Do we really need learning objectives?

I’m trying to wrap my head around how learning objectives became the de facto approach to learning design (in particular in elearning). Almost all training and learning design begins with a “learning objective” – a clear, concise statement of what the learner will be able to do after exploring the content. Most resources for developing learning objectives include a lengthy list of appropriate verbs useful in crafting the objective. These verbs, coupled with specific criterion, conditions, and standards, are central to writing “good” objectives.

Is there another way? Do we have the wrong view of designing? Instructional designers assume that learning will occur in a course-based format. Yet our learning occurs in a rich environment of diverse experiences – email, conversations, communities, workshops, tutorials, seminars, etc. If instructional designers remain focused on the narrow subset of designing for courses, they will quickly usher themselves into irrelevance.

Our entire learning system is still largely based on the schema that the learner is an empty container that we as educators fill. We talk about dynamic, learner-centered instruction. Often those words deny the reality that our institutions are primarily set up to “fill learners”. The very process of writing objectives states that we know what learners need to know. This may be true in some instances, but in most cases, I believe that learning objectives should be more of a dialogue than a statement of fact. Learners should be able to input their own needs and interest (or personal objectives) into the process. A learner’s motivations and objectives for learning are important. In many cases, they are more important than what the instructor feels they should know.

Highly structured information transmission is more suited for pre-determined objectives (in particular when introducing learners to the basic language and concepts of a field…or any point when learners do not have a well developed base of knowledge for making new connections). Our education system is starting to see less and less of these types of learners. Instead, we are seeing learners entering second or third careers who are often tech savvy, highly motivated, and aware of their own learning needs. Isn’t it time that we consider updating our design methodologies? Our learners have changed. Why haven’t we?

14 Responses to “Do we really need learning objectives?”

  1. Doug Smith says:

    You raise some valid points. I find that it is quite liberating to simply identify a focus area and then when the learners gather ask them “what do you want to learn today” or sometimes, “what do you want to work on today?”. They always have valuable insights into what they need and want.
    While I don’t abandon learning objectives altogether, I do engage the participants in creating their agenda.

  2. We probably do need ‘Intended Learning Outcomes/Objectives’, but that is just what they are- Intended outcomes – not a definitive statement of what will be learned.
    Many HE institutions and degree programmes (like the one I lead allow for students to construct Independent Learning Modules that allow personalisation of a learning experience with the students as the starting point, including identifying what they want to learn about, the learning activities they will undertake, and the assessment products they will produce. At slightly less ambitious level, we also encourage students to negotiate learning outcomes in the modules that we have created so that they can better match their personal learning needs.
    This isnít new George, and indeed fits with the tidal wave in HE towards an agenda of student personalisation and choice. However, it is time consuming and so is at odds with the tidal wave in HE towards delivering undergraduate programmes with fewer and fewer resources.

  3. Scott J. Wilson says:

    Aim At The Target
    The problem in what you are describing is not the use of learning outcomes or objectives … but how we (collectively) have been using them within the context of development.
    Learning outcomes and objectives are (can be) good descriptors of the educational “target” that we as developers are creating …. or of what learners may be looking for. A clearly described “target” then provides the foundation of assessing whether we “hit the target” with our development … or the learners with their search and learning.
    Yes … traditionally we (collectively) have developed educational material at the “course” level … from an “instructor’s / teacher’s point of view”.
    As we move toward developing “learner-centered” material (and the changing workplace with multiple careers that you referred to … is a clear indication that we must do so) … we need to create educational material that provides much finer granular access points to the material … as well as the search methodology to find what we (as learners) are looking for.
    For example, let’s move from educational “chunks” on the course level … down through the “module” level … down through the “topic” level … down to maybe defining learning “chunks” that are several paragraphs long (or any other “chunk” level you want to consider).
    Now …. how do learners find that “chunk”. On the Web .. we “google” it using a key word search … and the result may be hundreds of links … some useful … some not very useful.
    Instead of searching using key words …what about searching a list of “objectives” or “competencies” (substitute your own term/concept) … hopefully we (as learners) now get results that are much closer to what we were looking for.
    What if … among the objective’s elements … we (as developers) also included learning style distinctions … like whether the information will … tell me … show me … let me try … the information I’m looking for.

