Should We List the Learning Objectives?

A lot of elearning starts with a list of formal learning objectives. “By the end of this course, you will be able to…” But should we really start our elearning this way? Is that really the best way to communicate with learners about the goals of training? No, I think we can do better.

Should we list the learning objectives? Hand drawn arrow starts from a wavy line on the left to an arrow point on the right.

The argument in favor of listing learning objectives

I don’t want to directly pile on this person any further (I already ratioed him with my comment on his article), but someone recently shared some elearning tips on LinkedIn. This was his first tip:

Clear Learning Objectives: Your eLearning should have clear learning objectives that are communicated to your employees. This helps them understand what they are expected to learn and how their progress will be assessed.

At first glance, that seems reasonable, right? We want learners to understand what they’re expected to learn. We already have the learning objectives and used them for designing the training, so let’s use them again here.

Or maybe not.

The argument against listing learning objectives

I’m going to push back a little on the advice to explicitly tell participants the learning objectives.

Do we need clear learning objectives when we design training? Yes, absolutely!

Should we give those to learners with the same language we use for ourselves as designers? Nope, I don’t think so. And I’m not the only one who feels this way. Will Thalheimer, for example, has expressed skepticism at listing learning objectives (at least the ones we as instructional designers use).

Objectives are designed to guide behavior. So, how can it be that identically-worded objectives can adequately guide the behavior of two disparate groups of individuals (learners and instructional designers)? It just doesn’t make any sense!!

-Will Thalheimer in Rethinking Instructional Objectives

What does the research say?

Thalheimer cites research on how objectives can help learners focus their attention. And they do help–objectives help learners identify what’s important and what they need to remember. But the only part of the objective that improves learning is identifying what will be learned. Any other information in the objective, such as the conditions for performance, don’t actually improve learning and may actually hinder it.

Listing learning objectives is also a bit of a double-edged sword. Quoting Thalheimer again:

You might be surprised to know that learning objectives help learners focus on the information targeted by learning objectives, but actually diminish their attention on information in the learning materials not targeted by learning objectives.

In other words, we need to be careful with the objectives we list. They do work to focus attention on what’s critical…and anything we don’t say is critical will be less likely to be learned and remembered.

Use focusing objectives, not learning objectives

I agree that we should tell learners what training is about. However, rather than telling them the formal learning objectives, we need something written for that audience–a different set of objectives or goals that explains “What’s in it for me?” to the learners.

Thalheimer has called these “focusing objectives”: the objectives we use to help learners focus on what’s important in training. They aren’t the same learning objectives in ABCD format that we use as designers though; they don’t need that formal language.

Focusing objectives help learners know what training is about and what’s important. They help learners use their limited attention to meet the goals.

Isn’t this “dumbing down” information?

In reply to my comment, someone asked, “Can you, please, explain, why that is? To me it sounds like dumbing down…”

I don’t think it’s “dumbing down” information for our learners. It’s a matter of writing for your audience. Maybe if you are training teachers or IDs, then I think the same formal learning objective language is probably fine to share with the learners. For those audiences, the learning objective language may be meaningful.

But in most workplace training, and in higher ed for non-teacher/ID audiences, we should rewrite those objectives in a way that is more appropriate for our audience. (And even for teachers or IDs, a plain language version to explain the goals might be just as effective or more so.)

Let’s take an example LO.

“Given photos of locations in the city, municipal employees will differentiate between environmental conditions and situations that may result in stormwater pollution and those which do not require reporting or remediation with 80% accuracy.”

That’s an objective in Mager’s full ABCD format. It’s pretty wordy and clunky, so maybe you’d write it differently. All the necessary objective information is there.

That is NOT the wording I want to use with municipal employees though! Instead, I use something worded specifically for that audience.

“This training will help you recognize potential problems that can cause stormwater pollution so you know when you need to take action or report an issue.”

