How to Write Learning Objectives: 6 Steps for Training Success

When you’re planning a training program, you have a specific learning goal in mind. It’s the reason that you have the training program in the first place.

Maybe it’s to decrease unconscious bias. Or improve interpersonal skills. It could be to teach specific techniques for doing a job.

But besides this overarching goal, smart trainers identify more granular learning objectives. These objectives provide direction for smaller chunks of training. And they have many benefits. Learning objectives

  • tell trainees what they should pay attention to;
  • tell trainers what they should be focusing on;
  • show stakeholders how successful trainings were;
  • make assessment easier;
  • and help instructors gain insights into the learning process.

Writing learning objectives that provide these benefits, however, can be difficult. There’s a surprising amount of thought that goes into each objective.

Let’s take a look at how you should go about writing learning objectives. And we’ll give you examples throughout of both good and not-so-good objectives.

1. Separate Learning Goals from Learning Objectives

While some people define learning objectives and learning goals in the same way, many hold that there’s an important difference.

In this view, learning goals are long-term and broad. They lay out the general goal for the training or course, and they may not be measurable. For a project management course, you might have a learning goal like “improve practical project management skills.”

That’s a great goal that will help you focus on what your training is trying to do. But it’s not specific or measurable.

A learning objective is a focused, measurable target that guides your training or teaching over a shorter period of time. You might set a learning objective for a single training session or a unit of training.

For example, your project management course may have a unit with the learning objective “trainees will be able to differentiate between three project management systems.” This is measurable; the student either can or cannot define those systems.

Each learning objective should support your learning goal. If it does, and you keep it specific, you’ll have a meaningful objective that learners can understand and trainers can pursue.

But what should those objectives be?

(If you’re still not clear on exactly what learning objectives our, check out our beginner’s guide to training objectives.)

2. Break Objectives into Knowledge, Skills, and Attitude (KSA)

If you’ve been in the training world for a while, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of the KSA model of learning. Knowledge, skills, and attitudes are the three things you can try to change in learners. To influence behavior, you’ll need to change all three.

So what are we talking about here? Let’s break it down.

Knowledge is simply being aware of something. In training, knowledge is often demonstrated by being able to recite information or concepts.

Skill is the ability to do something. It requires demonstration beyond reciting facts, though knowledge is usually required to implement a new skill.

Attitude is how a person feels about something. It’s very complex, difficult to measure, and can take a long time to shift. But it’s the key to behavior change. No matter how much knowledge and how many skills someone has, if they have a negative attitude about an issue, they won’t put their skills to use.

Learning objectives usually focus on a single one of these areas. And when writing learning objectives, you should focus on action verbs related to these areas.

For example, a knowledge learning objective may include words like these:

  • Recite
  • Identify
  • Classify
  • Infer
  • Quote

If a learner can do these things with the information presented in the training, you can conclude that they gained knowledge.

In our project management case, we may want learners to “identify differences between agile and waterfall project management.” That would indicate that learners have gained enough knowledge about both systems to differentiate the two.

Skills, on the other hand, require more active verbs:

  • Demonstrate
  • Use
  • Enact
  • Compute
  • Operate

Our project management trainees may have a learning objective like “demonstrate the ability to create a Gantt chart for listed project tasks.” If trainees can do that, they’ve gained Gantt charting skills.

It’s difficult to find effective attitude-related action verbs for learning objectives. This is partly because evidence of attitude change usually doesn’t come up until after the training, when it comes time for participants to decide whether or not to put their knowledge and skills into action.

Still, there’s some room for attitude in learning objectives if you use the right verbs:

  • Collaborate
  • Advocate
  • Influence
  • Facilitate
  • Motivate

As you can see, these are difficult to measure, especially early in the learning process. Still, attitude change is one of the foremost objectives of training, so it’s good to include these types of objectives when you can.

If our trainees can “facilitate a project planning meeting that results in an actionable plan,” they probably have the right attitude toward project management.

As your training program progresses, you may want to move from knowledge- to skills- to attitudes-based learning objectives. Or you may want to integrate skills earlier in the process to make the training as practical as possible.

Spend some time thinking about your objectives and how they relate to these three goals.

What About Bloom’s Taxonomy?

Many training professionals use Bloom’s taxonomy (remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, create) when designing their learning objectives. And that’s fine—if that works for you, go for it.

You can choose action verbs and objectives related to each of the elements of the taxonomy.

You might also use the ABCD model (audience, behavior, condition, degree) to create specific learning objectives. That’s fine, too.

We’re showing you the KSA formula here because it’s simple, easy to remember, and covers most of the elements mentioned in both other frameworks. The key is to use a single framework and stick with it so you can continue measuring similar objectives.

