Thursday, September 24, 2009

What's So About Learning Objectives

I often find myself thinking about learning objectives. Having gone through extensive research, documentation, and training on how to write SMART learning objectives, I am made to believe, they are important. But I am questioning...

How often have you found formal classroom or online training start with a bulletined list of learning objectives? Almost always...right? But does that list really help our learners? Can these words, "In this lesson, you will learn to...” actually motivate anyone? I don't think so. Atleast in my personal learning experiences, it didn't do much to see a page listing all objectives. More often than not, I skipped the page thinking ..."I will get to it when I will get to it.” Besides, with formal learning accounting for only 20-25% of all of my learning, I never start with a statement of learning objectives when I learn something informally, by-the-way. I don’t ever feel the need to see a list!

So why, for our learners, do we continue to begin all learning with a list of learning objectives?

I believe we do it because Benjamin Bloom suggested a taxonomy of learning objectives some 50 years ago that we continue to follow irrespective of all the changes that have occurred to the pedagogical approaches to learning and our learners. We continue to live in the old times where instructional design was more about teaching than learning....where instructional objectives were more for the trainer rather than the trainee.

50 years later, in the world of social learning, Web 2.0 and beyond, learners are demanding customized and personalized learning. The objectives are often only in the minds of the learners - not quite transparent for others to see. So, there is less of structured dissemination and more of informal, unstructured learning-by-doing. Where is the place for SMART learning objectives in all this?

So, if we don’t need a bulletined list of learning objectives, what do we need instead?

WIFIM – What is in it for me?

Instead of listing learning objectives, if we provide a context for our learners and establish the need for the learning intervention, they are more likely to be motivated and be ready for the training. The context has to be real and learners should be able to relate to it. And since all learning is meant to impact performance – directly or indirectly, what's the big deal about sharing learning objectives. I’d rather focus on performance objectives… not the ones listed in a bulletined form but the ones that I help my learner create in her mind based on the WHIFIM that I build at the start of the training. I want to give my learners the freedom to develop their own performance objectives and at the end of the training intervention, assess their own learning.


  1. Absolutely! We are on the exact same page and at the exact same spot in that page. I really hate that list. It does not serve much purpose than being a read-aloud kind of list. It is like shuru karo course leke objectives ka naam.

    But but but! There are people who would just not move on in life. They are stuck to same old ideas, same old %&^^$#^! In my current project, I did not put the objectives page. (being a freelancer, I have all the rights in the world). Well, the end client came back asking for it. What more, the senior guy working for my client tried to come hard at me for missing it.... and, inspite of me telling him there's no use... he did not listen. I had to put it.

    Now that your article has raked up some thoughts... I am thinking - How about an objectives list at the end? Like a checklist? - Now that you have gone through the course, are you able to:

    -List the colors in a rainbow?
    -Explain blah with the help of blah?
    (mark the ones that are appropriate)

    And..if something is not marked, take the learner to review the

    Thank you. I know you make sense.

  2. Thanks for your comment Kshitij. Yes, it's not always easy to convince clients that the list of objectives may not add any value. I think what's important is to provide the context and WHIFM for the learner. If that's in place, you can try to change perspectives!

  3. Hi TG!

    Yes, I agree too and must say appreciate you article. You rightly say, a WHIFM not only presents the relevance but also grabs the learner's attention (and in turn motivates her/him) -- the first two ingredients of the ARCS model, which I personally believe in.

    Infact, sometimes I feel that we lose the science, essence, or maybe I want to simply call it the feel of a training material by associating objectives with Bloom's levels. To me, they essentially become mechanical. (Totally, my personal opinion) But this feel increases when I create assessment questions based on the identified Bloom's levels.

    Maybe I am not thinking right or maybe I am missing something from the Bloom's taxonomy that makes me think so but this is what I feel or so I think!

    What are your thoughts?

  4. Thanks for your comment Deepti. In my view, Bloom's taxonomy has nothing to do with making the learner want to learn. It is a classification to identify the levels of learning in various domains. Good learning objectives, even if they are mapping to Bloom's level, are not the key to learning. Making the learning meaningful for the learner is!