Learning objectives are like metadata – useful but best left unseen

by Viv Cole on November 1, 2017

An update on a post about learning objectives which attracted a healthy amount of support and debate: refinements to that position and what it means in practice for learning designers.

One of the richest compilations of high quality thinking is Will Thalheimer’s. If you can’t spare 30 minutes to watch the video, here are my key take outs:

  • Showing learning objectives to learners has some measurable benefit to learners as it helps focus them on what is ‘salient’.
  • Plenty of other tactics commonly used by learning designers have been shown to enhance ‘salience’ e.g. repetition, interactivity, visual reinforcement.
  • Learning objectives are rarely written in a way that gets the pulse racing e.g. “List the 8 principles of data protection regulations”. [I can only apologise for having bullet points in this article…]

As I previously argued, having specific learning objectives is essential – it gives a basis for measuring if the learning has been successful and otherwise you risk designing the wrong piece of learning or risk greater expense amending it once it has been built.

The question is “Is it best practice to show learners the learning objectives?

Showing learning objectives: Some pros

  1. Learners want to how the learning will benefit them before they commit time to it.
  2. Some benefits to learning in terms of salience.
  3. It shows that L&D have gone through the process of working out what the learning objectives were.

Showing learning objectives: Some cons

  1. Bullet points of learning objectives are dull – putting them at the start of a piece of learning just when you’re trying to build engagement is self-defeating.
  2. Given the previous point and that objectives are often not expressed in a way that shouts “what’s in it for me?”, people ignore them anyway.
  3. If a learner does not know something, will seeing a learning objective including terms they don’t know only confuse them more?
  4. Rephrasing the objectives as questions that this module will help you answer is just as effective at providing salience (Thalheimer ibid).

Clive Shepherd has described further related pros and cons of learning objectives.

What’s the way forward?

  1. Have learning objectives
  2. Where possible, rephrase the learning objectives in more attention-grabbing ways e.g. “5 challenges with XYZ that the ABC process helps you solve” “How to FGH without blowing your budget” “3 key questions about JKL to answer”
  3. If you feel the need to show the learning objectives as a series of bullet points that Bloom and his taxonomists would be proud of, make them on an ‘opt-in’ basis e.g. have them as reveal text in a click-reveal which does not have to be clicked. If your platform lets you do so, do A/B testing to see how many learners click to see the learning objectives. Let me know you get on!

So why the metadata analogy?

Metadata are the unseen HTML elements of a webpage which tell search engines what the page is all about. For users, this means the webpage is easier to find and more likely to be relevant. If you’re interested enough in metadata and have basic HTML skills, you can right click on any webpage and View source to see the metadata. 99% of the time you won’t need to see the metadata, but it’s good to know it’s there.

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