A learning objective is a statement that clearly describes what learners will be able to do at the end of a training course. Learning objectives help learners understand expectations, prepare for the course, and stay motivated.
Learning objectives tie into course objectives, which identify where you want learners to end up at the end of the training. When you know what this looks like, you can identify what you need to do to get them there—and these goals become learning objectives. For example:
- Increased production
- Increased efficiency
- Higher employee morale
- Fewer customer complaints
Learning objectives (and all objectives, not just those for learning) should follow the SMART format.
Specific: simple, narrow; consider one skill or piece of knowledge for each objective.
Measurable: trackable; measured in specific terms.
Achievable: attainable, possible, and within a reasonable scope.
Relevant: it should make sense for the goals you’re trying to achieve.
Timely: time-based and within available resources.
Here are some examples of learning objectives in the SMART format:
- At the end of this course, students will be able to create a pivot table in Excel.
- At the end of this webinar, participants will be able to describe three scenarios that are considered bribes.
Trainers and educators should write their learning objectives based on three pillars. Here’s how to write effective learning objectives with these three pillars in mind.
#1 Know: What Should a Learner Know?
The first pillar is knowledge: when training is completed, what should the student know and at what level? It’s good to take a step back to truly understand this question. It can be so easy to go with the motions, but that is what ultimately leads to low retention rates. The knowledge should focus on the student and not on what you’ll be teaching or how you’ve designed the training. The verb in the learning objective shouldn’t be something vague like “to understand” or “to know,” as these verbs aren’t measurable. Instead, use action verbs like:
For example, “After this session, students will be able to describe four dangers of texting and driving.”
Implement mid-course assessments to ensure the learner understands and retains the information. Learners might also be more engaged if they know they’ll be taking assessments during the course. Assessments can be short and simple, from a quiz with a few multiple-choice questions to prompts where learners need to write an explanation. If you include assessments along the way, you can adjust your training as needed to meet the audience’s needs.
#2 Do: What Should a Learner Be Able to Do?
The second pillar is do: what should a student be able to do at the end of (and during) the training? Learning isn’t just about memorizing or understanding a concept—it’s about being able to take new knowledge and do something with it.
The doing part is important so that students can quickly implement what they’ve learned. When a person applies something they’ve learned, it reinforces that the concept is actionable and more than just useful to know. It also speaks to motivators: why someone is in a class. If a learner can see early on in the training that they’re going to be able to apply it successfully to real situations, they’ll be more motivated through the rest of the course. If it’s framed to not be relevant, it won’t be remembered.
In addition, seeing how students do with the action part of training can provide valuable information about the training itself; it allows you to determine if the training is successful or could be improved.
The doing part will depend on the topic; some ideas include teaching others, practicing the new skill with another learner, role-playing a new skill, physically completing a task, etc. Action verbs for the doing part of learning objectives include:
For example, if a course is about adding a new section to a website, the doing part of the learning objective could be something like, “After this course, students will be able to add a section for new employees to the HR section of the website.” The doing parts reinforce the topic and retention.
#3 Believe: What Should a Learner Believe?
The third pillar is believe: what should a learner believe or value at the end of the training?
What do you want a learner to believe at the end of the training? Do you want someone to feel more empowered at their job? Accomplished because they figured out how to solve a math problem? More confident that they can handle job scenarios?
It might be hard to articulate a feeling in a learning objective. However, if you set up the course in the best way for the learners, provide regular feedback, encourage your learners, and articulate the learning objectives as we’ve described, you should be set up for success. Take the following actions to get your learners to shift their beliefs by the end of the course:
- Understand your audience. What are their motivators, needs, and challenges? For example, someone who’s taking a class because they have to will need different motivators than someone who’s taking it because they want to.
- Be a positive role model. Have an upbeat, encouraging attitude toward your students. A positive presence tends to lead others to have a more positive attitude and optimism. And when you see your learners catching on, show your excitement, and be patient when they’re not.
- Present the information in more than one way. Since people vary in how they learn—visually, auditory, doing, etc.—try to present the information in different styles for different learners.
- Reference the big-picture goals. Remind your learners why they’re there and encourage them with what’s waiting at the finish line.
At the end of your course, you want the students to be able to learn, but you also want them to believe something. What is that something?
Learning objectives are best when they follow the SMART format and link to the course objectives. Make sure they include what you want learners to know, do, and believe.
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