Friday, January 25, 2008

Writing Less Objectionable Learning Objectives

My recent post on alternatives to listing out learning objectives generated a lot of interest and a good conversation. ( See My Objection to Learning Objectives.)

I attempt to summarize here, but feel free to go back to the original post and read all the comments:

  • Clive Shepherd hates when learning objectives are the first thing you see. It's like the opening credits of a movie. Boring. When clients insist on the objectives list, Clive includes an opening scene to spice things up.
  • Karl Kapp suggests starting off a course with a series of questions related to the objectives, or to start off with a scenario. [In the comments of this post, Karl clarifies: he's not suggesting pre-test questions, but rather a series of thought-provoking questions to get the learner to THINK about the content at hand].
  • Jay Cross says it's "presumptuous and confining for developers to foist objectives on learners, for it disregards the learner's needs, prior learning, and context." He suggests a list of potential outcomes with check boxes, effectively allowing the learner to create his or her own objectives.
  • Chris refers us to Will Thalheimer's “The Learning Benefit of Questions”, in which Will argues that introductory questions have a notable impact on learning. Chris suggests that a reasonable alternative to the “At the end of this class you will be able to” list is a series of questions. Chris is also a big fan of Michael Allen.
  • Pete Blair always includes the objectives. "Personally, I don't like to hide things from learners and play guessing games, so I am an advocate of letting the learner know, up front, what they will be expected to do at the conclusion of the course, lesson, or whatever. If they choose to skip that part of the course, then that's OK by me, they must still meet the objective(s) before they complete the course."
Christy Tucker did a nice write up from the the opening presentation of the WebEx/eLearning Guild Online eLearning Summit. Michael Allen was one of three keynote speakers. He had this to say on objectives:
"...throw out the crutches we’ve used in the past, like starting every unit with objectives that make sense to designers. You can write objectives in a different way so they fit with a context of why you want to learn something. There are better ways to do some of the things we’ve been doing. You can just throw some of that out though. Think like a learner. Give them a challenge at the beginning so they experience what they have to learn instead of just telling them what they need to learn."
How do you try to think like a learner? Have you come up with some novel way to handle learning objections? Have you met resistance from your clients when you tried to do it differently?

Photo credit: I Learn By Going Where I Have To Go by Joe Shlabotnik


Cathy Moore said...

Great summary of ideas. Most of my clients want a list of learning objectives to appear somewhere near the beginning of the material. Usually the most I can get away with is presenting the objectives as benefits that the learner will enjoy, instead of listing trainer-speak objectives.

I'd prefer to do a Michael Allen and just throw the learners into a situation that demonstrates the benefits they'll get from the course, but this is scary to many clients.

Another point of resistance is "We've always done it X way." For many organizations, that means "We have a template set up to produce it X way." This makes even harder to try something new, because not only is the concept new, they can't use their familiar template to produce it.

Clark said...

Cammy, sorry I missed the first version of this! I totally agree with Will Thalheimer about writing WIIFM (What's In It For Me) Objectives. We need designer objectives, but what we need to present to the learner are objectives they care about.

I recommend having a motivating example before you bother showing learners the things they'll be able to do afterwards; if they don't understand why it's important, they won't care what they can do.

I could go on and on (why pre-tests are evil, for instance, sorry, totally disagree with Karl on this), but the short answer is you're dead right.

Objectives first is wrong. Once you've hooked them in, then you can let them know what they'll be able to do afterward, but while if that were done *really* well, I still think it's better to hook them in viscerally before you go for the cognitive realization of what they'll learn.

wslashjack said...

Online learning is delivered online. When online, people like to browse, more than they like to read. That is part because of habit, part the medium, and part the amount of time we all don't have today.

Every course we do allows the adult learner to quickly identify what they are there for. That is one way we gain their commitment to move ahead and complete the course. It has helped us cut the learners who jump ship to almost zero.

Don't think of the objectives as what the ID or client would verbalize, think of them as a marketing promise to the learner. What value will they see there...will it get them to finish the course?

