My love-hate relationship with learning objectives

I think most people would agree that workplace learning interventions need a clear purpose, closely aligned to the needs of the organisation, and should be directed at helping employees to acquire competences that will help them in doing their jobs effectively and efficiently. But statements of purpose or competence are what we would normally regard as learning objectives, which define the outcomes of a learning intervention in terms of knowledge, skills and attitudes. Conventional wisdom says we should take great care in defining learning objectives and then use these as a basis for assessment and design. But only part of me believes this works out in practice. Here’s my list of the pros and cons of learning objectives:

The pros

  • By defining learning objectives, you establish a clear target for you as a designer or instructor to aim for, expressed in terms of specific and measurable behaviours,
  • These learning objectives can then be used as the basis for designing appropriate assessments.
  • By analysing the objectives by type (knowledge, skills and attitudes in all their various guises), it is possible to formulate instructional strategies for each element of the intervention that are based on accepted good practice.
  • The objectives provide learners with a clear statement of what they are expected to achieve and what they can expect of the instructor or instructional materials.

In the highly ‘rational’ world of instructional systems design, this sounds like a pretty convincing set of arguments. But is the world really like this?

The cons

  • Learning objectives make sense when the learning intervention is driven from the top-down, i.e. at the behest of management. When participation in an intervention is determined by employees themselves, then their goals should surely over-ride any objectives set by the designer/instructor – at very least they should be negotiated.
  • Learning objectives work on the basis that specific outcomes can be consistently achieved for all learners, or at least most of them. This may well be reasonable with some types of learning, if only superficially. The reality is that the connections that learners manage to achieve in their brains as a result of a learning experience are likely to be very different from person to person and in some cases highly unpredictable, particularly when the objectives are more sophisticated than the rote acquisition of knowledge or the performance of routine, rule-based tasks.
  • Learners who are presented with highly formalised objectives at the commencement of a ‘lesson’ are likely to end up both bored and baffled. The priority at the commencement of any intervention is engaging the learner, not sending them to sleep.

So where does that leave things? I’m still working on it.

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