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7 reasons why we need to kill boring learning objectives

Boring learning Objectives are a surefire way to kill learning before it has even started. Imagine if every movie started with a list of objectives.

In his role as Learning Pool Non-Executive Director, Donald Clark often challenges organisations to reflect on how they deliver their learning and development as a first step to improve their offering. His latest blog post is testament to this:

At the end of this course you will ”zzzzzzzzz…….”. Learning objectives are a surefire way to kill learning before it has even started.

Imagine if every movie started with a list of objectives: “in this film you will watch the process of a ship sail from Southampton, witness the catastrophic effect of icebergs on shipping, witness death at sea but understand that romance will be provided to keep you engaged”. Imagine Abraham Lincoln listing his objectives before delivering the Gettysburg Address. Imagine each episode of Breaking Bad starting with its objectives. It makes NO sense.

1. First impressions matter

We know that people make very quick judgments of other people, often in a matter of seconds, and if you as a teacher are forced to do this prescriptive, unnatural act before you get a chance to put yourself across as an expert, practitioner and teacher, you will have got off to the worst possible start. To force teachers and lecturers to state learning outcomes at the start of every session is to be over-prescriptive.

2. False start

Anyone who knows anything about speaking, writing for TV or film, designing web sites or games or any form of content that needs to keep an audience engaged, knows that immediate engagement matters. If those first impressions are a bureaucratic list of objectives or targets, framed in teacher or training-speak, you’ll have set the wrong dull tone. It’s a behaviourist approach at odds with what we know about motivation, engagement and attention.

3. Attention killer

Let’s take just one example, the phenomenon of arousal or attention. Arouse people at the start and they will remember more. Yet if the first experience many learners have is a detailed registration procedure followed by a dull list of learning objectives, attention is more likely to fall than rise. There is a strong argument for emotional engagement at the start of the learning experience, not a jargon-like list of objectives.

4. Gagne misapplied

There’s always a villain and in this case it’s Gagne. ‘Stating the objectives’ was the second in his nine steps of instruction. Unfortunately few remember that the first step was ‘Gaining attention’ THEN ‘Stating objectives’. Most start by stating objectives putting the second step first. In any case, I have serious doubts about including the second step at all. Indeed, this nine-step approach, as I have previously stated, tends to produce formulaic, often uninspiring and over-long courses.

5. Over-prescriptive behaviourism

It is important that teachers come across in a way that they feel comfortable with. Education and training has a habit of using theory, in this case 50-year-old theory, that simply refuses to budge and gets fossilized into prescriptive rules that constrict teaching and learning. The problem with this older theory is that it came when both the theorists and teacher-training world was dominated by behaviourism. It’s time we moved on.

6. Little learning a dangerous thing

Even if this were a good practice, it’s not easy and few have the experience to write objectives well. They end up being short and imprecise lists full of fuzzy terms such as ‘understand’, ‘know’, ‘learn’, ‘be aware of’, ‘appreciate’ and so on. Writing a good objective in terms of actual performance, with the pre-requisite conditions (tools, conditions, presumptions), actual performance in terms of what the learners will know or be able to do and the measurable criterion such as time and so on, is not easy.

7. Time wasted

How much time is currently wasted by teachers and designers thinking about writing and delivering learning objectives. Even worse, how much learners’ time is wasted reading them. Even worse, how much attention and motivation is lost in learners by being made to sit through this bureaucratic stuff? My guess, especially if teachers, lecturers, instructors and trainers do this at the start of every lesson, lecture or module, that the waste is in the many, many millions.

Better to top and tail

Rather than state learning objectives, we’d be much better focusing on productive techniques that focus on improved retention. For example, to ‘top and tail’ lectures, modules etc. so that reinforcement of learning takes place through spaced-practice. Explicit learning objectives are over-prescriptive for teachers and unnecessary for learners, doing more to hinder than help learning.


Note that I’m not criticising the use of learning objectives or learning outcomes, as defined by Mager, in the design of courses. That’s a skill and practice that’s far too often absent in learning professionals. My arguments focus on boring learning objectives made explicit to learners at the start of a course.

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