this metric can be measured.  Don’t leave non-professionals holding the bag and then hope that your course is successful.  When it comes to Leadership asking how you made a difference, a metric such as this shows you are adding value to the organization.  This is something we all want to do…make a difference.  Don’t let a silly, senseless, meaningless, poorly written and executed LO derail your plans.  Get out there and “object”!

Shannon Tipton

Shannon Tipton

As Owner of Learning Rebels, Shannon Tipton is a skilled learning strategist, content developer and International speaker. Shannon has over 20 years of leadership experience developing successful learning strategies and infrastructures for training departments within organizations in North America, Europe and Korea.

Shannon works with people and organizations to develop learning solutions that brings actual business results. Recognized as bringing real-world expertise into the learning field, Shannon integrates technologies and social learning tools to strengthen workplace alignment, enhance collaboration and increase learning connectivity.

As author of “Disruptive Learning” Shannon frequently speaking at conferences across North America and Europe and ranks as one of the top 100 L&D influencers on Twitter (@stipton).

1 thought on “Learning Objectives? I Object!”

  1. I was in a class on designing elearning and one of the topics was “leave learning objectives out”. I was flabbergasted. Since then, I try my hardest not to include the phrase “By the end of this course the learner should be able to:…”. And you know what, just like you’ve discovered, no one really notices.


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