Forking Learning Objectives

A couple of years ago I realised that I spent remarkably little time taking courses, which is not a good thing for an L&D person. I call this, “eating your own dog food” or as I was once corrected, “drinking your own champagne”. (Perspective is everything, after all). I now make a point of visiting a MOOC, using a learning app, or watching an instructional video regularly. Sometimes I’m inspired, other times I have a stale kibble aftertaste that no amount of toothpaste will wash away.

This week I started a digital learning curriculum on Agile. The design was very 1990s, which was curious for a piece of content built in 2016. It was your bog standard page-turner with over-animated stock photography, no personalisation, and naturally, fully lock-stepped. Note: vendor shall remain nameless.

What was most irritating: Every. Single. Section. began with the proverbial, “In this module, you will learn…(learning objective, learning objective, learning objective)”. Given that some chapters were only a few pages, and weirdly, some sections had only one, yes one, learning objective, my level of frustration was rising. So in the (long) time I had to wait for the voice-over to finish reading another learning objective to unlock the next button, I vented my frustration on LinkedIn.

Specifically I wrote, “I am about to stab my eye out with a fork”.

Turns out, my venting involving cutlery struck an unexpected chord with a lot of my L&D peeps. All of the comments and likes have resulted in some 27,000 views of the post and a lot of robust discussion on why we continue to follow this dogma of instructional design. Some urged me not to self-harm; thank you for your concern.

For many designers, the reason for the droning intro slide is NASBA. Their regulations state that the learning objectives must be in the course description and start of the module. Personally, I can now publicly say that I think NASBA rules on instructional design are a big basket of poop. Certainly they will tell you these are just principles of good design; except they are not. They are CYA manoeuvers. I could go on and on about NASBA but I think my views are clear, especially since poop was mentioned. If anyone from NASBA wants to debate, bring it on. For now, if you are shackled by them, you have to flex your creative muscles even harder.

For other L&D folks, the learning objectives appear at the beginning of the module because, well, they just do. It was what we were taught when we were wee grasshoppers in ID school: learning should be predictable and formulaic. Always state the learning objectives up front. For extra points, repeat them in the summary (because saying them twice makes remembering them nice!).

Side note:…Yes, I do get feedback that my blog is overly negative. I am not oblivious to this. My husband affectionately (?) refers to me as “Little-Miss-I-Don’t-Like-This-I Don’t-Like-That”. However, my rants come from a place of genuine interest and desire to build kick-ass learning strategies. Education is the one currency that can change a person’s station in life. It is why I love what I do. It is also why I get grumpy when I see shoddy design. That is why I wanted to write this post to capture all the great alternatives that were suggested in place of the learning objective opener. Maybe we can reconsider how we introduce our courses.

If you haven’t seen it, the original comment feed is here. These are only the highlights.


The verb nuances between identify, describe, and compare, are of little interest to the average person. Rather than list learning objectives, specifically call out the benefits of the content, such as, “learn to do X faster”. As Paula Galvin said, “Why is this important for me?”. Likewise, JR Burch shared a great practical example of exactly how learning objectives could be translated into WIIFM.


I am a HUGE fan of storytelling. Great design motivates people to engage with a piece of digital content, especially when there is not a facilitator looking them in the eye. For our recent compliance modules, we began each one with a 60 second vignette about how corruption and money laundering impacts individuals. The videos touched tough topics such as human trafficking. These stories created an emotional connection that gave a reason to learn more. Matthew Mason astutely pointed out, “(storytelling) would make it more engaging getting people to lean in and be active rather than lean back and be a passive observer”.

Hide Them

Much like sneaking pureed vegetables into a picky eater’s meal, you can disguise your learning objective list like JR Burch suggests. Place them as a link in the navigation and those interested could view them. I would be extremely curious to see how many people actually take the time to read them, but then I’m big on data-driven learning design.


(Hope you all got the Rocky Horror Picture Show reference there)

Some of the most successful courses I have designed or participated in had elements of thhe unexpected. When a learner tries to predict the next step, their behaviour is modified to simply pass the exercise or quiz. If you add an element of surprise, the “a-ha moments” appear. Are these challenging and riskier to design? Of course, but the rewards are immense. As Mathieu Dumont writes, “Trainers need to stop spilling the beans! It kills the anticipation as most people will no longer anticipate and assume they already know what they are about to be presented”.

Titles, Chunking, and Navigation

Titles should be intuitive and the breakdown of content should be easily skimmed and scanned so a person can go to exactly the page they need (of course, only possible when the eLearning is unlocked). Of course, as I have said before, every time a module is lockstepped, a puppy dies.

Lastly, if your SMEs simply insist on the learning objective opener, look at the data. How long are people actually spending on that page? Your SMEs likely want ROI and the key word in ROI is investment. Don’t waste time on useless content. Sven Ove Sjølyst wisely explains, “If you use xAPI to track one of these “pedagogically correct” pages and make it voluntary (i.e. you don’t force the user to sit through it), for many users you’d probably see an average time in microseconds before they start hunting for the “Go to next page” button :-)”

There was so much valuable discussion on the post and a big thank you to all who took the time to comment. I do jumpy claps when I see smart L&D folk questioning the status quo. Someday in the future, I hope we can drink some more champagne and save the dog food for rescue puppies. Yes, the puppies we saved from lockstepping.