Objectively Speaking - Using meaningful learning objectives to focus training sessions

Mark Murrell, co-founder - CarriersEdge

Mark Murrell, co-founder - CarriersEdge

Editor’s Note - Building Better Training - part one of three: this 3-part series written by Mark Murrell and Jane Jazrawy, co-founders of CarriersEdge, looks at ways to make training more meaningful, engaging and effective through setting objectives, organizing and presenting content, and using a variety of testing methods to check knowledge. This first installment,  written by Mark Murrell, examines how to plan and build more effective training programs.

I write a lot. I recently installed an app called Grammarly - https://www.grammarly.com to help me check my writing and it keeps telling me that I write upwards of 80 percent more words than other people (although I think it's just trying to flatter me). 

Mostly, I write training material about regulations. I read, search the web, bookmark a whole lot of information, read some more, and then interview smart people about the subject. Finally, I gather everything I've stockpiled together, get more coffee and create a new, blank document. And get that little anxious feeling.

Blank pages can cause anxiety for people who write a lot for a living. But for me, that's where a learning objective comes in.

Learning objectives are short, specific statements that answer the question: What should your learners know after they've completed this training? They are simple, but very important in communicating three things:

  • To learners: What you intend to teach them
  • To management: The overall goals for delivering training
  • To everyone: The success of your training (i.e., Did everyone get trained? Was there the desired result? Is more training required?)
When establishing training outcomes, avoid subjective words like understand or know. Use action verbs - words you can observe.

When establishing training outcomes, avoid subjective words like understand or know. Use action verbs - words you can observe.

To give you a good picture of how learning objectives work, let's look at a typical 20- to 30-minute training session on fatigue management. Whether it's a classroom training session or an online module doesn't matter – learning objectives don't care how you deliver training, just what the outcome is going to be.

So what is an "outcome"? Outcomes are the results of your training. What changes in behavior are you trying to achieve with fatigue management training? Do you want drivers to be able to identify when they're fatigued and need to stop driving? Do you have a new sleep apnea testing program you want to promote? Your particular situation will drive the outcomes of your training and the learning objectives that you use. 

As you think about the outcomes you want to see and behaviors that you want to change, you can then begin to write learning objectives. There are three basic parts:

  • An action verb
  • The performance you want to see
  • How you will measure success

An action verb is one that you can observe. Avoid words like understand, know and recognize because it is impossible to objectively measure someone doing any of those things. For example, if someone nods their head, does that indicate understanding or knowing, or simply that the person wants you to stop talking and move on? You don't really know.

You only know for sure that learners understand when they demonstrate their understanding, either by showing or telling you. Here are a few action verbs that will help you evaluate someone's understanding:

  • Demonstrate
  • List
  • Explain
  • Describe
  • Compare

There are many more (google "action verbs learning objectives" and a list will pop up). 
The second part of a learning objective is the performance, which is often a piece of content. The action verb and the performance work together to describe what you want learners to be able to do. Pieces of content for a fatigue management course could include information such as:

  • Signs of fatigue
  • How fatigue impairs judgment
  • Ways of managing fatigue

Many people would view this list as the learning objectives, but they're not. They are merely pieces of content. Add the action verb to the performance and you're almost there:

  • List signs of fatigue
  • Describe how fatigue impairs judgment
  • Explain ways of managing fatigue

Not only are these starting to look like clear, measurable objectives, but you can also get a sense of what some of your quiz and final test questions might look like.  

But wait – we haven't talked about the third factor in a learning objective: measurement. List signs of fatigue on it's own is still a little vague. How many signs of fatigue are we talking about? All of them? That's a long list. Four or five is enough for a short training session (the brain's short term memory can only handle seven or eight items at most). So when you add in the measurement part of the objective, you should have something like this:

  • List five common signs of fatigue
  • Describe three ways that fatigue can impair judgment
  • Explain four ways to manage fatigue

Note that you don't necessarily need to have specific numbers. You can also use objectives such as "Follow all the steps required to complete…." or "demonstrate how to properly inspect…". So, instead of looking at a blank page when I start a new course, I write the following phrase: “By the end of this course, participants will be able to…” Then I list my objectives, which could go something like this:

  • Define fatigue as it relates to commercial driving
  • List five common signs of fatigue
  • Describe three ways that fatigue can impair judgement
  • Correctly identify the employer and employee responsibilities in managing fatigue
  • Explain four ways to manage fatigue

Note: The number of learning objectives you should use depends on how much content you have. My general rule is four or five objectives for about 30 minutes of content. When I'm building a longer course with multiple topics, I use a similar rule – four or five objectives for each shorter topic, with about up to eight general objectives for the course as a whole. 

Now that you have defined your learning objectives, you have a roadmap for the content to include in your training material. With the learning objectives to guide you, you can effectively communicate your goals to your audience, as well as to your management team. Best of all, you have a way of measuring the training's success. 

Most importantly, when you start with learning objectives, that blank page isn't nearly as intimidating. Just remember the phrase, "By the end of this course, participants will be able to…"