Learning objectives: It’s all in the verb

VerbWe need to develop learning objectives that relate to the type of action learners need to do.

Learning Objectives

They say that good results without good management come from good luck, not good management. I would suggest further that without good performance objectives, managers don’t even know when their reports have achieved the results they need.

Similarly, as we prepare people to be ready to do their jobs, we might say that good results without good learning objectives come from good luck, not good planning. I would also suggest that without good objectives, it is almost impossible to assess whether we are doing the job we told our customers we would do.

Of course, there is a discipline to creating SMART learning objectives. We have taxonomies to help us create good terminal objectives. Bloom’s and Gagne’s are two that have stood the test of time.

Work-related behaviors

But as we design our learning interventions, I think this misses an important point.

We need to categorize learning objectives by action type. At the end of the day, what type of action is required on the job? Do we want learners do some physical action? Effectively speak about something or actively listen accurately? Or do we want them to be able to write something?

For instance, claim adjusters must provide written justification for their decisions that is (a) complete, (b) behavioral, (c) logical, and (d) consonant with contractual obligations and organizational guidelines. All that is great, but there’s one word that’s at the heart of it – “written.” They must be able to write.

And as someone who taught college for 20 years, the bottom line is that the only way to teach someone to write is to have them write, give them feedback and have them correct their work, and repeat the process.

While this seems simple, this fundamental approach of defining the type of behavior and then ensuring your training or other learning intervention produces that behavior is violated right and left!

  • We provide eLearning courses that tell people how to write, then test them on whether they remember the rules we told them. This doesn’t produce a writer, but a person who is aware of writing rules.
  • We give them writing samples and ask them to identify the writing errors. This doesn’t produce a writer, but a copy editor.

This suggests that the learning intervention must include producing and correcting writing samples, or some equally focused intervention.

Similarly, we might ask:

  • What type of learning intervention is required if we want learners to be able to accurately and empathically listen?
  • What type of learning intervention should we use to help learners to verbally present information accurately and persuasively?
  • What do we need to do to facilitate learners demonstrating a computer skill or a physical action?

It might be an interesting exercise to look at the various courses and other activities available to learners, and audit them with the question: Does what the learner does and learners in this course connect with the behavior they need to do on the job?

Remember: Without objectives we don’t know what we’re teaching. Without action-related verbs, we can’t connect what we’re teaching to what they need to do. It’s that simple.

Abstracted from a forthcoming book on learning effectiveness  (c) Bill Bruck, Ph.D., 2015


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