Writing Learning Objectives: Part 1

There are really TWO categories of learning objectives based on their purpose.  One type of learning objective is for internal use—the design team, client and subject matter expert. The other type is for the audience members. If designers would write different learning objectives for each category, the world would be a better place. This is because internal learning objectives tend to be too technical and non-motivating for your eLearning audience.

The Notorious Three-part Learning Objective

In classical instructional design, the instructional designer starts with a clear overall instructional goal. From this, the designer performs an instructional analysis to determine the content and skills the learner requires to reach this goal. Using the analysis, the designer then writes learning objectives. Textbooks tell us that learning objectives must be measurable and must describe the learning outcome in three parts:

  1. The actions that will demonstrate what the audience member has learned.(Example: Dispense a pill with a medicine dispenser into the cat’s mouth)
  2. The conditions in which this will be demonstrated. (Example: Given a large, snarly cat)
  3. The criteria or standards of the learning outcome. (Example: The cat swallows the pill)

Putting this all together, here is an example of a three-part learning objective:

Given a large, snarly cat, dispense a pill into the cat’s mouth with a medicine dispenser so that the cat swallows the pill.

There’s nothing wrong with this approach, though I haven’t seen anyone write a three-part learning objective in a long time. Still, it can’t hurt to know how to do this and there are certainly some organizations, institutions or clients that require three-part learning objectives. It isn’t difficult to do and it does make you think things through. In fact, it basically tells you how to write your test items. That’s great when you are so pressured to meet a deadline that you barely have time to think.

During course design, many people simply include just the #1 part above as shown below.

Dispense a pill into the cat’s mouth with a medicine dispenser.

However you write your learning objectives is fine as long as you are developing solid and engaging eLearning products. Not all designers write learning objectives and instead use a content outline. This can work in many situations, though it is possible the Goddess of Instructional Design may strike you with lightening.

Purpose of Writing Internal Learning Objectives

The real purpose of writing the internal type of learning objectives is so designers can:

  • Wrap their minds around the content to understand its scope
  • Use the big-picture view to understand what themes, interactivity and engagement strategies can work
  • Logically order the content (this can be done in an instructional analysis which many people don’t do)
  • Organize the content into chunks, topics, lessons, units, modules, etc.
  • Ensure that no content slips through the cracks
  • Ensure all required content is tested
  • Communicate the content to clients, subject matter experts and the development team

In the next article of this series, I’ll discuss ways to make sure your learning objectives are measurable. Then after that, you can look forward to a post about how to motivate your audience with exciting learning objectives (or at least not too boring). Why, this is becoming a three-part sequel, just like a bad movie.

If you found this topic interesting and helpful, please pass it on to a friend. Thanks!

Related Articles:
Writing Learning Objectives: Part 2
Writing Learning Objectives: Part 3

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