Makeover: Turn objectives into motivators

Let’s turn conventional objectives into goals that learners care about. Read more.

Makeover: Turn objectives into motivators

By Cathy Moore

Makeover logo“No one reads the objectives.” If that’s true, maybe it’s because we tend to write objectives in TrainerSpeak. In this makeover we’ll turn some conventional objectives into goals that learners care about.

Let’s say that the following objectives appear at the beginning of a course for customer service representatives (CSRs). You’re a CSR. How do these objectives make you feel?


This course is designed to enable the learner to:

  • Describe how vocal tone affects customer rapport
  • Understand the importance of positively impacting customer impressions
  • Describe the 5 steps of the Dissatisfied-to-Satisfied Customer Transformation Model
  • State which psychological techniques can be used to increase customer acceptance of negative information


This course will help you:

  • Use your tone of voice to build rapport with customers
  • Create a good impression
  • Turn a dissatisfied customer into a satisfied one
  • Deliver bad news in a way that customers will easily accept

What happened?

  1. We spoke directly to the learner (“you”).
  2. We turned I-know-it verbs like “understand” and “describe” into I-can-change-the-world verbs like “create” and “use.”
  3. We turned abstract concepts into real situations that the learner cares about.
  4. We emphasized skills that will make the learner’s job more pleasant instead of knowledge that only the course author cares about.

I could imagine a client protesting the eviction of the 5-step transformation model. The model would still appear in the course, but I doubt learners care that they’re going to be learning about some model with a long name. They just want reassurance that the course will make their jobs better.

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20 comments on “Makeover: Turn objectives into motivators

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  1. Great post! I hate trainer speak. I also try to avoid bullet points when spelling out the objectives. I recently described the objectives by beginning a storyline that continued throughout the training course. Johnny the Sales Associate was faced with a challenge that required these skills… It went over well and participants couldn’t wait to get to the next section to see what Johnny would be faced with next.

  2. Yahooey Joe! Although objectives are important, your learners don’t have to be hit over the head with them in the almighty trainer “You shalt be able to…” command..ments. Stories..”set up” situations are an awesome way to do this we have found. And yes, Cathy speaking directly to things the learner WANTS to do …not what the HAVE to do is so true. Can you imagine if a movie you were about to watch told you exactly what you were supposed to do during and after the movie before you even watched it?

  3. This is a good alternative to the ‘behavioural’ objectives I was taught to put at the beginning (and which some of my customers are still asking for because they think it’s ‘correct’).

    My objection has always been that to say ‘At the end of this lesson you’ll be able to …’ is simply untrue. How can you predict what everyone will be able to do? Even if they just mean ‘answer ten multiple choice questions’ it’s insulting. Behavioural objectives are a tool for the designer, not the learner.

    I’ve tended to take it from the trainer/presenter’s point of view and say ‘in this module we’ll be looking at …’ or ‘covering’ or ‘explaining’ as at least I know what I’m going to do. But this suggestion is better, as is Joe’s suggestion above. Thanks both.

  4. Yay for stories! I also like the fact that we can start right off with the story–no blah intro. The learner’s first experience can be seeing Martha discover that she has a problem: “They want the widget report by 3 and I don’t know how to create it!”

    Another technique I’ve seen used is to start off the material with some questions that the learner is likely to have. It’s not a pretest, just questions like “Why are we changing the way we sell widgets? Is there any proof that the new way will work better?” plus a promise to answer the questions.

    I’d love to see someone start a course with a take-off on cheesy advertisements, like an impossibly happy person saying, “Since I started applying the new vendor vetting procedure, my life is a dream! I get instant approval from Central! And all my vendors meet their deadlines, so now I’m getting that promotion I’ve always dreamed of! Plus that strange rash has gone away, and…”

  5. Janet, I’m not sure what would be a good way to phrase the evaluation. I can’t quite remember the evaluation form so I don’t remember if it uses questions or agree-disagree statements. If it uses questions, maybe the measure could be called “Course focus” or something like that and include questions like:

    “Does the course have a clear business goal?”

    “How well do the activities support the goal?”

    “How well does the content support the activities?” (as in “Is there more content than necessary? Less?” etc.)

    This is a tricky area to evaluate but is important to the success of a course in the real world. Does anyone have any ideas?

