Is Everything We Know About
Learning Objectives Wrong?
Imagine that you work for a sales organization and you have to attend a two-hour course on writing sales cover letters. It’s the morning of the training and you’re at the training location. You’ve poured yourself a cup of coffee from a cardboard box. Ooh, there’s strawberry cream cheese for your bagel – win! You walk into the classroom and take a seat, nodding politely to your coworkers. A spiral-bound participant guide and a branded ballpoint pen lie in front of you. The facilitator has greeted everyone, and now they’re telling a funny and illustrative anecdote about cover letters that the room can relate to.
What does the facilitator say next? Which of the two statements below would be more compelling to you and convince you that this course is a good use of your time?
Option 1: “At the end of this session, you will be able to describe the purpose and content of the five essential parts of an effective sales cover letter: the salutation, the opening, the hook, the informational paragraph, and the complimentary close.”
Option 2: “Today you’re going to learn how to write killer cover letters that get your prospects’ attention and make them more open to follow-up.”
If you’re a salesperson in that room, the second option expresses what you really care about, right? I mean, it’s not even close. It tells you why you’re there and what you’ll learn, in terms that really mean something to you.
The 9 events of instruction.
Robert Gagné introduced the nine events of instruction in 1965, placing “inform students of objectives” in the second position. Five decades later, instructional designers still find his process relevant. Perform an online search and you’ll find many articles from just the past few years about how to apply these principles. And why not? They’re easy to understand and provide a tried-and-true template for creating instruction.
Gagné wrote the events in terms of cognitive processes, such as “retrieval,” “semantic encoding,” and “generalization.” These terms provide guidance to practicing instructional designers on what to do during the process of design, such as “stimulate recall of prior learning,” “provide learning guidance,” and “enhance retention and transfer to the job.”
All well and good. But what if we shifted our view on these nine events to view them from the perspective of the learner? What if we stripped the jargon and rewrote them in a way a learner would understand easily? What would that tell us about how learners best experience learning?
Let’s give it a try.
Gagné’s 9 events (from a learner’s perspective).
When you look at these events from the perspective of the learner, you might shift how you approach each one. I want to dive deeper into that second one, what Gagné calls “inform students of the objectives,” but what I’m calling, “Tell me why I’m here and what I’ll learn.”
Learners don’t care about your learning objectives.
Maybe it sounds a bit overdramatic, but learners don’t care about learning objectives the way instructional designers do. Instructional designers need to determine learning objectives because they structure the entire learning event. Those objectives are crucial to know as the course or program is designed and developed.
But learners don’t think about learning quite the same way or from the same perspective. They want to know why they’re going to sit in a room for two hours to learn about something or why they’re taking 20 minutes out of their busy day to take an online course. They want to know what value they’re going to get out of it. Tell me why I’m here and what I’ll learn, in terms that mean something to me.
My example about sales cover letters is a good illustration of this. It’s best to tell salespeople what they’re going to learn in ways that are meaningful to them. The same is true for bank tellers and retail employees and call center representatives and manufacturing executives and software developers and…you get the idea.
I can hear your objection. “But why don’t we give them both? They do need to know the five parts of a cover letter, after all!” Yes, they do, but do they need to know them at the very beginning of the session? Not so much.
Providing learners with a detailed set of objectives like this just gives them a list of information that means nothing to them at this point because they don’t have any context for it. (Plus, listing them on a PowerPoint slide is a surefire way to make their eyes glaze over right at the outset.)
In the example about sales cover letters, I’d advise the instructional designer to keep the formal learning objectives in their instructional design documentation and tell the learners about the five parts of a sales cover letter when it makes sense to tell them about the five parts.
Putting learners at the center of each learning event.
I encourage you to go through all nine of Gagné’s events, reframing each from the perspective of the learner sitting in a classroom or in front of their computer. How might rethinking the nine events change how you design and develop instructional content?
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