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

By Cathy Moore

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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47 comments on “Why you want to focus on actions, not learning objectives

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  1. A quick glance through the NVQ standards for our learners suggest that even that champion of practical learning, City & Guilds hasn’t “got” this yet!

  2. Everyone, thanks for your comments. I was intentionally inflammatory (!) in the post to generate discussion. Some points:

    — My main concern is that the way I was taught ID and the way I often see it done is to start by writing lots of learning objectives. There’s often no analysis. We immediately assume the problem is a knowledge gap. What if the problem is a lack of tools or a faulty SOP? Or the knowledge needed could be less than we assume: What if they know perfectly well what a pathogen is but don’t know how to test for them on apples?

    — I think objectives at the beginning of material are extremely useful–just not phrased in “trainer speak.” I like to see them listed as benefits to the learner, as in “You’ll be able to quickly calm angry callers.”

    — I agree that everyone needs to understand the big picture of what they’re doing. But first we need to identify what exactly we need them to do (put out a fire in a house) and ***why they’re not doing it*** (might not be a simple lack of knowledge!). Only then can we identify how “training” can help, including what they need to know (how to recognize the types of fires likely to be found in a house, how to extinguish each, when to give up and run, etc.).

    Often I see what seems to be a lot of assumptions–that to put out a fire in a house, a person must know the history of fire-fighting, be able to answer multiple-choice quizzes about the definition of terms that firefighters don’t actually use in the field, etc.

    I just returned from interviewing soldiers who had recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. They had plenty to say about the usefulness or lack thereof of the cultural training materials they had been given. Many of the materials that had been intended to give them knowledge of the local culture turned out to be (1) inaccurate for the region in which the soldiers had been deployed, (2) delivered in a way that wasn’t useful in the field, or (3) easily forgotten because it was a bunch of information presented too long before the soldier needed to apply the knowledge.

    These problems are typical of corporate training materials that are designed with only knowledge in mind and without enough understanding of what the learners actually need to do on the job and the conditions in which they’ll be doing it.

    — I agree that a lot of instructional design as it’s currently practiced has been influenced by thinkers in higher education. Since in higher ed the goal really is to get knowledge into people’s brains and not necessarily to have them use that knowledge, it makes sense that a lot of the models and theory put knowledge first.

    I’d recommend Tom Gram’s series on Integrating Learning and Work. His most recent post in the series includes links to design approaches that are based on real-world tasks.

  3. Regarding “inform” materials: I think that a lot of what are currently considered informational materials really do have a more concrete, action-type goal behind them.

    For example, induction materials at first seem to be merely informative: This is our corporate culture, here are our rules, these are your benefits. But there’s a reason we provide these courses, and the reason can be expressed as actions performed by the learners, such as (but obviously not in this exact wording!):

    1. Stay employed here for awhile, because it would be expensive for us to replace you. So here’s a hearty welcome and a bunch of information about how great it is to work here, so you don’t quit immediately.

    2. Get up to speed quickly in your work, so we don’t have to pay you to be confused and inefficient, and so you don’t distract others with your cluelessness.

    3. Don’t sue us. Here’s everything you could possibly need to know so we can check every box our lawyers want us to check.

    There are probably others, but you get the idea. Many courses that at first glance look like just “knowledge transfer” really have real-world motivations. Uncovering these motivations as designers can help us create more effective and focused materials.

    1. Hi Cathy,
      This is my first attempt to create an “e-learning in basic electronics components testing using multi-tester”. I came across with your blog and I was really fascinated with “what to do” technique instead of “what to know”. I love to hear from you some tips on how to make this e-learning that I am starting to develop more effective and engaging. Thank you.

  4. In the first case I want them to know how to put out the fire- that means knowing about fires and being able to apply learning from previous experience and theory.

    You make the mistake of confusing outcome – putting out the fire with the action – which is running around doing things at random unless they have a theoretical model of what they are doing – and importantly are able to communicate that with their colleagues so they can work together.

    Activity theory has a lot to say about the complex nature of activity and the need to be able to communicate being part of it.

  5. I applaud the wonderful use of language here, very meaningful. Learning Actions is a far better term than Learning Outcomes, but both are very different to Learning Objectives.

    Learning Outcomes is exactly as you say, what will I be able able to ‘DO’ at the end of this course. However I like the term Learning Actions much more as it is very descriptive and the end user (delegate) often needs to build a picture of what they are expected or are wanting to DO at the end…

    In my opinion, Learning Objectives are not for the end user (delegate) at all, but are for the trainer, or instructional designer. (note I never said developer).

    e.g. As a trainer you may have the objective to teach someone how to drive a car. Your objective may be to teach them to drive in a safe manner and get to the end of the lessons without the learner killing you. You may have a set of 40 lessons planned for them.