  4. I see how the approach described to constructing personalised learning experience/s works, and, as you indicate Scott, students do currently access various MDF and other resources from different Universities to help with their learning, be it for information, activities, planning, or other reasons.
    The addition descriptors of learning intentions (style descriptions) to resources seems to be a reasonable suggestion, but one obvious pitfall is that we as lecturers are an individualistic bunch with many eccentricities, biases, agendas, pedagogies, peculiarities, and different philosophical views of the world it is hard to see it working in an effective way in many disciplines.
    The notion that we can describe learning objectives (and associated resources) in such a way that learners as individuals (not implying this is being said here) can create a nourishing recipe from descriptions of the characteristics of ingredients is I believed misplaced as it leads us down a parallel track to the that of the less than desirable one of ëcomputer assisted learningí.
    This ëautomatingí of student learning is an attractive proposition to managers, accountants, governments, and ICT enthusiasts, not to mention the commercial providers of learning platforms and resources. My concern is that it can lead us away from a ësocialí model of learning which I believe should be at the heart of HE. That is students, tutors, lecturers, and other experts in a community of enquiry, supporting each others learning be this f2f or online.

  5. Scot Aldred says:

    George you make some interesting points with this posting, however, I find it difficult to agree with the connections you make between well crafted learning outcomes (objectives) and the “empty vessel” transmission model of learning delivery.
    Some of the higher level learning outcomes in fact can require students to develop and learn through a variety of approaches.
    I’ve also been following Stephen Downes’s (and others) postings with regard to the learner determining when, how and what they will learn, and agree with many of the points they make.
    My cognitive dissonance with this approach surfaces though where the learners are not yet independent enough to make the desired learning choices, or where an institution requires that their employees have a sufficient level of knowledge to operate safely and effectively.
    I think that there is much that course designers can do to build in learner-centred flexibility and still measure the learning outcomes reliably. This can be achieved by designing in student choice in terms of context and outcomes. Problem-Based Learning ( is a good example of this approach, but there are many others.
    On the other Cronje (2000) ( makes the point that while unstructured learning operates in the realm of low levels of constructivism and objectivism (the antithesis of good instructional design), most humans do most of their learning in this realm.
    No simple answer to this debate Iím afraid.

  6. Hi Doug – I agree with your statement “While I don’t abandon learning objectives altogether, I do engage the participants in creating their agenda”. One of the real challenges I see in education is how to incorporate a greater level of feedback from learners (i.e. what the learners themselves see as important). Most of our life’s learning is ambiguous. The notion that we always have a clear objective to work towards is false. Most of our activities involve defining the learning objectives. As trainers/educators, this certainly influencies how we design and deliver learning. Fostering movement towards learner-identified objectives (or for that matter, learners exploring what they think the objectives are in the first place) sounds a bit “fuzzy”. However, it does mimic life…and perhaps we should explore ways of incorporating that ambiguity into our instruction.

  7. Hi Stephen – you commented “it is time consuming and so is at odds with the tidal wave in HE towards delivering undergraduate programmes with fewer and fewer resources” . I don’t know if designing for “flexible learning objectives” (or ill-defined problems (I think that’s Vygotsky’s domain)) takes additional time. I do think, however, that it does require a different emphasis than we see in today’s learning design. Rather than telling learners what they will learn, perhaps our focus should be on framing the dimensions that they will explore in creating their own learning.
    In your second comment, Stephen, you echo my concerns as well – that learning management systems will bruise the social model of learning. I know LMS’ vendors are trying to promote social learning (via communities and discussion forums), but it is mainly an attempt to shape the debate in a manner which fits their existing tool (i.e. the tool shapes the pedagoy, not pedagogy the tool). I have been advocating for a network approach to learning for quite a while…as I feel this will create a more practical learning structure – one where objectives have a role (but primarily based on the learner’s needs), connections between learners are high, dialogue is strong, and content is a secondary component (currently, content is viewed as the starting point of learning…I believe connections and interaction are the starting points).

