The importance of effective learning objectives

Join us for this three-part series discussing what effective learning objectives are, how to create them, and what they can do to bolster your training courses.

When I was fifteen years old, my mother enrolled my twin brother and me in Driver’s Ed. On the first day of class, we, along with six other disgruntled teens, were herded into a wood-paneled room that smelled of mildew and stale coffee. An older woman who was fidgeting with a VHS tape motioned for us to sit. We cautiously took our seats at a long, conference-style table while she passed out information packets. “By the end of this course, you will know how to drive, and you will know how to do so safely and responsibly,” she told us.

At first, I thought “how are we going to learn to drive from a bunch of papers?” Driving seemed like a learn-by-practice kind of deal, but there is so much more to driving than the physical act of operating a vehicle. There are plenty of road laws and judgment calls to consider. By sitting through Driver’s Ed lectures, combing through informational packets, and completing the odd role-play scenario, we were learning how to drive, and we were learning how to drive well.

When Driver’s Ed was over, I took my written exam and driving test, and I passed with flying colors. Now, I’m not sharing this anecdote to brag about my excellent driving skills. I’m sharing this as an illustration of the importance of an effective learning objective.

Throughout this three-part series discussing the necessary role of learning objectives in course training, we will determine what a learning objective is, how to create effective learning objectives and the benefits of implementing good objectives in training.

In the same way that there are rules and expectations of the road, there are rules and expectations in the workplace. Employers provide training courses so that employees may be readily equipped with the tools to learn those rules, to develop new skill-sets, or even to learn the ins and outs of a new process or task. Without a clear learning objective, a training course runs the risk of negative results.

Let’s refer back to Driver’s Ed for a moment. At the beginning of the course, my instructor stated that we would all know how to drive after completion of Driver’s Ed. This is a clear example of a learning objective.

In an educational context, the Glossary of Education Reform defines learning objectives as “brief statements that describe what students will be expected to learn by the end of the school year, course, unit, lesson, project, or class period.” Learning objectives should be “shorter term and rapidly testable,” according to Trevor Kerry in his instructional guide Learning Objectives, Task Setting and Differentiation.

How does this relate to Learning and Development? Let’s shift this definition to a training based context. Carter McNamara, founder, and developer of Free Management Library writes, “learning objectives specify the new knowledge, skills, and abilities that a learner should accomplish from undertaking a learning experience, such as a course, webinar, self-study or group activity. Achievement of all of the learning objectives should result in accomplishing all of the overall training goals of the training and development experience(s).”

Objectives are not to be confused with learning goals or aims though. “Aims are long-term, all-embracing and tend toward the philosophical or ideal,” Kerry explains. Let’s break this down by picking apart the Driver’s Ed example:

Objective = Learn how to drive
Aim = Learn how to drive safely and responsibly

The objective of learning how to drive is “rapidly testable.” It’s pretty simple—at the end of the course, you take your driver’s test, and you either pass or fail. Either way, it’s an easily identifiable objective that will yield measurable results.

The same goes for training courses, e.g., compliance training. The purpose of compliance training is to ensure employees are aware of and following rules or procedures.

For example, a chemical company must offer hazard and safety training so that employees will know how to deal with a chemical spill effectively and safely. A training course may outline the procedures an employee must take when dealing with a chemical spill: pull the fire alarm, turn off the defective machine, call someone. This is knowledge that can be easily relayed and tested with a quiz or an exam.

As for learning aims, using the Driver’s Ed example for reference, learning how to drive safely and responsibly cannot exactly be measured (maybe in car accidents or tickets). It refers more to the “philosophical or ideal.” In a training course, the learning aims could look like this: employees will learn effective communication skills or employees will learn how to successfully de-escalate an emergency in the workplace.

Both an aim and an objective build a strong lesson plan for a training course, but learning aims cannot stand alone. Look at it this way: to be able to drive safely and responsibly, you must know how to drive in the first place. The same goes for a professional training course; a clear learning objective must be set so that employees can operate at a level equal to their employer’s expectations.

Effective learning objectives can also guide the training instructor. If the instructor has a clear objective for the course, they will be able to discern which information is important to include in the course, how to build a suitable framework for the course, and be able to provide focused support for participants of the course.

Just as the learning objectives in Driver’s Ed allowed me to successfully gain a driver’s license, so can the learning objectives in training courses allow employees and learners to achieve new skills and talents or achieve employer’s expectations.

Next week, in the second installment of this series, we will discuss what constitutes a strong or poor learning objective and how to create effective learning objectives for a training course.