    Their objective may be very different. ” I need to learn to drive this car in the shortest possible time, as I am going on a driving holiday next month. I only have time and money for 10 lessons”

    If you stated your objective to the learner, he may get upset. “The objective of today’s lesson, which is number 3 of a planned 40, is for you to learn three new techniques without killing me!”

    Much better to have stated, “The Outcome or Action from today’s lesson is for you to get to the end of today’s lesson and be able to do…a b and c.”

    I just wish people would stop trying to guess what the learners objective is and just be clearer of what you will be able to do at the end of any particular training.

    Action or Outcome? Think I may change my terminology!

  6. Here’s an example.

    Let’s say that we’ve revamped our brand to highlight emotional benefits (such as we’re trying to be the “cool” brand). But our sales staff are still just focusing on product features, which the competition is doing, too. As a result, sales aren’t as good as we want. We want our sales staff to include the emotional benefits as well so we differentiate ourselves and get more sales–that’s an action.

    We’ve determined that one reason the sales reps aren’t implementing the new branding is because they have a limited understanding of “brand”–they think it’s just the logo. That’s a knowledge gap.

    So we want sales reps to understand and apply this concept: “A brand includes both physical and emotional triggers to build a connection with buyers.” We make this point in the materials.

    If we were focused entirely on knowledge, we could create this reinforcing activity: The learner drags the label “brand” to the correct definition. This is what I see most often.

    But since we’re aware of what sales staff really need to do in the field, we could create this activity: The learner analyzes competitors’ brands to identify their unique physical and emotional triggers.

    If necessary, this could be built as multiple-choice questions, such as “Which of the following is the main emotional trigger used by Wanzo Widgets?”

    This activity will help the sales reps see how competitors have used emotional benefits to position themselves in relation to our company, which will reinforce our point about brands including emotional components, emphasize our need for a strong brand, and give the reps points to make during sales calls. It’s still knowledge but it’s focused on supporting action.

  7. Cathy,

    You raise a valid point here – go for actions not for learning objectives – and I am with you on this.

    However, I am not quite sure if one could do this for all kinds of courses. Some courses might be of ‘inform’ kind (as Ruth Clark defines them – ‘inform’ vs ‘perform’) and don’t really target anything beyond ‘knowledge’ & ‘understanding’ levels on Bloom’s taxonomy. For such courses I think it is ok if we are not focusing on actions.
    Is this what you also meant?

    Lack of budget is often another reason why some courses which should ideally be built for ‘application’ level on Bloom’s taxonomy would end up at lower levels.

    1. One of the cool things about this is it’s a shift in design and writing style. You don’t need a big budget to change this:
      “When the printer jams, open Door A and remove the paper.” (describe how to clear a jam)
      “George calls you because his printer is jamming. He needs this problem fixed right away. Look up JAM AT DOOR A in the User Guide. What should you tell him to do?” (use the User Guide to help customers clear a paper jam)

      You don’t need fancy videos or animations to make the training reflect what they need to do. And you don’t have to actually measure them doing it in real life if that’s not possible. The second example can be the test question.

      In this case the User Guide is where they get the information, and the training teaches them the skills of when and how to use it. If the whole training is just information, then why is it training instead of a knowledge base/user guide/reference book?

      1. Great comment! I’m new to instructional design and eLearning, and this post, as well as this comment are good stuff for my brain…

  8. Great Post!

    This post certainly invites variety of responses.

    If the learner has to learn to do something, writing Learning Actions makes more sense.

    However as amit says learning actions might not be applicable in every case, especially if the objective of the course is just to inform.

    For example an induction program in an organization is most often at the Knowledge level. The course simply informs facts about the organization, organization hierarchies and processes.

    The terms Learning Outcomes, Learning Objectives, Learning Actions call for lot of debate.

    Looking forward to more comments here 🙂

  9. I agree with Neil. I don’t think learning objectives should be presented to learners at all. I think of these as scaffolding for the designer. They provide something that the designer can map and evaluate their outputs by, ensuring that they are following the pylons they established early in the process.

    I also agree with David that establishing the underlying model is critical to enabling the outcome.

    I get the feeling that Cathy isn’t implying that learning objectives are exclusive of actions. I think the point here is that if you start with the actions (let’s have the learner DO some things) and lay your scaffolding in place to support these highlights you are a lot less likely to end up with a conveyer belt of pasted text blocks and bullets.

    Don’t leave the objectives out, but certainly examine the nature of the objectives. I’ve seen plenty of courses where a fairly simple topic included ten or so terminal objectives and oodles of enabling objectives. All of which were proudly displayed to the learner as advanced organizers. This indicates to me that a designer doesn’t know why the course they have designed is such a miserable pile of boring mediocrity.

