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Learning Objectives That Put Your Learners to Sleep

You write a great objective, put it on a slide, and then the instructor presents it to your learners. What happens?

  • Given a technically perfect learning objective
  • Your learners will…
  • Yawn
  • Space out
  • Stop paying attention
  • Pretty much 100% of the time

But wait! Objectives are the heart of the instructional design process.

11-12 Bridge Over Coyote Creek 2

So true—but the way we write them, they’re great for instructional designers—and terrible for learners. I’ve been watching instructors in a large organization read every word of complicated objectives to their students. (To be fair, they’ve been told that they must do this; and they’re not all that happy about it.)

For example, look at how long and unintelligible this is, from a learner’s point of view:

Given an electromagnetic shrink ray, a pin, and a safety harness | “What?”

the learner | “Maybe that’s me.”

will be able to  | “Duh”

dance on the head of a pin | “That’s cool.”

for at least 5 minutes. | “I stopped listening.”

To recap: In an effort to provide learning objectives (good), some organizations have mandated a supremely detailed and mind-numbing approach (bad).

What happens to learners who are subjected to a long list of objectives, full of “givens” and “standards” and instructional design-ese?

Their eyes glaze over. They think about other things.

What do you lose? Focus and mental engagement.

What must absolutely happen for learning to occur? Focus and mental engagement.

What to Do Instead. For the objectives you display and talk about with your learners, do this:

  • Shorten them.
  • Give one or maybe three (and really, no more than five) overall objectives at the beginning of a course. If you have more than that, try combining some into higher-level objectives.
  • Parcel out the enabling objectives module-by-module (or as you come to them).
  • Remove all ID-speak.

Start with the Action. Make this simple. Let’s say you’re teaching a course about how to do time travel (just for fun).

  • If you’re using slides, write, “Travel through time.” That’s all you need.
  • When you talk about it, say, “You’re going to be able to travel back or forward in time.”

Givens for Learners. Say the “givens” in plain language, as part of your explanation of what they can expect.

  • Instead of using this text to start an objective, “Given the 123-09-4376A, 123-09-4376B, and 123-09-4376C Manuals, a 1981 DeLorean DMC-12, and a crazy scientist,”
  • Say something like this, “We have manuals that you can use. You’ll have a time-travel machine, and you’ll also be able to consult an expert.” Plain language.
  • Let them know, as you go about teaching, whether they can use the manuals and have access to the expert during the exam. (How much do they have to commit to memory?)

Standards. Talk about expectations as a natural part of showing the learners how, in this case, to travel through time.

  • The technical standard for this might be, “to within a 5-foot range of specified GPS coordinates and within 5 minutes of a specific hour, day, and year in the past or future.”
  • Say something like, “We’re going to learn how to set the GPS and time coordinates now. A little later, you’ll have a chance to demonstrate how to do this, and for the final exam, we’ll expect you to land within 5 feet and 5 minutes of your assigned targets. Let me show you how.”
  • Reinforce these expectations during your presentation and as they practice.

So there are two ways (at least) to be amazing with objectives.

  • Write them so that they are technically perfect for designers.
  • Write and deliver shorter, friendlier objectives for learners.

For learners, objectives in plain language will help them to focus and learn. Write technical objectives for the design team, and then translate them into language that makes sense to your learners.


Post | Will Thalheimer (2013). Rethinking Instructional Objectives

Post | Jeanne Farrington (2013). From Memory—Or Not?

Wikipedia | Back to the Future

Wikipedia | Honey, I Shrunk the Kids

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