We present a media rich intro to a course that sets the stage and implies value. We let the learner know how long the course should take, and we make the promise of value (objectives) that gets them to invest their valuable time.

Karl Kapp said...


Great post! Just wanted to clarify my point. I was not talking about questions created as a a pre-test (although in certain circumstances I do think they have value..Clark and I can agree to disagree:)

But in this case, what I meant was that instead of objectives. The designer shoucl create series of thought provoking questions that causes the learner to...think! Not a mindless list of multiple choice questions but one or two questions describing a situation which the learner might think he or she knows the answer but that require more thinking than just a superficial answer. The learner may not even have to literally answer the question, he or she just needs to think about it. Then the course can help to answer that quesiton. Perhaps something liked "What would you do in xxxx stype of situation and why?"

Hope at helps clarify my position. I think we are also forgetting the level of sophistication of the learner, different learners will benefit from different types of openings for e-learning. The more experienced learners can go with the least amout of guidance, less experienced learners need more guidance although not necessarily objectives.

And with the ability of e-learning to have links and hyper links ect., why not have a link to the objectives, if the learner want to click on it great, if not, no harm, no foul.

In video games, players often have the option of going to a screen to see the objectives, goals, and tasks for a ceratin level and that doesn't diminish the experience of the game, just like a link to objectives wouldn't diminish the learning.

Anonymous said...

Nice post.

Atleast in India, I guess most of us strictly follow Bloom's Taxonomy and frame learning objectives.

Not sure if any company has try to innovate on this.

Anonymous said...

Belatedly, I'm thinking that there are relatively easy ways to enable learners to have cake or to eat it as they see fit.

Especially for an online or self-paced course, you can build in a "get started" option alongside a "what's in this for you" option.

Some people want objectives (though I think they want the brief, learner-oriented ones, not something to satisfy Dick and Carey). These can serve as the initial scaffolding for their mental frameworks.

Then, too, while as designers we might want to, as Cathy suggests, get learners right into a situation, that can get us right back into I-know-what's-good-for-you mode.

Will Thalheimer said...

I'm not sure I suggested writing WIIFM learning objectives, but they probably have their uses.

I have reviewed the research on learning objectives however. You can see my research-to-practice white paper at and a recent blog post at

In that post I argued for different types of learning objectives. Here's the short version: Objectives guide human behavior. Why do we have one objective for multiple audiences (learners, developers, evaluators)? Stupid, constricting, damaging to learning.

One of the types of objectives, I call "focusing objectives." These are the one's we present to learners to help guide learner attention. There has been a huge amount of research on these, starting with my dissertation advisor Ernie Rothkopf back in the 1960's and 1970's.

Bottom line: By using very specific words and phrasing, learners can use learning objectives to guide their attention to the information in the learning material targeted by the learning objectives. Other information (info not targeted by learning objectives) will be attended to with less vigor and will be learned less.

In my workshops and writing, I remind learning professionals that there are other good ways to guide learner attention to critical information (prequestions are particularly powerful, but other things work too, including telling the learners to pay attention at this moment, using white space, appropriate audio, repetition, change of modality, etc.)

Another thing I'm pretty hot on these days is to separate "evaluation objectives" from "instructional design objectives" so that developers can focus on more realistic outcomes and not be hogtied into testing stupid memorized materials, but that's probably a longer story.

As usual, it all starts with the human cognitive machinery.

Cammy Bean said...

Thanks to everyone for all of the great food for thought!

Will, I'm curious to hear your thoughts on using some of these alternative forms for presenting objectives (be they focusing objectives or performance objectives). Is there any research that looks at this?

Jim Javenkoski said...

I am nearly three years late to the conversation, but I hope my question will spark some additional comments on this topic. After re-reading Will's New Taxonomy for Learning Objectives and this thread of comments, I'm curious if any of you have used pre-questions as focusing objectives (or performance objectives) for learners. If so, do the "presented-as-a-question" formatted objectives seem to improve learner guidance and focus versus "presented-as-a-statement" formatted objectives? Is there empirical evidence to support the added value of questions vs. statements? Any insights will be helpful to me. Thanks.