    Starting with the learning outcomes or the learning actions will help to highlight the design scaffolding with relavent and meaningful activities and practice opportunitiies. Surprising to some, this also helps with pacing and rythm (if the designer is aware of such things up front).

    The easiest courses I’ve built started with actions, outcomes, and ‘the message’. It’s far easier to start with those than to try to gratuitously build an activity or a quiz to pull all of those bullets that support the enabling objectives together.

  10. I disagree with the notion that Cathy’s confusing outcome with action. Besides, “putting the fire out” is an action; “extinguished fire” is an outcome. Behaviors are verbs; accomplishments are nouns.

    “I want them to know how to put out the fire” begs the question of how you determine that knowledge. Fire-fighting isn’t my specialty, but I’m not seeing multiple-guess questions as a good way of assessing that knowledge. There’s also a great distance between stating how to roll on or bank down firefighting foam and successfully applying those techniques so as to extinguish a fire.

    Which relates to a topic Cathy’s well aware of, though it doesn’t appear in this particular post: the criteria for evaluating the outcome. That might include time to extinguish, amount of damage, amount of injury, effectiveness of technique (no water on electrical fires).

    While a theoretical model may help, in general such models hinder rather than help learning when they’re the starting point. Most people learn complex skills best through an inductive approach–from the specific (how to fight a fire in an office, how to fight a fire in a kitchen) to the general.

  11. I think students need to see the learning objectives, particularly where they are choosing a course; the objectives should let them know what they can expect to walk out the door with.

    I think learning objectives are getting maligned here. I learned about both knowledge and performance objectives when I learned about instructional design (read anything by Mager).

    Knowlege objectives are indeed things like “define pathogen” and are easily tested with multiple choice questions. They tend to relate to Bloom’s cognitive axis.

    Performance objectives (whcih relate to the physical axis) define what a student must be able to do, under what conditions, and to what standard.

    For example “given a crate of apples (condition), identify pathogens present within 5 minutes and with at least 90% accuracy (standard), and take the appropriate action”. The “take appropriate action” is also a standard because not just any action will do – one that will accomplish the goal of making the apples safe to eat is required.

    If you write this objective as “identify the appropriate action” it becomes more knowledge related and you could test that part with multiple choice questions. That might be a good one if the goal is to teach awareness of food safety.

    There is a third type, often neglected, as well that’s related to Bloom’s Affective axis and it would concern itself with the student’s Attitudes. At a minimum I would want my students to have a concern for food safety and a belief that the techniques they were learning were beneficial.

    Any course I design has all 3 kinds of objectives, spelled out in detail for the trainers and the students. It’s a learning journey they will take together (even if the instruction is asynchronous) and everyone needs to know where they’re going.

    My 2 cents…

  12. Cathy, I would love for you to post an example course or two, to illustrate your points. I think the reason so many of us get hung up on the “Describe how to…” objectives is that if we’re designing a web-based course, obviously our learners cannot actually put out a fire during the training. So we teach them what they’d need to be able to do in the real world to put out the fire – beginning with the end in mind. Too often though, even when we as designers have a clear understanding of what the learner should be able to DO as a result of the training, we don’t do a good job of communicating that effectively, instead drawing too much focus to the “wimpy” enabling objectives.

    Julie’s post brings to mind an entirely different debate for me… the understanding of the psychomotor domain of Bloom’s taxonomy. I’ve seen this used time and again as anything requiring action on the part of the learner, although it was created for teaching motor skills (e.g., throwing a ball, driving a car, controlling a fire hose). Bloom & his crew didn’t even create learning levels for this domain because, coming from the higher ed field, they knew the psychomotor domain was not their field of expertise. So of course, it’s clear they did not intend for it to be used for all actions. Instead, we have the upper levels of the cognitive domain.

    I’d be interested to learn how other people are using the three domains, particularly the psychomotor. Whose model do you use to identify the learning levels for this domain? (Dave’s, Simpson’s, Harrow’s…?) Also, what ways of measuring the affective domain have you found? Could be an interesting topic for a blog, Cathy.

  13. A very interesting discussion.

    OK, I am going to egg on my face with this post, I know it before I start typing. And all having differing views on this subject is the most healthy part of it. I am always up for a great discussion, thank you Cathy for such a good post.

    Gros (1996) stated that modern instructional designers rarely work according to the theories, they work intuitively.

    Reigluth (1998) asserted that anything we do, however we do it that is intended to help someone learn is instruction.

    So the rules (1st rule is there are no rules) have changed, especially with the invention of eLearning. A bit like running a course wearing a blindfold and headphones. Can’t hear them nor see their reaction. Don’t even know if they are in the room.

    Whichever theory you decide to employ, Wager, Dick and Carey, Gagne, Keller or one of the hundreds of others, the majority refer to Informing the learner of the objective.