  8. Hi Scott (Wilson) – I partially agree with your view that “The problem in what you are describing is not the use of learning outcomes or objectives … but how we (collectively) have been using them within the context of development.” Learning will always have a target – either instructor or learner-created. The the instructor’s target (what we sometimes call learning objectives) meshes well with the learners target (motivation and information needs), then the process works. Unfortunately, in many cases, learners only know what they need to know as they move through a process (in real-life, not education. Learners are quite adept at playing the game of learning to meet course requirements, even if they have limited personal motivation). In order for learning to be most effective, it needs to closely link to what the learner needs, or the process that they will experience in real life. As I mentioned in a different comment, most often we encounter ill-defined problems. Life is nothing like most learning processes. For many, part of learning is the process of defining what needst o be learned. So, yes, I agree that our implementations of learning targets is part of the problem. But it’s important to note that the whole notion of defined targets in advance of the process is also a problem. I’ve been critical of “courses” in the past, but only from the perspective that they are not the “all” of education. So much more learning happens outside of courses. Instructional designers need to acknowledge this. Organizations need to stop seeing informal learning as a haphazard process, and start to create environments that benefit both the learner and the organization. We will always have a learning target (in formal and informal learning)…but the learner needs a stronger voice in the process (or at minimum, the learner needs to be taught the process of selecting and recognizing learning targets).

  9. Hi Scot (Aldred), I can relate to your dissonance…and feel that it’s important to clarify my stance on learning objectives. As I stated in my original post, there are situations where learners will require clear, defined learning objectives. People new to a field need to learn the jargon and core concepts. Safety or compliance training also require a structured process of knowledge transmission. The content and the evaluation are both clear. Once someone has acquired the core knowledge elements of a field, they can begin to develop their own manner of reasoning in solving problems. At this level, learning objectives can become a hindrance because they are incapable of reflecting the richness of the real life situation.
    You mention problem based learning – and I certainly agree that it is a viable alternative. With PBL, the learning objective is stated with less parameters, and permits a learner to navigate a knowledge landscape with a personal focus (i.e. the learners life experiences, not designers objectives, are utilized in reaching a solution). I like PBL for this reason. Any learning model that accurately reflects real-life a) content and b) process, is valuable. Too often, I see learning objectives that offer content…but fail to provide process. As quickly as content evolves today (and in the process becomes obsolete), teaching a real-life process enables learners to continue to meet their own knowledge needs.

  10. Chris Sessums says:

    After I picked myself off the floor from laughing so hard, I have to admit you have an interesting point. In my own classrooms I have asked students to define learning objectives as they saw fit. Much to my surprise, many students would toss the question right back at me, i.e., “You’re the instructor, you tell me what I need to know.” This example clearly shows how most students have never been asked to think for themselves. Our educational system is based on a teacher-centric curriculae, thus when confronted with the opportunity to construct their own learning goals, many students do not know where to begin.
    I do applaud where your argument is going and I will continue to ask students to construct their own objectives, but we cannot expect that they will all get it right away. Modelling objectives can prove quite useful. But we must remember why instructor-built objectives are used in the first place, i.e., as an indication of where a class is going. Objectives can also act as an accountability measure; they are a way for stakeholders to measure success.
    Of course, when I think about all of this, I am painfully reminded of how many instructors (in the US at least) have ever taken a course in how to teach effectively.

  11. Kevin Kelly says:

    Specific learning objectives, when clearly identified on each screen, permit learners to decide if they want to learn what is there or if they want to move on to something more significant for them (ie. something they don’t know but would like to know). Also, a specific learning objective permits learners to rapidly answer the fundamental question: Why am I looking at this screen? If the need to learn what is there is present, the learner will stay and if not, he or she will move on. Freedom of choice of what we want to learn can exist only if we know that we don’t know and that we want to know!

  12. Jay Cross says:

    The historical reason that instructional design dogma always begins with learning objectives is that that was required by the U.S. Army when setting up standards for training soldiers to fight in World War II. The assumption that incoming civilians knew little or nothing about the military was correct. Behaviorism ruled at the time. It’s time we get over this. Learning objectives are not always necessary, and sometimes they limit discussion and learning by drawing too tight a circle.

  13. I don’t believe we really need learning objectives. Most of the formal training and education today is presenter/instructor centric. Formal learning accounts for only 20%-25% of all learning. So most of the learning is done informally without any objectives formally stated.
    We need to change to a environment which is more learner centric. Context is more important than content we need to understand information such as: workflow, job role, working style, performance goals, learning orientations, intensions, culture, attitude, learning style & modalities, existing knowledge & competencies. Some of these are far more important than learning objectives. In order to create learning that is personalized and delivers results we need to have a good understanding on the above topics and have a feedback loop available so that whenever these topics change the information is updated.

  14. Jonport Reyes says:

    Actually, I already made some programs with Program Objectives. I presented it to my immediate boss and told me that I need to make it Learner-centered and not trainer-centered.

    My question would be, since I’m just preparing for the training, what would be my program objectvies, would it be learner-centered of trainer-centered?