Cathy Moore - Training design


Why you want to focus on actions, not learning objectives

What’s wrong with conventional learning objectives, and what’s the alternative? Read more.

Why you want to focus on actions, not learning objectives

Two fire fighters look at a fire
Pop quiz!

1. What do these people need to do?

A. Put out the fire

B. Describe the techniques used to extinguish a fire

Woman working at flower shop

2. What does this woman need to do to stay in business?

A. Sell flowers

B. Explain the principles of the flower-selling process

3. This young man wants you to give him money. Which objective are you more likely to fund?

A. Build a home for a displaced family in Sudan

B. Describe how to build a home for a displaced family in Sudan

Learning objectives are wimpy

A typical learning objective focuses on what each person supposedly needs to know, ignoring whether this knowledge will actually lead to useful action.

Instead, to create elearning that changes real-world behavior, we have to first identify what people need to do, and only then decide if there’s anything that they need to know.

Identify the action, then the knowledge

Many people start their design by writing learning objectives. Instead, it’s helpful to first choose a business goal for your project and then identify each “action” needed to reach that goal. (See action mapping for lots more on this.)

What’s an action?

An action:

  • Takes place in the real world, not inside someone’s head
  • Takes place on the job, not during a training event
  • Justifies a paycheck

“Put out the fire” is an action, because it takes place in the real world and helps us achieve our goal of a fire-free environment. We don’t hire firefighters because we want them to “describe techniques used to put out a fire.”

Follow the money

A lot of us have been told that an objective like “define pathogen” is good because it can be measured. But are you willing to pay someone to “define pathogen” for you? Or would you rather have them “kill pathogens on imported fruit,” such as the apple you’re about to eat?

Actions lead to lively activities

A course ruled by conventional learning objectives like “define pathogen” will have simple fact checks and Jeopardy games. A course dedicated to supporting real-world behaviors like “kill pathogens on imported fruit” will be more likely to have realistic simulations, such as an activity that requires learners to assess a crate of apples for possible pathogens and take the appropriate actions.

Yes, we have to make sure that our learners know what a pathogen is. But action-based materials will go far beyond that learning objective and help learners practice the behaviors that will make a real difference in the world.

To identify what learners need to know, we first have to identify what they need to do. Only then can we determine if the problem really is a lack of knowledge. And by designing our material around real-world actions rather than just knowledge, we’ll create lean, lively materials.

Photos © iStockPhoto

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Scenario design online workshop

Four-week course starts September 2019

Create challenging, realistic scenarios that learners love.

- Four lively online sessions
- Downloadable worksheets
- Personal feedback from Cathy