    Now we must put this into modern context, Golas and Briggs had a good shot at this, I too have published modern ID papers and run ID courses every month. Do I have it all right? Probably not, but how we discuss the best methods that others use and find work in the modern workplace is what we strive to learn and use. I call it the holy grail of learning.

    The difference between then and now is strikingly simple. Take Gagne for instance, a ‘great’ in my books, but if you look at the nine events of instruction they are almost completely misunderstood or misused by the modern eLearning fraternity (before you yell, that of course does not mean you the person reading this as I know you do it differently).

    Instruction 1 Gaining attention, Gagne never meant show them something with the wow factor. He died in 2001 ans probably never saw any eLearning in his lifetime. He was talking about Reception, make the learner receptive to learn. This you can achieve far better by using Cathy’s idea of telling what they will be able to DO rather that your objective of how you think the theory behind how it should be done. Not to say this is not important.

    In the case Cathy has presented, having the underlying knowledge of how fires work is paramount to knowing how to put it out. In the right sort of fire you don’t douse the flames with water, you use water to suffocate the the material on fire from oxygen and it will stop burning. (OK it will cool as well and we know wet things don’t burn great)

    My point is that Gagne’s language is 40 years old. Hence in those days ‘objective’ had a different meaning to a trainee than it probably has to a learner today. In the same way that Sick meant something was not well. My kids tell me they went to a concert and the band was Sick. When I asked what was the matter with them, I was informed it meant they were great. Get with it dad!

    So as Reigluth asserted if you are planning some learning and you have designed it either with or without a known learning theory backing up your design, if they learn and you can prove they have the second level of Bloom, Comprehension, then you succeeded.

    Julie, like your 2 cents worth… Every opinion in this field is just as important and every opinion is right.

  14. Cathy thanks for starting a great discussion!

    Carrying forward the “inform” example – there is usually some information in induction programs which has an action type goal behind it. Example: “How to apply for leaves using our ERP system?” But there is still a lot of information which would be “good to know” and may not really have any associated action type goals. Example: “This company was founded in 2004”, “It had 20 employees by end of first year” etc. Do we normally get any action type goals for such information? IMHO mostly no. Look forward to your thoughts.

    I like it when you say – “Its still knowledge but it’s focused on supporting action”. It links the cognitive and psychomotor domains – which is something we (as IDs for eLearning development) end up doing when teaching skills through eLearning. There are few psychomotor skills (typing!) that can really be learnt on a computer in any case.

  15. Thanks for the excellent discussion. My key takeaway is the concept of “knowledge focused on supporting action”. That’s what I encounter most when applying Cathy’s action mapping technique in course development. With the focus on limited resources, it is rare that we can, within the training, actually have the students practice the actually skills as they will on the job. This is especially true with elearning, but also an issue in live training.

    Our students (at an agency in the formerly golden state of California) are furloughed three days a month and are less available to attend training courses. This means we have to limit course time. Less time, less realistic practice, potentially.

  16. The interpretation of action seems to be one of the challenges facing many designers, as evidenced by the heap of mediocre stuff we’ve all seen (or participated in the production of — I have been horribly guilty of this.)

    Take psychomotor, for example. How many objectives that we see projected in that space are actually psychomotor objectives? How many are physical manifestations of neck up complexity? The neck up complexity is far easier to execute and assess in a synthetic or self-directed environment than actual muscle / nervous system tuning and sensing. Either way, I’d guess that a minority of the psychomotor objectives written in the past decade are actually defining and assessing psychomotor competencies.

    I like to think of actions in these terms: DO, BE, BELIEVE. I want someone to DO something, I want someone to BE something (role), or I want someone to believe something (VALUE, THEORY). I can’t accomplish any of these things reliably by imparting wisdom through TELL…

  17. … finishing that sentiment… I don’t really care if someone KNOWS something if they are able to DO, BE, or BELIEVE.

  18. Great discussion! Theres nothing more that I can think of to add here! But there is something that struck my mind whle reading the comments.

    I agree that some information do get classified at a know level. But there are a lot of things that could be done by knowing the information. For example, when we are taking about or introducing a company to its employees during induction, we expect the employees to imbibe the information and share it with true figures and facts with their clients, friends, families, et all when required.

  19. In ethics and compliance training we want learners NOT to do things.

    BUT, we want them to be aware of real-world situations where they can get in trouble and the consequences of violations. As far as learner actions, we want them to seek guidance from appropriate company resources if they have questions or concerns. I think these training objectives (for IDs) are pretty much what most ethics and compliance training focuses on.

    My latest challenge is training employees on a company human rights policy. (child labor, forced labor, working hours, discrimination etc.) I’m trying to figure out how we can present the policy without that nagging finger wagging thing– don’t do this, don’t do that.

