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How to write learning objectives

First steps

For each area where you have identified a training need, consider in detail:

1. What learners should know – what they should be able to recognise, state or identify as a result of doing the training
2. What learners should be able to do – the behaviour they should be able to demonstrate, including the situations they should be able to demonstrate it in, and the standards they should achieve

Formulating learning objectives

Robert F. Mager (an influential writer in the training and education field) held that an important part of writing good objectives was to use ‘doing words.’ These are words that describe a performance (e.g. identify, select, recall) and can be observed and measured.

Words to avoid are those that describe abstract states of being (e.g. know, learn, appreciate, be aware) which are difficult to observe or measure.

The following ‘doing words’ may help you in formulating learning objectives:

  • Doing words that can be used to state what learners should know  list, define, tell, describe, identify, show, label, tabulate, quote, name etc.
  • Doing words that can be used to state what learners should be able to do  apply, demonstrate, calculate, compete, show, solve, examine, modify, choose, relate, change, assess, address, classify etc.

Crystallising learning objectives

Below are two methods that should help you define and refine your learning objectives:

1. Consider the performance gap. It can help to ask questions about desired future performance and the current performance.

The desired future situation is a vision of the outcome the training will produce. This emphasises the desired knowledge, skills and attitudes needed for learners to perform at the hoped-for level.

The current situation is a description of the here and now. The emphasis is on today’s status quo – current performance levels, knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Here it’s worth considering what can go wrong, i.e. current bad practice that learners should avoid following the training. When desired situations are visualised the discrepancies between vision and reality become evident – these are the training needs or the ‘performance gap’.

2. Task analysis examines specific on-the-job tasks and the conditions in which the tasks are performed. One method is to identify individuals whose performance matches desired standards, and those who are not meeting such targets, i.e. ‘high performers’ and ‘low performers’. This gives an idea of the way the role should ideally be performed, and helps to identify current problems in achieving this. Contrasting the two will help to highlight the current gaps in performance where training is required.

Remember the Pareto rule

When deciding what to include in the training, it’s worth applying the Pareto principle. Approximately, this states that 80% of effects come from 20% of causes. Applied to training this means we need to identify and focus on the 20% of issues that will make a huge impact on performance.