3. Make Each Objective Specific

At the end of a learning session or a training course, you need to be able to say whether you met your objectives or not. “Get people on board with performance management” can’t be measured. You can’t prove whether you’ve succeeded.

“Mid-level managers and supervisors will be able to complete a performance management feedback session,” however, is measurable. You can put those managers and supervisors in a situation where they have to give feedback and determine whether or not it was successful.

(Note that this objective is, in a way, a matter of opinion. Some skills-based objectives will be assessed in this manner. I’s often unavoidable. Establish metrics and rubrics that hold people to the same standards to keep assessments fair.)

You can get even more measurable. “Nurses will be able to recite at least 35 of the 50 most common adverse events in hospitals” is easy to measure with a quick questionnaire (and satisfies the “degree” part of the ABCD model).

The more specific you can be in your learning objectives, the better. Remember that each objective should support your overarching learning goal.

Making your objectives specific and measurable (which we’ll discuss next) is difficult.

Download our free guide on how to make learning objectives specific and measurable to get more advice!

4. Plan Your Measurements Ahead of Time

When you’re brainstorming learning objectives, you don’t need to get caught up on practicalities. Set out your learning goals, then think about the smaller steps that learners will need to take to get there.

Before you start the training itself, however, you should have a clear plan on how you’re going to determine whether learners met the objectives. And that may affect how you define your objectives.

For example, if you’re running an online course, asking participants to demonstrate the skills that they learned is going to be difficult. Sure, you could set up Skype meetings with each participant where you assess their skills. But that’s probably unreasonable.

In this case, your learning objectives may need to focus on knowledge and attitudes.

Even with an in-person training, your situation may determine what’s reasonable. A sales team may be willing to take time off for your training, but if your assessments require that they sit down for an interview with the instructor to test their sales skills, you might get pushback.

Learning goals shouldn’t be defined by what you’re able to measure. But the specific objectives that you pursue on your way to those goals may change based on how you can assess those objectives. It’s something to keep in mind while you’re planning.

5. Ask Yourself if Objectives are Reasonable

It’s easy to get excited and carried away when you’re writing learning objectives. And when you’re part of the training and development world, you might forget that people have jobs, goals, lives, and problems outside of your trainings.

Which is why you need to make sure that your objectives are reasonable. You can’t expect trainees to learn an entire career’s worth of knowledge in a few sessions. So “trainees will be able to recite 50 sales strategies” probably isn’t a good objective.

Instead, something like “trainees will demonstrate their ability to make a sale with the SPIN technique” might be more likely for a single session.

It’s difficult to provide advice on what’s reasonable, as every group is different. Subject areas differ as well.

In the end, you’ll have to draw from experience and industry benchmarks when determining whether your objectives are reasonable.

And don’t hesitate to update your objectives as you continue through a training program. If you were too aggressive in choosing objectives (or too conservative), you can alter them to better fit the learning pace of your group.

6. Simplify Your Objectives

When you start thinking in detail about your learning goals and objectives, you can get drawn into the details. You might come up with a long list of objectives, or start outlining objectives that are very complex.

And in many cases, those might be viable options. But you’ll find a better reception—and more success—when you keep your learning objectives simple.

Why? Because learners better engage with simple objectives.

If you haven’t been sharing your learning objectives with trainees, you should start. When learners know what’s expected of them, they understand the purpose of the training. That helps them engage and determine where to focus their attention.

Opening a training by telling learners that they’re going to be able to “convince a panel that X product is the best in the industry” is intimidating. That’s a complex objective that has many parts.

Telling them that they’ll gain the skills to “effectively present value propositions” is simpler, less intimidating, and probably more realistic.

In addition to better engaging learners, simple objectives are easier to communicate with stakeholders. You’ll probably be presenting your objectives and results to executives or clients. Like learners, they’ll better engage with simple objectives that they can understand.

What’s the correct degree of simplification? Ask yourself this: will a trainee understand both the objective and its benefit? If they would, your objective is probably simple enough. The shorter, the better.

Take the Time to Write Learning Objectives the Right Way

This might sound like a lot of work—especially because you’ll have to go through this for each session or unit before you even start planning the lessons.

And you’re right; it can take up a good chunk of your time. But writing learning objectives with these points in mind will help you better define what it is you’re going to accomplish (which is doubly important if you’re measuring the ROI of your trainings).

Instructional designers will know what each session should focus on. Trainers will know which points to emphasize. Learners will know what they need to absorb. And everyone will know how they’re going to be assessed.

It makes for more effective training all around.

Ready to get started? Download our free guide to making your learning objectives specific and measurable to make the process easier.
Dann is a long-time freelance writer with a passion for doing more with less. He writes about productivity and efficiency for businesses of all sizes.