  20. Thanks for the additional comments! Some random thoughts:

    Induction: I think that providing interesting and relevant info about the history of an organization helps new employees bond with the organization. It supports our goal of encouraging new employees to stay with us for awhile and not quit immediately. In marketing terms, we could be said to be encouraging loyalty to the brand by giving the brand a human history. So I don’t see it as purely a transfer of information–we have a real-world action in mind (“stay employed here”).

    Actions: I think we can make things difficult for ourselves if we view actions as purely motor activities, because then we’ll conclude that we can’t possibly encourage those actions through elearning.

    We can’t, for example, put someone in an actual burning office and wait for them them to choose the appropriate fire extinguisher. However, we also don’t need to abandon the real world and create a multiple-choice quiz asking in abstract terms about electrical vs. paper-based fires.

    Instead, we can create an imaginary office fire and some clickable or draggable fire extinguishers. We don’t need a 3D virtual world for this. We could show a photo of the material on fire or even just describe the scene in text. And rather than “correct/incorrect” feedback, we could show or describe what happens when the learner uses one of the extinguishers.

    A scenario like that encourages the learner to not only recall which type of extinguisher is used on which type of fire, it helps the learner *apply* that info, even if it’s in an imaginary situation. A lot of elearning could easily be strengthened by this switch from abstract knowledge quiz to scenarios. And to design these scenarios, we need to know what the learners need to do on the job.

  21. Wonderful discussion and vivid post.

    One of my students pointed me to it. So glad she did.

    Just a few thoughts:

    — outcomes are useful for us as planners, as we state clearly where we are trying to get to. Is this really going to satisfy us that the physician’s assistant can treat a burn? Are these all he/she must do?

    — outcomes come in terminal and enabling flavors. Do you want your PA treating your burn if she can’t tell one degree of burn from another? That’s an enabling outcome/objective. You got to know that before you can DO the important deed.

    — one of the recent contributions of neuroscience is the importance of clarity of expectations. It helps to know what is expected, what will be yielded, yes, what you will be able to do after investing in learning or reference or a combo. Objectives help us plan and they rivet the attention of our students. They will if they are written in a way that grips. Often, as we know, they are not.

    Thanks so much for providing examples and commentary and discussion that will contribute MUCH to the work we do.


  22. Thanks for an interesting discussion. In my experience, the reason for not coming up with action oriented learning objectives is poor field research. Everybody in the training business seem to agree that field research is of essential importance. But still, it is almost always neglected. Why is that? In my opinion:
    1. Field research is hard work.
    2. Field research consumes resources from already strained project budgets.
    3. You need to convince people you don’t know the importance of field research, line managers for instance.


  23. Thanks, Allison and Anders, for your comments.

    I think one reason we often over-focus on knowledge is because we don’t or can’t challenge our clients. A client says, “I need a course on X,” and we obediently agree that they need a course on X. They give us a pile of content and we create some knowledge-based objectives based on that content because that’s all we have to work with.

    “This deck has 15 slides on widget perturbation, so that must be an important bit of knowledge,” we think. So we write an objective like, “Identify the three main principles of widget perturbation.”

    This is a big political challenge. Many people who ask us to create courses on X really believe that the problem is a simple lack of knowledge and throwing a course at it will solve it. They’re just as focused on knowledge-based objectives as we are.

    In case anyone wants more on this topic: Last week, I added a branched scenario to the Elearning Blueprint that challenges you to steer a knowledge-obsessed client to a more action-based perspective. It’s in the public section of the blueprint on this page (scroll down to “What kind of conversation do you need to have with your client?”).

  24. I agree with David Andrew and his example hits home as I am firefighter in my ‘free’ time. Being a good fire fighter is more about randomly applying the wet stuff to the red stuff – in fact randomly spraying water at fire will in many cases actually increase the spread of the fire. It’s great to think of learning as action, but there are still basic principles and theories that a learner will need to understand before they can successfully translate these concepts into action. I’m also not sure why learning objectives can’t be specific about what actions a learner will be to perform based on a specific training course. I think objectives are important to a learning as it shows them what they will be able to get out of a course. These don’t need to be theoretical, they can be action-driven.
    Kathy, I also agree with your follow up comments regarding the identification of knowledge/skills gaps. I agree that most corporations see any problems as a knowledge gap, rather than determining whether new skills and/or tools can improve people’s ability to perform their jobs in a more effective manner. Could this be solved by creating focused training, informational materials and tools based on functional jobs? Your college grad is going to need training around the why’s and hows, whereas a guy/lady that’s been with the company for 20 years will need tools to improve their existing skills and knowledge. Your thoughts?

    PS: ROFL @ “Get up to speed quickly in your work, so we don’t have to pay you to be confused and inefficient, and so you don’t distract others with your cluelessness”.

