…is the confusion over what they really are.
The debate over the importance of learning objectives continues. I enjoyed reading a recent post by Clive Shepherd and more particularly the responses it generated. I like to think I have a fairly open mind and welcome reading debates around various doctrines in the L&D arena.
It’s healthy to question and to see the other point of view. But before we can really decide whether learning objectives should or shouldn’t be used, surely it’s important to first establish what exactly a learning objective is before we condemn?
Why do they have such bad press?
Might objectives have such a bad press because of their misuse and poor construction? I’ve often seen lists of key learning points posted at the beginning of a lesson or course. These are not learning objectives and certainly, if faced with a whole list of key learning points that early on, would probably send the best of us running to the hills.
When someone sees a list as long as your arm, of all the topics they are going to be taught at the very start of a course, session or module it is certainly understandable that their hearts will sink. Any motivation and buy-in that may have already been established is likely to be lost and all they hear inside is “I’m never going to take all that in!” or “it’s going to be a long day”.
Then of course you have a poorly constructed learning objectives. An example of a poorly constructed learning objective could be “you will understand the interview process”. At least it is succinct. But it could do with being more specific and measurable (how do you prove understanding?).
Even if you do have well constructed learning objectives, it’s best to only offer the overall learning objective at the start of the course. When it comes to listing all of lesson objectives at the beginning of the course/programme/module this should be avoided for the same reasons as highlighted above.
So what is a well-written learning objective?
A good learning objective is a succinct, clear description of the task that proves learning has taken place.
Clive’s post gives us pros and cons of learning objectives. I agree with the pros as you might expect and to a great extent I agree with some of the cons but would like to explore these and some of the responses a little further.
Yes, learning objectives are usually seen as directed from top-down. They give the organisation and the learners progress markers in their development which can be measured. They are certainly required from a development point of view to help the instructional designers construct learning that is logical, specific and relevant.
In Nick Shackleton-Jones’s response to Clive’s post, he recommends learning objectives should appear only in the catalogue and not the course. Certainly, when looking to register for a learning programme, we all need to know what’s in it for us – what we’re signing up for. But learning objectives (specific, well constructed and valid learning objectives) are also important progress markers for the learner within the course. They help us, as the learner, measure our achievements along the way and we can see how our skills are building. They help us, as learners, build confidence in our abilities.
Although I loved his film analogy “I can’t imagine a movie opening with the title ‘in this film you will learn that good eventually triumphs over evil, though this may require car chases and romantic interludes”, what Nick is referring to here isn’t what I would call a learning objective at all. It’s the aim or the message of the film. And, agreed, in the credits we wouldn’t see an overview of what the film was about to tell us. Besides which, who wants to hear spoilers (what will happen in the end) in a movie?
This message appears in the marketing of the film, voice-overs in the trailers and film reviews which would help you decide whether or not you wish to see the film. But these are still not learning objectives. If we were to write a learning objective for the film, first we’d need to establish a task for the viewer to do to prove they understood the message. Perhaps something like “using a your choice of media, submit a critique of [the film] citing at least 2 scenes where good overcame evil”.
In effect, the learning objective is a succinct description of the task that proves learning has taken place. When we have established that these are learning objectives, then including these within the course makes more sense. Throughout a course, whether it’s a classroom course, an eLearning course or a blended course, the programme will very likely consist of a series of progress checks (preferably skills checks not just quiz checks but that’s a whole different topic). Comparing films with training courses is like comparing oranges with sky-scrapers (not even another fruit).
For example, if a session in a ‘presentation skills’ course culminates in a progress check task where the learner has to apply the visual design elements covered in the session to a number of PowerPoint slides’ then it’s only right that the learner knows at the beginning of that session that they will be undertaking that task. Telling them at the beginning of the session is in the form of their learning objective e.g. “apply the 5 key design elements correctly to at least 1 of your PowerPoint slides”.
Now it can become very boring, even though it’s what we all expect, to see a slide titled ‘Learning Objective’ followed by “by the end of the session/module you will be able to….” at the beginning of every session/module (yawn!) Yes – even I get bored of that. Especially when considering an eLearning course. As long as everyone is clear of the task that’s expected of them why not break out from the mold and try saying it slightly differently “Your mission is to apply …. etc”
Are learning objectives confined to formal top-down?
As we’ve heard, learning objectives are more often than not driven from the top. However, even from a personal learning point of view, without individually establishing a goal – an end result i.e. a learning objective, how would we as individuals be able to measure how well we have achieved our own personal learning goals? I’ve done more self-learning in my adult life than have undergone formal training courses. Of course a lot of my development has been serendipitous but where I have made a conscious decision to do something I have, in effect given myself a learning objective.
Recently, I’ve been interested in creating and editing video in my spare time. It’s a minefield and in order to establish where to start I had to give myself a specific performance objective. I decided on a task which was “to create and edit a piece to camera about tips for writing book reviews”. This was my learning objective. It wasn’t a top-down initiative. It was a personal learning goal but a learning objective nonetheless. I’ve been doing this with the help of the eLearning Network’s mentoring scheme (slowly because of work commitments but am pleased with my progress so far – and if my mentor is reading this, I haven’t forgotten).
I certainly agree with Clive’s suggestion that where “participation in an intervention is determined by employees themselves, then their goals should surely over-ride any objectives set by the designer/instructor – at very least they should be negotiated”. This becomes more important in today’s climate where change happens at such a fast pace and the way we deliver learning needs to adapt. Enabling employees to have more of a say in their learning and negotiating their own personal learning goals is more achievable when applying more of a flexible and blended approach to learning. Nevertheless, negotiating and agreeing a real, learning objective which is task based is still as important as ever.
What can we do?
As instructional designers we can do a lot more to improve the delivery of our learning objectives which will have a positive impact so they engage our audiences instead of switch them off. Not only can they then be listed in the catalogue (“by the end of the course you will be able to….”) but with a little creative re-writing, the same goals can appear in the course (“your mission for this morning is to apply the 5 design elements correctly to your PowerPoint slides before a run through with your colleague”). They are still the same learning objective but one is from the instructional designer’s perspective, the other for the learner.
I guess the debate will continue – what are your views?