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.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Maruja Romero November 5, 2017 at 2:43 pm

My experience tells me that the main problem with objectives is the wrong way in their writing. If the objectives are no writing in a perfect form they are useless for teacher and for students. The objective must have correspondence with the content, strategy, and what the docent is looking for, besides they have to reflect the main objective of the teaching process in that part of the teaching the objective is written for. Is not a straightforward process. Objectives mean a methodological transaction between students and teachers. Many times objectives are written in terms of what the teacher is teaching and not in terms of what he or she wants the students to learn. Thanks.


Maruja Romero November 5, 2017 at 2:52 pm

For that reasons I have written, I think that objectives must be seen for students and analyzed for teachers and students each end of unit or term. Once I have to drop an online course because I did not know that I have to memorize the names of each person talking in a video, and the names of all the luminaries they named in the course. In the first quiz, I failed. In the case I have known that requirement I would have done my best effort to learn that complicated names from my point of view as Spanish student.


Ron Watkins November 7, 2017 at 4:50 pm

The essence of this issue is the failure of course developers to write measureable and observable course and lesson objectives. The most important question they should ask the sponsor of the training is, “What do you want the student to be able to do upon completion of the training?” That’s the course goal. Then through additional analysis break it down into tasks, subtasks and steps. The tasks are your terminal objective (lesson titles?). The subtasks become your enabling objectives (lesson objectives) and the steps become the instructions on how to complete the subtask

Course objectives when well written can be a motivator for attendance and pushing the next button. They are also a promise. You promise the student upon successful completion of your course they will be able to do certain tasks that have real life benefits (the WIIFM). It is a matter of professional integrity that you keep that promise.

How do you know if you kept your promise? When you write your objective write the related assessment! That is how you verify the student can really do what you promised? Sometimes trying to write the assessment will reveal the objective is not well written.

At the end of a lesson (after the lesson quiz), you should tell the student that they have successfully demonstrated they know how to do what you promised.

The objectives do not stand alone, nor does assessment. They are directly connected (promise and confirmation). They are what drives the content.


Col November 8, 2017 at 10:39 am

Hi Viv, I’m not sure if I’m using different terminology and I mean learning outcomes while objectives are more granular but the example sounds more like an assessment criteria to me. As an overall goal for training, yes it’s terrible and won’t help at all. I’d try Apply suitable data protection regulations in a variety of situations (I know it’s just an example but maybe badly written objectives are more the problem?)

Objectives/outcomes are vital for getting adult learners to see the value and to connect the new info to existing knowledge. (IMHO)


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