  25. To clarify, I don’t mean to give the impression that I think learning objectives should be thrown out the window. I just don’t think that they should be our first step. Our first step should be to identify what exactly the learner needs to do and why they aren’t doing it. Only then can we write meaningful learning objectives.

    Obviously, a specific learning objective designed to support real-world action is extremely useful. My concern is that many of the materials I see are completely knowledge-focused, show little understanding of the learner’s on-the-job tasks and situation, and do little to transfer knowledge to the job, because their objectives are based on assumptions about what learners need to know.

    I agree that new employees may need more big-picture materials than current ones. All instruction should be tailored to the current knowledge and needs of the learners. We can’t create a one-size-fits-all course and expect it to solve a complex performance problem.

  26. I sure wish university e-learning would move away from preparing for knowledge tests toward applying knowledge gained. But then that would probably require a complete overhaul of university didactics… from higher education to hire education? I can hear the cries of protest already. Sigh.

    Love the blog, keep it coming!

  27. Hi, I think the real issue is poorly considered Learning Objectives. I am constantly dismayed at the use of Learning Objectives like ‘Demonstrate 3 methods of extinguishing fires’. In itself, it is a terrible assessment question!

    In this case, surely the Learning Objective would be something along the lines of ‘Be able to extinguish an electrical fire’ or more broadly ‘Be able to extinguish a fire using the most appropriate method’.

    Within any learning objective, sit the assessment objectives of:
    a) Can the candidate apply the skill in ideal conditions? Can they apply the skills in non-ideal conditions? (ie. Can they safely put out an electrical fire using the advocated methods?)
    b) What evidence is there of the candidate’s underpinning knowledge? (ie Can they explain why the can’t use water on an electrical fire? Can they explain why they chose the method they did)

    I agree with nLittle’s post, even within an eLearning context where the candidate can’t physically demonstrate putting out a fire, you can still you collect evidence that a candidate can demonstrate underpinnning knowledge of practical skills.

    Why not give the candidate multiple-choice question where 3 fire extinguishing methods are presented and the candidate has to choose the correct method for extinguishing an electrical fire. Or they are presented with the key steps and have to place them in the correct order.

    The real problem I see is that developers confuse Learning Objectives with Assessment Objectives. Learning Objectives if written correctly should really inform the Learner and state clearly what they can expect out of the course.

  28. Your right how can anyone help if they don’t know what to do. Learning is important, but how to get from point A to point B is essential to making progress. If you stop at the first point all you know is what they need but have no idea how to meet those needs.

  29. What a fantastic discussion. There are so many points I agree with in partcular Neil’s and Julie’s. Student want to see what the learning outcomes are when they select their course to determine relevance and to gain understanding of a qualification. I also agree that some of our language needs to change. In my classroom I have always presented a list of actions for a session rather pointing to performance criteria or learning outcomes. I want my students to commit to a session and see its value.

  30. This has been a relevant read for an eLearning newbie. The new vocabulary – learning actions – will certainly add a measure to any mapping that I do in the future. As I consider your initial post, I am also pondering these key comments:
    1) Learning Actions is a far better term than Learning Outcomes, but both are very different to Learning Objectives [ Neil – Aug 5]
    2) The real problem I see is that developers confuse Learning Objectives with Assessment Objectives. Learning Objectives if written correctly should really inform the Learner and state clearly what they can expect out of the course [Jennifer – Aug 19].

    Thank you for this blog. I am confident it will steer me in the right direction.

  31. great post and interesting to see the learning outcomes presented in this way. The images also make you think much more about the language that is being used.

  32. I found this concept to be a very interesting one. I see the reasoning behind focusing on actions instead of objectives. If the objective is the thing which you want to accomplish it should be the main focus when designing. I often find the need to make sure I stay focused on the correct goal when I am trying to accomplish something. It is very easy to get distracted when you focus on abstract ideas and thoughts instead of the real goal that I want to get to. The way you laid out examples truly made sense to me. I learn much better when there are realistic situations involved. I think this is true of the average person because they are better able to remember information that is relative to them and realistic situations give you the ability to make the information relative to you because it takes it out of the realm of being and idea and puts it in a place that is real.

  33. I like the questions you pose, and the trends in eLearning and Instructional Design. Very interesting. I am wondering what is the correct way to type the word eLearning? I have seen:
    I give up. Which is correct? Who decides which is correct?

    I look forward to following your post.
    Have a wonderful day.

  34. Cathy,

    Thank you for the insight on “Why you want to focus on actions, not learning objectives.” I agree that connecting education with real-life issues or problems brings to life the knowledge, skill, and execution necessary to achieve learning objectives.

    For the last several years, teachers where I work have been focusing on designing learning objectives, many of which read like stereo instructions. We are a school of collaboration and our students take common assessments, usually taking shape as objective tests at the end of units, quarters, and semesters. These objective tests, typically taken on bubble sheets, provide a one in four chance for students to demonstrate (guess) their knowledge and skill—not at all connected to the real world. While our curriculum drives skills, many our assessments are nothing close to practical and do not, in my opinion, accurately identify whether students truly own the knowledge or the skill.

