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Do We Need Learning Objectives?

When you are taking a course, what happens when the facilitator shows a slide with 4-6 learning objectives on it? Do you pay attention, or does your brain turn off? If you are like me (even though I am a learning professional with many years of experience), my brain has a tendency to turn off when I see learning objectives at the beginning of a course. Often learning objectives are so formally stated that I feel distanced from the information, and I don’t find enough value in expending the energy needed to unpack that language. Instead, I find myself just wanting to know what the focus of the course is, what topics it will cover, and in what order the topics will be covered, and I want all this in plain, simple language.

Learning objectives are very helpful to instructional designers, and I have experienced that myself. As a designer, I do need to know the performance learners should be able to demonstrate under what conditions and the criteria for acceptable performance. These help me to separate nice-to-know information from need-to-know information and to make sure that the learning I design is focused on the right things. But that is not what I need as learner.

Research shows that objectives do help learners focus their attention on what is important in the course. Words used in an objective help trigger the learner’s attention when the words are encountered elsewhere in the course. That is why Dr. Will Thalheimer has begun calling these focusing objectives in order to distinguish them from other objectives, including instructional design objectives, which are associated with a course.

We do have other tools, however, to focus learners’ attention. We can simply tell them something is important (the least effective way to get attention), show them how something is important, repeat the information in different ways, make the information relevant to the learner, simplify information and organize it to make it easier for reference, and use design elements such as good visuals, font elements, and media that support the learning, to help draw learner’s attention, among a number of other ways. This means that focusing objectives are not necessary for focusing learners’ attention.

The truth of the matter is that what learners need from objectives is focus on what material is important, using specific words to trigger the learner’s attention, and plain, simple language that makes it simple to identify what is important. In this way, objectives can serve as an advanced organizer for learners, an effective training strategy to improve learning. But objectives are not required to accomplish all of these goals for learning and other strategies can be more effective.

So the next time you put objectives into a course, take a moment to rewrite them in a way that helps learners focus rather than reusing instructional design objectives. Consider whether a detailed agenda might be more helpful to your learners and if you have built in activities and training strategies that help focus your learners’ attention properly. Those can be far more important than providing objectives to learners.

If you want more information about learning objectives and the research behind them, see Dr. Will Thalheimer’s entertaining YouTube video called Learning Objectives—a Research-Inspired Odyssey. He presents research in support of developers and learners needing different things from objectives and helps me, as a learning professional, to be less embarrassed about not liking formal instructional objectives in a course where I am a learner.