Scientists, economists, accountants, and mathematicians all have one thing in common: they all deal in “absolutes.”  They follow rules, theories, or laws governing the objectives they espouse, and they measure the outcomes of their efforts against those objectives.

Instructional designers are guided by these same types of parameters when ensuring their courses meet specific learning objectives.

Let’s look at the process of designing good learning objectives, so you can build the various elements of your course or training in service of a clear purpose with measurable outcomes.

Building Achievable Learning Objectives

When designed correctly, a good learning objective will inherently offer a clear way to measure whether or not it has been met.

To be effectively measured, these objectives must be framed in terms of the ABCD guidelines proposed by educational psychologist and theorist Robert Mager to include:

A = Audience

To meet a learning objective, you must first know who your learners will be.

B = Behavior

Each learning objective must also identify what it is that the course expects the learner to do, accomplish, or retain. Unambiguous behavioral statements will help instructional designers create content that clearly aims to achieve those objectives.

C = Conditions

You then need to specify how the learning will occur. This may also include context regarding where learning will take place, or the tools and resources related to the learning.

D = Degree

This is the standard against which the learning objectives will be measured. It defines when a particular learning objective will be considered successfully met.

Examples of Clear Learning Objectives

Medical interns (A) must be able to correctly identify a subject’s symptoms (B) without needing to refer to the chart of symptoms (C) each time a simulated diagnosis is requested (D).

Student drivers (A) must be able to navigate roadblocks placed 15 feet apart (B) while driving through a dimly-lit tunnel at 20 MPH (C) during five consecutive trips without the vehicle displacing more than one of the pylons (D).

(Notice that, by anticipating the measurements needed to determine if the learning objectives have been met by the course, the objectives themselves contain elements that can independently be verified and separately validated.)

Tying Course Elements to Learning Objectives

To ensure that your courses meet the desired instructional objectives, start mapping various elements of the course (Modules, Chapters, Lessons, Activities, Assessments) to specific learning objectives. Be very careful not to confuse Training Objectives (which may be much broader in scope, like “obtaining a driver’s license”) with individual Learning Objectives for that course (like “understanding the rules of safe vehicle operation”).

For each of the learning units that learners will be exposed to, your mapping will offer an overview of the competencies required, the topics to be discussed, and the activities to be performed.

Since learning outcomes must be successfully demonstrated by the learner, you must establish unambiguous pass/fail criteria for quizzes, tests, assignments and other individual or group activities.

By mapping each course unit to clearly-defined specific learning objectives, and then providing your learners with clear guidelines about what constitutes “success” in your course, you’ll give your learners everything they need to know in order to successfully meet those standards and ensure that your design successfully delivers the information that meets the required learning objectives.

Image: “Bullseye” by Emilio Kuffer, via Flickr Creative Commons License