    What I feel teachers are not realizing, and what you have helped make clear, is that by beginning with the action you want students to do, the lesson objectives will pretty much write themselves. The action/goal would help the teacher identify what students would actually need to know and demonstrate, thus, creating the learning objectives. If the material you cover in class included marketing and advertising, for example, students at my school would most likely take a Scantron test that would include identifying terms about marketing and advertising, recognizing material from class readings and/or lectures, and filling in the bubble sheet correctly so that the machine can grade it quickly and accurately. However, all the answers would be somewhere on the test and students could guess and pass.

    On the other hand, if we followed your advice and focused on actions, rather than on learning objectives, students would have to demonstrate their knowledge of the class material—including their understanding of certain concepts and terms covered in the course material. The assessment would then be something like “Design a marketing campaign for a product created for children six to ten years old.” A task like that would require students to demonstrate techniques advertisers employ to a target audience, and formulate strategies learned during the unit which promotes product sales, which is a very real-world task. Since this is a hands-on activity, which can utilize technology, student “buy in” is much stronger and peer evaluation can even come into play. Thus, student retention of knowledge and skill is much stronger. I believe students would remember the marketing campaign they created in school before they remember the multiple-choice test they took.

    Apart from sharing your blog with colleagues, and continuing to have students produce something from their learning, do you have any suggestions on how to approach the topic with my colleagues?

  35. Joseph, thanks for your thoughtful comment. And thanks for summarizing so clearly what I was trying to say: “by beginning with the action you want students to do, the lesson objectives will pretty much write themselves.”

    I agree that having students actually develop a marketing campaign would be a far better measure of what they’ve learned and would help them retain it. I think moving to this approach requires a huge cultural shift, and in the US at least, we seem to be moving in the opposite direction.

    If you need ammunition to argue for a problem-based approach to instruction, you might like this Newsweek article. It describes how our kids are becoming measurably less creative and unable to solve problems due to standardization, and it has a detailed example of a project-based approach to instruction that had great results.

    If for some reason it’s impossible to use projects to evaluate students’ learning, a tiny step in a more hands-on direction could be to rewrite the multiple-choice assessment questions so they’re asking about complex scenarios rather than asking students to recognize facts.

    For example, a question could describe a marketing campaign for a product and ask students what basic marketing principle the campaign is violating, or ask them to identify the main weakness in the campaign, or have them identify the next step the marketers should take. This way it’s still a “standardized” test that can be scanned, but at least it’s asking students to *apply* their knowledge to some minimal extent.

  36. Hi Cathy
    I agree that we should focus on the actions…and maybe this suggested change in terminology might help people to focus on that. But I disagree that Learning Objectives are ONLY knowledge. I write plenty of learning objectives (outcomes – whichever terms you prefer) that are actions… plan a training session, deliver training, review training, and I have seen many others do the same. Just because they are referred to as outcomes or objectives doesn’t mean they do not focus on the job tasks that need to be completed.

  37. Hi Cathy,

    Great post, as usual. I’m in the midst of a change of teaching concepts going on in EFL/ESL and there’s a lot of resistance. At teh moment, if you offer a seminar on task based learning, for instance, the uptake is very small.

    The idea of action over knowledge is by no means new. Nietsche put a similar concept so well in his critical essay, “ON THE USE AND ABUSE OF HISTORY FOR LIFE”:

  38. On July 12th Cathy said: “I agree that having students actually develop a marketing campaign would be a far better measure of what they’ve learned and would help them retain it. I think moving to this approach requires a huge cultural shift, and in the US at least, we seem to be moving in the opposite direction.”

    Personally I am all for a cultural shift that will cause fellow human beings, both children and adults, to think more clearly and reasonably and better able to apply knowledge to their lives/jobs! I will do all I can to contribute to making that shift occur. It is needed both in the corporate world and in the education world.

    My first responsibility is to make the shift in my own thinking and behavior, and to base my learning efforts on achieving desired actions, not just filling my head with more knowledge with no measurable change in how I do things.

    As an eLearning developer, I am committed to create eLearning that is based on a business goal and the actions required to meet that goal. Honestly, it is the right thing to do. Since the day I first heard Cathy’s message, I am no longer able to settle and passively create ineffective training. I feel like cataracts were peeled off my eyeballs and now I can see! I applaud all before me who have made the commitment to make the shift within themselves and have made progress. I believe it will make a difference, one person at a time.

  39. This blog has many interesting and useful posts and responses. As I found this particular post, it caught my attention not only the post itself but how many responses it has provoked from the community.

