Learning Objectives – Your Course GPS

  • Posted on May 12, 2015   Shazia Wajid

    Have you ever traveled down a road without quite knowing where you were heading or if it would connect with the road you wanted?

    Have you ever taken a training course without being fully convinced of its importance or usefulness? A course where the content seemed to meander from one topic to the next with no strong purpose?

    In either case, if the journey is interesting, you might be fine with just going along for the ride—for a while. But as soon as the situation requires more time or effort than you’re willing to spend, chances are you’ll be looking for the off-ramp. As learners or travelers, we want to know why we should make a particular journey and where it’s going.

    An elearning course is in certain ways like a tour bus that takes the learner on a sequence of planned adventures. The GPS way-finder of that experience, that directs the learner from one destination to the next and reinforces the “why” of the journey, is its set of learning objectives.

    What are learning objectives?

    Conceptually, learning objectives help define and structure the course journey, like an itinerary marking each expected milestone and highlight of the trip.

    Literally, learning objectives are a sequence of sentences that describe the knowledge, values, attitudes, and skills that learners are expected to acquire as they progress through the training.

    Why do we need learning objectives?

    • Clearly defined learning objectives set the scope of the training.
    • Learning objectives provide guidance with respect to the types of learning experiences that should be included to help support student success.
    • A set of clearly written learning objectives can help satisfy students’ curiosity of “what’s in for me” and inform them about the new knowledge and skills that they can expect to gain.
    • Learning objectives serve as the basis of the assessment of student mastery of the subject matter.

    What are the parts of an effective learning objective?

    Robert F. Mager has identified three key components of an effective learning objective.

    Performance: Learning objectives should specify what the successful learner will be able to do. This action must be something you can measure and assess accurately, given the method by which the training will take place. For example, a learner may be able to “explain” something to a trainer or coach—but in an online asynchronous course, we may need the learner to instead “list key components” or “assess a situation based on a scenario and choose an appropriate response to it.”

    Conditions: Learning objectives should include notes regarding the conditions under which the expected performance occurs. Consider a course that requires students to perform calculations. The condition portion of the learning objective may note the source of the data for those calculations, such as a table, graph, or written scenario. It may indicate whether or not a calculator may be used.

    Criterion: Learning objectives should specify the criteria that will be used to evaluate success. Let’s say you have a course on proofreading. Does the learner need to identify 100% of the errors in a piece of sample text in order to be considered a success? Or will 85% accuracy do? What about the complexity of the writing in that sample text? Or the nuance of the rules covered? Learning objectives should set expectations regarding the level of mastery for which the course will prepare the learner.

    It should be noted that, for the sake of brevity, authors will sometimes choose to omit conditions and success criteria from student-facing learning objectives. They may even rewrite the objectives as quick goals or benefits of taking the training—similar to how a travel brochure may simply present highlights of a proposed tour, rather than an hour-by-hour breakdown. Behind the scenes, however, the author—like a good tour guide—must have a firm idea about all these critical aspects (performance, conditions, and criteria) to help ensure that the course will in fact get students to their promised destination.

    How can I create good learning objectives?

    Don’t leave students metaphorically on the side of the road, short of their desired end state, due to missing, vague, or ineffective learning objectives. Here are few tips.

    Good learning objectives are SPECIFIC and CLEAR.

    Clearly communicated outcomes are vital for successful training, as they direct both the learners’ and the instructor’s attention towards the target path. Consider the following learning objectives related to a business writing course:

    A: By the end of this course, the student’s writing skills will improve.

    B: By the end of this course, the student will be able to:
    – Classify types of business letters.
    – Identify the primary purpose of each type of business letter.
    – Rate the relative effectiveness of sample business letters, identifying the elements in those letters that impact the effectiveness.

    Example A is vague. What exactly will the lesson cover? How will the instructor or online system confirm that the learner’s writing skills have improved? This learning objective, as currently stated, is of little help in directing the learning that should occur.

    Example B is clearer and more specific. We can immediately begin to imagine the content that will need to be included in the lesson. We have indications of how the student will be assessed and a good idea as to what “success” will look like. We can start to form a plan of how we’re going to get the student to that point.

    Clear, specific, measurable objectives help ensure that everyone involved has a common expectation about the learning outcomes of the course. Avoid ambiguity. Verbs such as “understand,” “become aware of,” or “appreciate,” are highly subjective and difficult to definitively plan for and measure. As part of the elearning adventure you are creating, learners may indeed have the opportunity to step out of the tour bus, wander in the meadows and simply soak up the beauty of the landscape—but if this side excursion is to be a milestone learning objective, there should be a specific, clear outcome that you can assess.

    Good learning objectives are LEARNER-ORIENTED.

    Effective learning objectives are student-centered. They describe the skills and knowledge that learners will gain—ideally, things of clear benefit or value that will get them excited about learning. Our learners stick with our “tour” because they’re getting something they want or need.

    Good learning objectives focus on APPLICATION.

    Good learning objectives should be action-orientated and tie back to real-world goals. While writing learning objectives for your elearning course, think about the knowledge and skills a learner requires to be truly successful. For example, if you are writing a course on food safety, knowledge of food safety rules and regulations is important—but ability to correctly apply that knowledge to real-world scenarios involving handling food and reducing risk of food contamination is even more important. Give students objectives that are relevant and meaningful.

    Good learning objectives are LINKED with the ASSESSMENTS in the course.

    Learning objectives and assessments are closely tied. Learning objectives refer to the target performance level expected of the student upon completion of the course. Assessments are a tool to gauge how well the intended learning objectives have been met by a particular learner.

    Good learning objectives are REALISTIC.

    Effective learning objectives are realistic and achievable. Don’t promise (or demand) things that are beyond the scope of what your course can reasonably deliver and help the student achieve. Once you are happy with your learning objectives, be sure to provide sufficiently comprehensive content and activities to empower students to gain the skills and knowledge targeted by the learning objectives of the course.

    Closing Thoughts

    Thinking of authoring an elearning course? To help keep your course focused and effective, make learning objectives part of your plan!

    Onward and upward!
    Shazia, Laura, and the 360training Authoring Team

    Get paid by creating an online course

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