I realize that may feel like “dumbing down,” but research has shown that a conversational tone like the second version leads to better learning retention. Plus, a boring list of very formally worded learning objectives is a great way to bore your learners. If we want to gain attention at the beginning of our training, we need to give them a reason. The conversational version is much more likely to help workers recognize the relevance of the training than the full learning objective.

Use questions to focus attention

But does it have to be just a conversational learning objective? We might have other ways of gaining attention and helping learners focus.

In fact, learners may learn better if they’re asked some questions first to help prime them for important information, rather than simply telling them what they’ll learn.

Paul Kirschner and Mirjam Neelen reviewed some of the history of learning objectives and research on their effectiveness. Some of this research looked at alternatives to focusing objectives. One study examined the effectiveness of using pretests at the beginning to focus attention. Participants in the study couldn’t necessarily answer the questions right before completing the training (as expected), but multiple choice questions about the topics helped learners focus on those specific topics.

Learners get the best results when they have to answer questions first.

-Paul Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen in Learning Objectives: Goal!?!

If you’re interested in using questions at the start of training to focus attention, I recommend reading Kirschner and Neelen’s full post and the pretest research cited.

Further reading and resources

9 thoughts on “Should We List the Learning Objectives?”

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  3. “….but actually diminish their attention on information in the learning materials not targeted by learning objectives.”

    There shouldn’t be information in the learning materials that isn’t targeted by an objective. So, I have an issue with an “expert” who puts in a whole lot of information that the objectives don’t capture, and it seems like this whole argument is based on that.

    I think when we expect adult learners to practice self-direction, we do a disservice to them if we don’t explicitly state what they need to do, how well, and under what conditions. To reword that into the suggested “focusing objectives” doesn’t give adult learners a sound foundation to direct their own learning. They may meet a focusing objective that is worded simply, but then not be able to transfer that to the job under certain conditions or to an expected degree.

    And anyone who wants to talk about objectives should certainly know the difference between objectives and goals. When I started 25 years ago we needed to state both the objectives and the goals of the course. There is a difference and neither is a “focusing” objective which seems like a way for one consultant to sell something new when it’s in reality a rehash of old thinking that has no real measurable effect. It’s really common in education or training for a consultant to try to sell a new program by just repackaging old methods into a shiny new (and trademarked) box.

    I am suspect of any article that cites only one expert or source. This appears to be seeking clicks by going against the grain, but I see no statistics that show that simplified objectives are any more beneficial for adult learners than a clearly written explicit objective. The studies cited in the final paragraph don’t speak to any specific results, and don’t even speak to learning objectives vs focusing objectives. It speaks to the effectiveness of pretests, which is something we should be speaking more about.

    1. Hi Mike!

      Thanks for sharing your views. Your point about including information that the objectives don’t capture has some validity. That probably becomes more of a question of designing the instruction to align to the objectives, rather than a question of how we share them with learners.

      The definitions of objectives and goals, as you know, aren’t standardized across the field. I’m glad you had a clear definition in your organization 25 years ago, but to assume everyone is still using the same definitions decades later is probably part of the problem. Personally, I don’t care too much what we call them, as long as we define the terms beforehand. I think “focusing objectives” is a little clearer about their purpose, but I don’t have any issues with people calling them goals or outcomes or something else.

      I didn’t include the statistics here in my summary; they’re in Thalheimer’s post and in the original research. Quoting Thalheimer:

      “And indeed, Hamilton (1985) found that presenting learners with learning objectives in the way Mager suggested, PRODUCES NO BENEFITS AND MAY BE HARMFUL. Here’s what Hamilton wrote:

      “[An instructional] objective that generally identifies the information to be learned in the text will produce robust effects. Including other information (per Mager’s, 1962, definition) will not significantly help and it may hinder the effects of the objectives”

      (Hamilton, 1985, p. 78).

      “For example, in two experiments using specific objectives, Rothkopf and Billington (1979) found that when focusing objectives were provided to learners, performance on material related to the objectives improved by 49% and 47% over situations when focusing objectives were not used.”