    The process of learning something new is measured by being able to do, express or show someone or ourselves that we are capable of reproducing that new knowledge. Our behavior is different because of integrating that new knowledge (Smith, 1999) and changing behavior should be our goal for our students as providers of that new information.

    While I design my Spanish classes for children, the first thing I do is ask the parents, who are seeking the class for them, how much exposure to Spanish the kids have had. This helps me establish how much prior knowledge they have of the language. However, my first interaction with the students becomes more valuable to me as I can see their reactions to me speaking in Spanish to them. After all, as stated by Ambrose, Bridges & DiPietro “not all prior knowledge provides an equally solid foundation for new learning”(2010, p.13). As I have parents who state that kids have taken 3 Spanish courses and still do not express him or herself with the basic greetings in Spanish. And just as well, there are those kids who have not taken any courses but just watched some bilingual T.V. program and yet, they express themselves with more vocabulary in Spanish.

    As I begin these kind of classes, having pre-determined learning objectives go hand in hand with the actions I will guide students to take to use the language. The students’ experiences is a starting point for me as we learn best by doing, and parents want to hear their kids speak Spanish. So in this sense, my planning vs. my doing might differ sometimes but the need to have both “learning objectives” and a “focus on actions” is present all the time.

    The learning objectives might be geared towards the parents who rightly so, want to have a clear picture of what I am going to be “teaching”. Whereas the actions will be my focus with students who want to see immediate usage and value to the Spanish class at the same time as they want to have fun. Therefore I would not begin with grammatical structures or verb conjugation for them to memorize. Instead, learning how to say good morning, good afternoon or good evening might be more important as an action.


    Smith, M. K. (1999). Learning theory. The encyclopedia of informal education. Retrieved from

    Ambrose, Susan A.; Bridges, Michael W.; DiPietro, Michele. (2010). How Learning Works : Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching.

  40. Great post. You may also want to check out the work of Dr. Jane Vella in developing what she calls “Achievement-Based Objectives” (ABOs). This approach would be compatible with what you’ve outlined. ABOs are one of the 9 steps of design that I use to craft a participatory learning experience.

    Here are a few distinctive features ….

    1. ABOs define “What the learners will have done during the workshop with each element of content to engage in active learning”.

    2. ABOs are more specific than broad “learning objectives” (the Why) in that they are connected to specific content pieces. This helps to ensure congruence between the Content and Process.

    3. ABOs always begin with verbs that describe what the participants will have done with the content. They can help switch the focus from “listening” and “watching” to more active learning. .

    4. In writing ABOs, avoid Big Verbs like “understand” or “know” or “be able to” because they are too hard to verify. Instead, use verbs that describe observable actions: defined, diagrammed, role-played, salsaed…

    5. ABOs specify the depth of the learning (i.e. as defined by Bloom’s Taxonomy of Cognitive Learning or other taxonomies). In general, the deeper the learning, the higher the retention and the easier it will be for them to transfer their new KSA’s to their workplace.

    6. In completing a learning task to meet an ABO, the participants normally produce something – a list, a skit, a diagram, a group discussion – that provides concrete evidence to themselves and to the facilitator of their learning. This allows everyone to monitor their progress over the course of the workshop. You can also include these products in the course report.

    7. ABOs are more immediate than “competencies” in that we want to describe what the participants will do during the learning event (Accountability), not what (we hope!) they will be able to do after the workshop. This is one reason that we write ABOs with the verbs in the “future perfect” tense (i.e. to describe an action that they will have completed before starting another future action).

    8. ABOs should link directly to the behaviour change you hope the participants to demonstrate in their workplace or community.

    9. ABOs embed the learning evaluation indicators into the design. They establish agreed-upon, observable points where you can assess whether the learners met an ABO and how well (Accountability). This can complement formal testing and it often less threatening for adult learners.

  41. This blog is amazing and true to the our everyday experiences as learning practioners. Most eLearning should make its point the way you made yours with that opening example.

    Just like everything that is in a course, a Learning Objective should give learners some point of action and be directly related to what they need to do.

    One of the approaches I follow is to:

    1. Ask what the learners need to do to solve the performance goal.
    2. What do learners need to know to be ale to do what was identified in Step 1.

    So yes, asking trainee firefighters to put out a fire is impossible in an eLearning.

    But asking them to put out a simulated fire by applying their knowledge about fires and seeing the consequences of their wrong choices / lack of knowledge is an effective way to achieve the goal.

  42. I like the term Learning actions better than learning objectives -it has more energy associated with it and hopefully learners at the end of an ID will be taking their energy and doing something with it.
    I do think that before actions occur, there may be a body of knowledge necessary to perform the action, but the idea is very interesting to train for the action first , then the knowledge after. Maybe learners would be more engaged if they could immediately see what they would be doing at the end. I’m new to ID.