Establishing concrete learning objectives for your custom eLearning content is a crucial element of the program’s success. Assuming that your organization has established a learning need of some kind, the trick is then to establish measurable learning objectives specific to the desired outcome of the learning event. Here, we provide four tips to help you formulate solid learning objectives that will support your custom eLearning program.
1. Determine desired competency.
Why is this step important? I can do something or I can’t, right? Well…not exactly. There are three generally understood levels of competency: awareness, application, and mastery. Awareness implies that your learners simply need to be informed about something (we’re getting new coffee machines in the break room). Application means that your learners need know how to perform a new task or perform an already familiar task in a new way (the old coffee machines required coffee grounds and filters, and the new coffee machines have individual pods). The third competency level, mastery, indicates that your learners need to be sufficiently skilled at a task that they can teach someone else how to perform it (a designated individual can confidently demonstrate and teach others how to use the new coffee machines.)
Most learning activities will fall somewhere between awareness and mastery. Determining the desired competency level is the first step toward shaping your custom eLearning objectives.
2. Define course-level objectives.
What should the learner be able to do or what knowledge should they have acquired as a result of taking this custom eLearning course? When designing a new course, ask yourself this question at the outset. The answers should relate to broader course goals, so don’t overdo it here; three to six overall objectives for a course should be sufficient.
Once you’ve established your course-level objectives, they will be the basis for defining the specific sub-skills, knowledge, and behavior needed to meet the overall aim of the learning offering.
Don’t forget to communicate the link between the established objectives and a defined business or organizational benchmark. For example, the company that purchased new coffee pots seeks to improve the efficiency of the coffee-making process (thus reducing break time) and decrease burn injuries in the break room by 10% (thus improving health and safety conditions) as a result of employees being trained to properly use the new machines.
3. Define task-level objectives.
These should be both measurable and specific. If my course-level objective is to know how to use the new coffee pots, what, exactly are the steps that I need to accomplish? Well, I need to know how to fill the water reservoir, how to turn on the machine, where to locate the pods, where and how to insert the pods correctly, where to place my coffee cup, and what button to press to start brewing the coffee.
My learning objectives might look something like this:
At the end of this lesson, I should be able to:
- Fill the water reservoir.
- Turn on the coffee machine.
- Locate the coffee pods.
- Insert the pods correctly.
- Place my coffee cup correctly.
- Press the button that will start brewing my coffee.
With solid learning objectives, you have something against which to measure the success—or lack thereof—of your custom eLearning program.
4. Assess objective quality.
Is there room for improvement? Here are a few questions that can help you determine if you’ve hit the mark:
- Are learners at the forefront? Objectives should be written from the learner’s point of view, not describe how the instructor will be conducting the course.
- Are you using action verbs? Bloom’s taxonomy can be useful here. Refer to your already-established competency level, then see the verbs that correspond on the learning hierarchy.
- Can you measure it? Are you knowing, understanding, or appreciating? These verbs are vague and don’t allow for measurable goals. Think along the lines of “demonstrate”, “calculate”, or “select”. You can’t appreciably see someone understand, but you can certainly measure if they’ve demonstrated the proper way to complete a task, calculated the correct response to a formula, or selected the most appropriate method.
- It is clear? Course objectives should concisely convey performance expectations even to those unfamiliar with the content.
- Can they really do it? Is your course designed in such a way the objectives can truly be met? If not, head back to the drawing board. In learning, there’s nothing more deflating than attempting to meet unrealistic goals.
Keep in mind that solid learning objectives can help determine the strategies that you put in place in your custom eLearning piece. If the objectives are awareness level, for example, independent learning might be a good choice. As the competency level increases, your interactions might require more depth. In our coffee pot example, you would probably want to integrate an activity where participants actually make a cup of coffee, and an observer provides them with performance feedback.
There is some debate in the learning community as to whether course objectives need to be spelled out for the learners (e.g., a specific “learning objectives” slide/window listing each objective), the argument being that most learners will have been informed one way or another about the purpose of the learning event. I tend to err on the side of caution; a clear outline of the objectives confirms what many already knew or suspected, and informs those that, for whatever reason, had no clue what the training was about. And remember, you can be creative about how to present the learning objectives, for example by framing them with a real-world example (Ten employees received serious burns from coffee pots last year. We’re going to change that!), or perhaps a motivational message from an executive or even a peer that can share a tangible example of how the new knowledge/skills have been beneficial on the job.
Strong learning objectives:
- Help coalesce the goals of the custom e-Learning program.
- Allow you to measure the success of your learners and the learning offering.
- Orient your choices in terms of appropriate learning strategies.
- Frame learners’ expectations.
Defining learning objectives is the first—and crucial—step in course design. Powerful learning objectives help determine what success looks like for you, your clients, and their organizations.