      You said, “I am suspect of any article that cites only one expert or source.” As I’m sure you know because you read my blog post, I cited two different sources that summarize research. The real question of citations should come down to the sources they relied on though. I’ll add all of those sources below so you don’t have to click through to their posts. To claim that this is “one expert or source” is a straw man argument that is clearly unsupported by the facts.

      You also said, “I think when we expect adult learners to practice self-direction, we do a disservice to them if we don’t explicitly state what they need to do, how well, and under what conditions. To reword that into the suggested ‘focusing objectives’ doesn’t give adult learners a sound foundation to direct their own learning.” I’d like to see your citations for that. If my sources have missed some important research, then I’ll update my post. But I don’t think you have research to support your argument.

      Here’s the deal: Every time someone has made the same argument as you, I have asked them to share the research supporting their point. And every time, they have then vanished out of the conversation. I am 100% confident that I don’t know all the research on objectives, and it seems plausible to me that someone might have some contradictory research. But so far, it’s all opinion and no research.

      So, here are the full reference lists for you–the ones you claimed are “one expert or source.”

      Here are the sources Will Thalheimer cites in his post:
      Hamilton, R. J. (1985). A framework for the evaluation of the effectiveness of adjunct questions and objectives. Review of Educational Research, 55, 47-85.

      Mager, R. (1962). Preparing Instructional Objectives. Palo Alto, CA: Fearon Publishers.

      Rothkopf, E. Z., & Billington, M. J. (1979). Goal-guided learning from text: Inferring a descriptive processing model from inspection times and eye movements. Journal of Educational Psychology, 71(3), 310-327.

      Here are the sources Paul Kirschner and Mirjam Neelen cited (There’s some overlap, but I’m including the full list for completeness):

      Bloom, B. S., Engelhart, M. D., Furst, E. J., Hill, W. H., & Krathwohl, D. R. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives. The classification of educational goals, Handbook I: Cognitive domain. New York: David McKay Company, Inc.

      Britton, B. K., Glynn, S. M., Muth, K. D., & Penland, M. J. (1985). Instructional objectives in text: Managing the reader’s attention. Journal of Reading Behavior, 17(2), 101-113.

      Clark, R. C., & Mayer, R. E. (2016). E-learning and the science of instruction: Proven guidelines for consumers and designers of multimedia learning. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

      Rothkopf, E. Z., & Billington, M. J. (1979). Goal-guided learning from text: inferring a descriptive processing model from inspection times and eye movements. Journal of educational psychology, 71(3), 310-327.

      Rothkopf, E. Z., & Kaplan, R. (1972). Exploration of the effect of density and specificity of instructional objectives on learning from text. Journal of educational psychology, 63(4), 295-302.

      Sana, F., Forrin, N. D., Sharma, M., Dubljevic, T., Ho, P., Jalil, E., & Kim, J. A. (2020). Optimizing the efficacy of learning objectives through pretests. Cross-disciplinary research in biology education – Life Sciences Education, 19, 43, 1-10.

      Thalheimer, W. H. (1996). Information-acquisition goals: how questions produce learning through non-strategic processing (Publication No. 9631789). [Doctoral dissertation, Columbia University]. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global.

  4. Objectives of any kind or called anything you like are a must to a successful training product. It is an easy way to allow our participates to know what we intend to do, and for both the participants and the facilitators to measure against the success of what was intended.

    1. Ralph, when you share the objectives with your participants, how are they worded? Do you give them the same objectives that the facilitators and instructional designers use?

      I agree that participants should know what we intend to do, and they need to understand how they will be assessed. But both of those goals can be accomplished in ways that are more helpful to learners than giving them a formal learning objective.

  5. Yes!! I have been calling them outcomes. But 100% writing them to clearly inform and engage the audience. Always.

    1. Yes, we can debate about what exactly to label them (outcomes is a good option too), but the point is how you write them, not what we call them. Glad to hear this lines up with your practice!

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