Learning objectives are the cornerstones around which Learning and Development (L&D) professionals assess whether learners demonstrate successful learning from completion of a unit of an eLearning course. Because of their critical nature, L&D teams must understand how to write them correctly. Improperly developed learning objectives not only fail to measure successful learning, but they often also serve to defeat overall learning outcomes.
Discerning Outcomes and Objectives
Newcomers to eLearning course development often use “outcomes” and “objectives” interchangeably. While to the layperson they might seem similar, to an L&D professional, they aren’t!
LEARNING OUTCOMES: These describe high-level (often longer-term) behavioral traits involving a broad spectrum of skills, knowledge, and attitudes that a course desires to impart. Outcomes are strategic outcomes that a course seeks to accomplish.
Example: “Upon completing this course the learner will consistently demonstrate the ability to identify and respond to fire threats anywhere within this industrial complex”
LEARNING OBJECTIVES: These are (one or many) specific, explicit and discrete segments of skills, knowledge, and attitudes that, collectively, seek to influence the learning outcomes laid out for the course. Learning objectives are shorter-term tactical steps, implemented as part of an overall learning outcomes strategy.
Example: “Upon completing this module, learners will demonstrate their ability to put out Class A, B, C, D, and K-type fires, using ABC Powder, CO2, Wet Chemical, Water Mist, Foam, and Clean Agent fire extinguishers”
Notice that the learning outcomes are broader-based, while the learning objectives are just one step on a path leading to the outcomes. Because they are both similar in construct – i.e., they both seek to demonstrate a learners’ accomplishment in relation to a course or module – it’s easy to inadvertently obscure their creation.
Learning Objective Basics
Using Bloom’s Revised (revised in 2001) Taxonomy is a great way to lay the foundation for writing highly effective learning objectives.
Bloom’s Taxonomy highlights a process of acquiring knowledge, skills, and abilities, that learners must demonstrate the following completion of a learning event (class, chapter, module, or course), to confirm successful completion of a learning objective. This demonstration provides L&D professionals the basis for writing those learning objectives.
Seven Pillars for Writing Effective Learning Objectives
The following seven pillars, for writing effective learning objectives, are rooted in Bloom’s Taxonomy. Good learning objectives must…:
- Be grounded in cognitive processes: Good learning objectives are grounded in a series of cognitive processes that highlight the acquisition of Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation, as a result of completing a unit of learning.
- Be supported by ‘Action’ verbs: To qualify as effective, learning objectives must include “action verbs” that support each of the cognitive processes they are grounded in. A good learning objective, for example, seeks to demonstrate the actions that learners successfully perform – List (Remember), Classify (Understand), Use (Apply), Categorize (Analyze), Appraise (Evaluate), and Produce (Create) – upon completing a unit of learning.
- Be specific: Learning objectives shouldn’t be overly broad, or vague in their interpretation, otherwise, they’ll be difficult to accomplish. For example, a good learning objective might require learners to “Demonstrate their understanding of A, B, C, D, and K-type fires, and provide examples of the characteristics of each”. This differs from an overly broad learning objective, such as “Learner should be able to define what industrial fires are”.
- Be measurable: To meet a specific learning objective, learners must demonstrate some quantifiable measure of success as a result of completing a unit of learning. So, instead of saying “At the end of this lesson…identify various types of firefighting equipment…”, a better set of learning objectives would be “…identify and list the six major types of fire extinguishers used in fighting industrial blazes”.
- Be needs-based: Learning objectives must correspond to the needs of an organization and, hence, relate to addressing a specific problem or challenge that an eLearning course seeks to solve. Only once you identify those needs, through a needs analysis review, can you create effective learning objectives and pair them with each need.
- Be assessable: When framing a learning objective, make sure you can assess and observe a learner’s behavior and can validate that they have clearly demonstrated their understanding of the said objective. For instance, if you do not have hazardous materials on-premises, or are unable to simulate a hazmat fire, it might be redundant to include a learning objective that assesses and measures the learner’s ability to put out a “…5-alarm blaze caused by industrial hazardous materials”.
- Be differentiable between business goals and learning: It is easy to misstate learning objectives and frame them as business goals. For instance, one might frame a learning objective, for a fire-fighting module, as “…reduction of fires by 15% within the warehouse complex”. This is measurable (15%) and specific (restricted to the warehouse). However, one can’t “learn” to reduce fires in a fire fighting course. That’s a business objective. A better learning objective might be “…reduce average fire fighting time, of a 2-alarm fire, by 15% over the current departmental average”.
Subtilities of Good Learning Objectives
One final element of writing effective learning objectives, that L&D professionals should be mindful of, how they use action verbs in combination with appropriate levels of the 6 cognitive learning levels. For example, the learner may demonstrate a capability to remember (List) the five classes of fires (Class A, B, C, D, and K), but that does demonstrate his/her ability to apply (Use) the most appropriate type of fire extinguisher to deal with each of those types of blazes.
While this differentiation is a subtle one, understanding how each action verb most appropriately relates to a corresponding cognitive learning level may mean the difference between producing a good learning objective and a highly ineffective one. As you create your course, it’s important to develop clear, concise, assessable, and measurable learning objectives. Then, use the list of action verbs to design assessments, tests, quizzes, and assignments that test learner’s ability to demonstrate whether they have met the desired objectives required for each learning unit.
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