  6. Heath, thanks for your comment. I agree that the audience and intended use of the materials should help determine what, if any, objectives are listed and where they’re listed. And a story isn’t always the best solution to a performance problem, especially if the solution is more of a reference than a course.

  7. Rodge, thanks for your thoughts. I should have made more clear in my rewrite that I think knowledge-based goals and activities don’t create very effective courses, so I tend to throw them out at the first opportunity. So the objectives that I rewrote into “use” objectives would assume a similar change in the course activities from knowing something to actually doing it.

    For example, I would ask the client if they want CSRs to describe how tone of voice can be effective or to actually use an effective tone of voice. They probably want the CSRs to use an effective tone, so we would go with the second objective.

    The original “describe” objective would probably inspire a multiple-choice question in which the learner picks the best description of how tone of voice could be used. The new “use” objective would suggest an activity in which learners actually record their voice and compare it to recordings provided in the course.

    Usually, the objectives are written before the course. So when we rewrite objectives to highlight real-world skills that the learner cares about, we’ll get ideas for activities that will develop those skills. This can help shift our materials away from fact-based drills and toward more applied and probably more engaging activities.

  8. Cathy – Every year we have an e-learning awards program. (perhaps you’re a judge?) Anyway, we got away from ‘objectives’ as a judging criteia. We didn’t want judges looking for a bulleted list of objectives or the type of blah, blah statements that everyone skips over…Often with the really good content entered into the awards program, the objectives are so well written that you don’t know they are objectives (and neither do some judges). Hence, evaluating objectives was removed. Instead, we look for how well the practice opportunities relate to the skills and concepts presented.
    Is there a better way to evaluate this in your opinion?

  9. Great suggestions all on both the bulleted objectives and the subsequent story recommendation.

    It is all about context too and the way that you will go on to deliver your course.

    I’ve used both in the past and bullet points are:
    – Concise and straight to the point.
    – Particularly useful for time-poor and no-nonsense learners (sales consultants, customer care etc)
    – Effective for product, system and information releases (but not limited to)
    – Rapid roll outs

    Story objectives I have found a hit with designers, artists and creative types as it forms part of the experience of their course.

    Well done and keep the blogs coming!

  10. I believe that what you’re suggesting would make whatever subject interesting from the point of view of the learner, but we must be mindful that the “objectives” you are listing down is actually representative of the material itself.

    For example, the change:

    Describe how vocal tone affects customer rapport
    Use your tone of voice to build rapport with customers

    The objective “Describing” how vocal tone affects costumer rapport is different from “Using” the tone of voice to build rapprt. The first objective (i.e. describing) connotes a learning material that only gives the learner information about vocal tone, while the second objective (i.e. using) connotes a learning material that would actually simulate using the tone of voice to build rapport.

    If we would try to analyze this using Bloom’s Taxonomy (where I believe the writing of objectives is prevalent), the first objective – describing – is in the Knowledge subset of the Cognitive Domain, while the second objective – using – is in the Using subset in the Psychomotor domain ( I think). This is why you’re example of transforming the objectives from “blah” to “motivational” might not be applicable at all times.

  11. Rodge and Cathy’s response to Rodge = excellent points. I believe that a value in trainer-speak objectives comes in coaching subject matter experts and other employees new to a training role on how-to-design training. Without training in training, SME and newbies tend to create lectures and lack the experience to realize that changing a word from ‘describe xyz’ to ‘use xyz’ means you do something different in the presentation.

  12. Hi Cathy,

    Many organizations develop e-learning courses for compliance needs. In such situations, will a client be willing to convert a knowledge-based course into a application-based( read more expensive) course? What were your experiences in this regard?



  13. Anitha, thanks for your question. In my experience, we can make courses more application-based without increasing their cost.

    For example, a typical approach is to use a compliance course to provide abstract information or orders (like “Be careful what information you include in an email because the email could be intercepted”). We then follow that with multiple-choice questions about that information (like “Our emails can be intercepted: true or false?”).

    We could instead write a scenario in which a character includes client information in an email that gets intercepted and show what happens as a result. A quiz could present a different scenario in which the same possibility exists and ask the learner if the character should send the email, and why or why not.

