Establishing clear learning objectives


Anne Bradbury, L&D Consultant Last Modified  15 August 2016

Background information
A learning objective describes the intended outcome of the training session expressed in terms of an increase in knowledge, skills or desired behaviour. Establishing clear learning objectives is an important part of the training needs analysis process. It also helps provides the basis for the evaluation of the training.

To write clear learning objectives, it helps to think about where learners are now and where they need to be to perform effectively in their current or future roles.

The gap between where learners are now and where they need to be provides the basis for learning objectives. They should be defined in terms of the results of the training rather than what happens in the training environment. The diagrams in the handout Writing clear learning objectives help to illustrate this.

Objectives provide a benchmark against which the effectiveness of the training can be measured. It becomes difficult to evaluate the overall effectiveness of the training session without having first defined what needs to be achieved. Objectives need to be clear and concise. A vague objective will confuse course participants and not allow for effective evaluation of the learning. 

There are three types of learning objectives:
  • Knowledge objectives
  • Skill objectives
  • Behavioural and attitude objectives
Knowledge objectives
What will the individual ‘know’ by the end of the training period?

This could be technical knowledge, or knowledge about procedures or operations which are essential for good performance in a particular task. Often knowledge is a pre-requisite to developing a skill.

To write a clear knowledge based objective you need to ask – ‘How will learners show that they have this knowledge?’ ‘At the end of the session, what will they know that they didn’t know before?’

Key words to describe knowledge include: identify, memorise, name, recall, define, describe, outline, specify, recognise and list.

Here are some examples of 'knowledge' based objectives:
  • To be able to recognise when an incident constitutes gross misconduct when a manager comes to discuss a specific situation
  • To describe what COSHH is and why it’s important in keeping the workplace safe
  • To recognise the symptoms of a stroke in a patient
  • To describe the steps involved in developing a project plan to the project team
  • To explain which chopping board to use for each type of food.
Skill objectives
What you would like course participants to be able to at the end of the training period?  

This might refer to skills that are manual, diagnostic, interpersonal or decision-making. This step builds on knowledge; having knowledge and being able to apply it are two different things!

To write a clear skills based objective you need to ask – ‘What ability will learners be able to demonstrate by the end of the session that they were unable to do beforehand?’

Key words to describe a skill include: input, interpret, analyse, operate, employ, illustrate, select, perform and demonstrate. Here are some examples of 'skill' based objectives:
  • To prepare clear, unambiguous recruitment interview questions based on the job description
  • To demonstrate the correct procedure for hand washing in a food preparation area
  • To show how to lift a box correctly when placing it in a loading bay
  • To put through a staff discount on the till correctly
  • To input data onto the customer record system correctly
  • To be able to conduct temperature checks correctly on delivery of frozen food
What behaviour/attitude will learners need to be able to demonstrate?
If the training involves a change the way in which something is done, it might require a change in approach or attitude. This aspect is more to do with motivation than the other two. Without good training, people can often remain reluctant to change.

To write a clear attitude or behaviour based objective you need to ask – ‘How will the learner demonstrate that their attitude is appropriate?’ or ‘What change in behaviour will the learner need demonstrate as a result of the training session?”

Key words to describe attitude include: appreciate, accept, help and support. Here are some examples of 'behavioural' based objectives: 
  • Greets and acknowledges the customer when they arrive in the store.
  • Listens to the other persons opinion without interrupting during an appraisal.
  • Solicits feedback from others during a team briefing.
  • Responds empathetically when a team member has a problem.

Points to consider

Many course learning objectives are prefixed with the statement ‘by the end of this training session you will be able to…’. Very often these kinds of statements are unrealistic within the timeframe of the course. It may be more appropriate to say that people should be able to do something by the end of the training period, specifying that this includes a period of time to practice using the learning in the workplace.

Completing this process should help everyone to understand exactly what needs to be achieved by from any training.  Having clear objectives also enables you to go on to evaluate the effectiveness of the training at the end of the training period checking whether or not the gap has been bridged. 
Tips for creating effective learning objectives
  • Focus on observable outcomes that can be measured in the workplace
  • Consider how you can evaluate each objective both during the training and in the workplace
  • Ensure objectives focus on a single outcome
  • Make sure objectives are learner focused, not training centred
  • Develop objectives that will contribute towards business outcomes
  • Where learners need to reach a standard, ensure they are clear on what this standard is
  • Check that the learning objective is achievable for the job holders

A Checklist for writing learning objectives is available in the Support material section. Print this off and use it whenever you are writing learning objectives as part of a training needs analysis.