Today I’m going to bore you to death with objectives

Without a doubt the most boring part of instructional design is writing the learning objectives, but I promised you I would take you through Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction, and the second one is “inform the learners of the objectives.” 

 I never write a blog post longer than 600 words, but I could write a book about learning objectives. So if you want an academic treatise on them, read Robert Mager’s book “Preparing Instructional Objectives.”  It’s short, easy to read and makes perfect sense. It’s also considered by designers to be the best work on the subject and no one will ever argue with you if you say your approach is based on Mager.

 When you write learning objectives in the classical way, according to Mager, you will have some verb, such as “at the end of the instruction, learners will be able to detect a counterfeit bill.” Mager also includes the conditions under which one would detect the bill, along with any criteria if necessary.  This means for example, that you could detect counterfeits accurately ten times out of ten (criteria) without using any outside testing equipment (conditions).  When you take a design workshop, they always make you practice writing objectives, and I bet I’ve written a jillion of them. Once you catch on, they’re easy to write.

One important tip.  Make sure you write them in learner-centric language. Write what the learner will know (cognitive domain), do (psychomotor domain), or feel (affective domain) as an outcome of the training.  Don’t write “the facilitator will help the learners practice making outside phone calls” for example. If you write a bad objective like this and I find out about it, I will write to your manager and try to get you fired.

Okay, I was just trying to lighten things up.

 Here is tip number one.  In academic writing, learning objectives are stated as being important for a number of reasons, such as “guides the learner, guides the teacher, allows for analysis,” etc.  But in my work with clients, I find the two most important benefits to writing objectives are:

  1. The process of clarifying the objectives with the client helps you to gain more precision about the outcome.  For example, if the client says “we want them to be more comfortable and confident when they make prospecting calls,” you would naturally ask, “Comfortable or confident? Which? What are they doing now? Are they telling you they are uncomfortable, or is their performance suffering because you think they’re not confident?”  You can then explore what was observed, or learned from the group to be trained.
  2. Once the learning objectives have been agreed-upon, you protect yourself somewhat from complaint or criticism from management of the group to be trained. In post-training assessment you always go back to the agreed-upon objectives as a starting point for discussion. “The outcome you’re looking for was never discussed as an objective. What has changed?”  I always ask, “Is there anything else you want the learners to know, feel or do?”

Tip number two:  Never simply inform the learners of the objectives.  Engage them with the objectives, like this: “(Name), read aloud our first objective and tell us why you think it’s important.”  Then connect this reasoning to the session activities and content.  This approach is more consistent with what Gagne had in mind I think.

 We’ll look at Step Three, “stimulate recall of prior learning,” on Tuesday.  Meanwhile…

 Think Like Your Customer

About Gregory LaMothe
I teach people how to sell things. I own the company ActionSystems. Visit my website at

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