    This could be done with the usual text, stock photos, and multiple-choice questions that we use in strictly informational materials, so the production cost could remain the same, assuming the developers have access to a good collection of photos.

    It might take slightly longer to write if the designer isn’t used to coming up with stories. If stakeholders are uncomfortable with the approach, they might need a little more time to discuss it and review drafts. So if there’s an additional cost, it’s usually at the design phase, and only if the people involved aren’t used to the approach yet.

    Basically, a more application-based approach doesn’t have to be an expensive multimedia simulation. We could even do it with PowerPoint and rapid development tools. The main difference is in the instructional design.

  14. Hi Cathy,

    Thank U for sharing your ideas. Yeah, we can improve our courses using more context and examples. And, wish u a prosperous 2008! Hope we continue these healthy discussions in the coming year too.


  15. Dave, I love the Hey, Dad approach. It helps make very clear what we *should* mean by “behavioral” objectives.

    Too often I see objectives like “define X” and “describe Y” given as examples of good behavioral objectives. People say these objectives are “behavioral” because they can be measured–did the learner correctly define X on the quiz? In that sense, they are better than objectives like “understand X.”

    But “define” and similar objectives are really useful only if the learner’s job actually requires them to regularly “define X” (maybe they’re a reference librarian who’s asked about X all the time). Otherwise, I push for real-life application objectives like “use X” or “create Y”–the kind of behavior that Dad would be proud to see.

  16. I believe the Mager-style behavioral objective emerged because of the bog of half-baked, ill-conceived know / understand / be-aware-of “objectives” that used to characterize training in the business world. (Thank God THOSE days are over, huh?)

    Depending on the desired performance and its conditions, you can still sharpen your design by making sure that the content and especially activities help people achieve the performance when they couldn’t, previously.

    I think of what Cathy’s talking about as learner objectives. “You’ll adapt existing financial reports and create your own” might be good enough for people learning Excel.

    To communicate clearly with your client (meaning, the managers of the learners) you probably need an agreement on what “adapt” and “create your own” mean — e.g., the client provides half a dozen templates that form the basis for plug-and-chug activity; the client provides examples of ad-hoc documents so you have suggested examples that the learners can pick and choose from when creating their own.

    I’ve long been a proponent of the Heydad test as a way of making sure your objectives make sense to the learner. Just precede the objective itself with “Hey, Dad, watch me while I…”

    “Hey, Dad, watch me while I create a style sheet so I can update my web pages easily”

    (as opposed to “Hey, Dad, watch me while I understand principles of CSS”)

  17. Rodge, thanks for your response. I think my presentation unfortunately blurred the distinction between the objectives that instructional designers use when designing stuff and the ones that we present to learners.

    Clearly, IDs need to use rigorously developed objectives. I push for ones that inspire activities based in the real world, whether these activities are inexpensive multiple-choice questions (choose the most appropriate email to send) or more expensive simulations (actually write an appropriate email).

    The precise wording of the ID’s objective will vary slightly depending on the tool being used and the activities it supports. If the development tool restricts us to MC questions, we’ll say “When presented with inappropriate and appropriate wording for an X email, choose the appropriate wording” or something like that. If we can go with a simulation, the ID objective will be something more like “Write an appropriate email for….”

    As you point out, the learners don’t care about these fine distinctions –they just want to know what the course will do for them. So I agree that your marketing-style approach is great, because it identifies what the learner will be able to *do* at the end of the course and presents it in a way that highlights what they care about.

    Similarly, if we offer the learners a bulleted list of objectives, I think they should emphasize what the learner will be able to do in the real world. This means the wording might differ from the wording used by the ID when designing the material. The ID might say, “When presented with inappropriate and appropriate wording for an X email, choose the appropriate wording.” The goal as presented to the learner might say, “Write X emails with confidence.”

    At the same time, when the ID is choosing objectives, I think it’s best for them to try to use objectives that as much as possible emulate what the learner will be doing in the real world. So when we’re designing the course, it can be helpful to think, “How would I describe this objective to the learner in a way that will make the learner care? Can I get close to that wording in my design? Can I develop an activity that will support such an objective?” and so forth.

  18. Hm, I see your point about real-life, application objectives because the material that is build around them will inevitable be more more engaging for the learner; and we all know that engaging learning environment = learning success.

