I don’t want “to understand” in my learning objectives

by Viv Cole on November 21, 2016

Learning objectives are core tools of the trade in learning design. If you can state “By the end of this course/e-learning/other, a learner will be able to X”, you have a focus for your design and a means for reviewers to check that the learning journey will get to its intended destination. I’ve noticed in a few recent projects that clients have drafted learning objectives using the verb “understand”. This is contrary to what I was taught in my own learning design 101, but I could not Google up much to explain why learning objectives should not include understand. So I wrote this to help you if you get into the same debate.Much of the literature about learning objectives talks about Bloom’s taxonomy. I’ll sidestep talking about its pros and cons in corporate learning, but the cognitive domain level 2 talks about comprehension/understanding. So perhaps that’s why people think it’s ok to use understand in a learning objective.

The general consensus appears that a well defined learning objective should be as SMART as possible. Fine in theory, but try writing a learning objective hitting all of these that is not long and unwieldy! I tend to streamline this to two key criteria ‘specific’ and ‘observable’.


By specific I mean clear and unambiguous.

Take this statement “Understand the principles, key rules and personal obligations in relation to Money Laundering Rules.” Whilst at a high level it makes sense and gives a sense of the direction of travel, it covers such a broad range of meanings that it’s useless.

At school I did Biology to A level and remember being taught about photosynthesis four times, each at a progressively higher level of complexity. At any stage in that 8 year span I would have been able to claim that I understood photosynthesis, although I now know how little of the surface I had scratched. Without a sense of level and/or measurability it is hard for a learning objective to be specific enough to be useful.

Messages and objectives in asynchronous online learning need to be defined even more specifically than for face to face training for reasons such as:

  • In asynchronous learning, the designer has one opportunity to get the focus of learning right whilst in synchronous learning the facilitator can flex the learning in the moment (or at least do something slightly different the next time you run that session)
  • In synchronous learning there is opportunity for learners to ask questions in the moment
  • A face to face trainer can respond to body language e.g. explaining something in another way if learners look confused.


If you ask someone the question “Do you understand X?” and they say “Yes, of course”, how do you know that they do genuinely understand it, or if they’re trying to save face, or just move the conversation on? The verbs that you would use to test understanding are often the verbs that should end up in your learning objectives e.g. Describe, explain, classify, summarise, critique, give an example of…

Why is this happening?

So if it’s not that hard to write good learning objectives, why am I seeing ‘understand’ creeping in? I think a few factors could be at play:

1. Time pressure

It takes time and concentration to specify clear learning objectives. L&D staff and their stakeholders feel that they don’t have the time to think this through clearly.

2. Building consensus

Building genuine consensus as to what the business problems are, which one to solve first and how to do so is not easy. The vaguer an objective, the harder it is to disagree with and hence the easier to get buy-in (at a superficial level at least).

3. Avoiding blame

Imagine you are working in a blame culture. If your learning objectives don’t have an element of measurability, it’s harder to be criticised for not hitting those objectives. If you don’t really understand the business problem enough, why admit to this? Why volunteer to leave yourself politically exposed?

Having ‘understand’ in a learning objective is a false time economy as it takes far longer to change a topic once it’s been written than if the right objectives got agreed first time.

So perhaps an ‘understand’ in your learning objectives is a sign that you’ll need to engage with stakeholders even more closely than you thought you would?

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