Controversy over Objectives - How to communicate objectives to your learners

Linda Warren, MicroAssist Instructional DesignerWe all know that objectives provide the foundation for training design and performance improvement. A challenge in the training industry is how to communicate this information to our target audience without creating a mind-numbingly dull introduction. Novices in the training world frequently think the only legitimate way to start a lesson is with the list of learning or performance objectives we used as the framework to design the training. My advice: Don’t do it!

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Those of us who got into the learning and development field through formal education are familiar with objective writing guidelines and different types of objectives. When designing training, you create objectives to ensure your training meets the organization’s business goals and reduces a specified performance gap. Writing good objectives is not hard. 
When it’s time to let the audience know the purpose of your training, you have to think from the learner’s perspective. What interests me more than the academic approach to writing good objectives is how to effectively communicate objectives to your audience.
A survey by the E-Learning Council indicated that approximately 50 percent of respondents (learning professionals) read objectives. Do you think your target audience reads your objectives?
As Marc Rosenberg says in Learning Solutions Magazine, objectives help instructional designers a lot. They drive assessment strategies and serve as a checklist for learning activities. He questions how effective they are in the actual training. Mr. Rosenberg observes that our detailed objectives “may be too much in the weeds” to answer students’ bigger questions such as, “Why am I taking this course?” “What’s in it for me?” and “How will this help me down the road?”
An article in titled, What a 9-Year-Old Can Teach You About Selling applies as much to the way we communicate the purpose of our training as it does to selling. The article starts with the premise that if you want to have real impact, you need to simplify your message. How does that relate to objectives? It means that if you have in-depth training with lots of detailed objectives, you need to simplify the list of objectives by summarizing what the learner will know or be able to do upon completion of the training. It’s almost impossible to figure out what a lesson covers when you read a long list of objectives specifying the audience, behavior, condition, and degree of mastery (ABCD objectives). It is just torture for a learner to read that. Do you really want to “turn off” your learner before he/she even gets started? 
In the training world we know the challenge to win or lose the attention of our audience happens in the first minute or two. This is particularly difficult for e-learning where there are many competing demands for our learner’s attention. We need to begin training with impact — create curiosity, tell an interesting story, provide a challenge, and/or let learners know how this training will help them. Does a bulleted objective list do this? No way! In fact, boring words on a computer screen almost scream, “Go ahead, multitask — nobody is watching!” And we all know how effective training is when our learner’s attention is divided.
In Design for How People Learn, Julie Dirksen offers excellent advice for informing learners about their training. “And, for the record, just say no to learning-objective slides at the beginning of the course. If you want to communicate the objectives to the learner, use a challenge, a scenario, or a ‘your mission, should you choose to accept’ message. There are a multitude of ways that aren’t bullet points on a slide to accomplish the goals of focusing the learner’s attention, and letting them know where they are headed.”  
A great strategy for introducing training is to look at what advertisers do to gain attention and make a point. Chip Heath and Dan Heath present effective advertising techniques in Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. The authors acknowledge that marketing techniques are equally applicable to learning. One recommendation is to keep the message simple. The strategy was mentioned earlier in this blog. It is much more effective to succinctly summarize the benefits of training than to list a multitude of learning objectives. Another technique is to appeal to emotions. Cover the purpose of the training in a message about how the learner will improve himself, someone else, or the world by taking your course. Tell a story that demonstrates how the material in the training will be used on the job to make things better. Create curiosity by asking a question your learner can’t answer. All of these techniques have the potential to let your audience know what is covered in the training and how it will benefit them. A dynamic, informative, and interesting introduction beats a list of objectives any day!
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