    But going from your example where the learner is asked to defend his decision to email or not, the objective will still be up to the “explain” level, (e.g. determine and explain ways at which to deal with dissatisfied customers) and not “turn a dissatisfied customer into a satisfied one” because the material itself is all about “choosing” the most applicable action and “explaining” one’s decision.

    Maybe I’m just driving at clearly stating objectives and then embedding motivation in the material itself. Using the above example, I might show the objectives at the start of the module as part of a paper (or a blended solution, if you prefer) and then use advertisement-type slides/pages(?) in the introduction, example:

    “What do you do when this happens to you…

    … missent data to a customer.
    …(other scenario)
    …(other scenario)

    …Learn all these and more with..

    …(Name of the Module)!

    or something like it.;p Anyway, I’m just a stickler for objectives because I do tons of professional training regulations/competency-based curricula for jobs, and I always am strict when assessing learning material with the proposed objectives.

  19. Rodge,

    I can’t argue with the value that objective can have in helping match your training to the performance setting — though that’s “can,” not “inevitably will.”

    In the customer-problem scenario, I see “choosing an action” and “explaining your choice.” These are connected to a (possibly mythical) transformation of a dissatisfied customer to a satisfied one, something that may not always be possible.

    And if in the real world that’s okay — if management is bright enough to recognize appropriate or acceptable choices, despite the lack of satisfaction — then that’s probably worth cranking into the training.

    “Sometimes we can’t make the customer happy. Mr. Jawclench still wants the shop to waive all the labor charges for his car’s body work. You’ve (done A, B, and C), which is about as good as it gets. As VP of service, I thank you for staying calm. We’ll do the best we can for Mr. Jawclench, and if you treat everyone this way, we’ll have a lot more satisfied customers.”

  20. Lead-in texts are no less important than the objective (with or without bullets) themselves. As an instructional designer, one can never be certain whether the objectives will actually materialize into results. The e-learning product can at best simulate an environment in which training is potentially most effective, but the onus of making best use of what is taught lies on the learners.

    In this regard, I think the lead-in text, ‘This course will help you:’ is more appropriate than ‘This course is designed to enable the learner to:’

    Firstly, the second lead-in text keeps the learner out of focus, which, I believe, is a cardinal sin in any type of teaching. Such indirectness can only lead the learners into believing that the teacher is not willing to address them directly. Maintaining such a distance with the learners can be disastrous, as this can only make the learner come under the impression that the teacher is not confident of and not responsible for the teach.

    Moreover, the second lead-in text seems to be directed at the entity entitled with the responsibility of approving the e-learning product. This is simply not on, as it is the learners who are the users of the e-learning product. Whatever business interests the e-learning vendor and the buyer of the e-learning product may be having, it ultimately boils down to the teacher-student relationship—the instructional designer-subject matter expert, and the learner in the e-learning environment.

    The first lead-in text, on the contrary, addresses the learners directly, catches their attention immediately and wins their confidence at the onset. It gives the learners the sense that they have to do things on their own. The e-learning product, which is replacing a conventional teacher, physically present before the learners or delivering the instruction by such media as telephone, instant messaging etc., can only provide the required assistance for achieving the objectives.

    A simple and direct lead-in text can help learners come out of the sense of amazement created by the graphical and technical finesse of the product. Often, the visually pleasing look-n’-feel of the product can lead the learners, especially if they aren’t accustomed to or long cut-off from e-learning or any type of formal, organized teaching can lead the learners into being under the impression that the effort required on their part to learn a particular thing is reduced by the e-learning product. E-learning can only make teaching effective and uniformly reusable. The only reduction in effort on the learner’s part can come from increasing the efficiency of the teacher—a role taken over by the e-learning product in the e-learning domain.

    So, e-learning is about helping learners, as distinct from enabling them, to do to such and such things. The learners are still all living beings, human beings to be particular, and none can really enable them to do to such and such things. The e-learning product is not enabling the learners to perform a particular function; rather, it’s helping them to enable themselves to perform the function—simply ‘helping’ them to perform the function—to avoid verbosity.

    So, it’s learner first. That’s why it’s e-learning and not e-teaching. Just as the approach and the treatment should be consistent throughout the course, the supreme importance of the learner should also be maintained everywhere in the course—the lead-in text of the objective(s) being no exception.