Do learners really need learning objectives?

Anyone who is a student of instructional design has heard of Robert Gagne’s nine events of instruction. In fact, when designing a course, most of us make quite sure we incorporate Gagne’s instruction event #2: (inform learners of objectives) right away. In our attempt to follow the rule, we often think less about HOW we share the learning objectives and focus more on simply listing them…in that dreaded bulleted list we introduce with the following words: “After completing this course, learners will…blah blah blah.” UGH.

Why do we do this? What does it really achieve? Gagne says we should inform learners of the objectives to create a level of expectation for the learning. By using a bulleted list, what level of expectation are we setting? What level of learner engagement are we shooting for?

Do learners really need learning objectives?! I think they do, but I wanted to seek out another opinion, so I asked a colleague.

This week, I spoke to Andy McGuire, Director of Global Learning and Development in Corporate Human Resources at Cummins, Inc. Andy is very passionate about learning objectives and has strong opinions about the best ways to present them to learners.

Andy says he was first exposed to the misuse of learning objectives while in the Marine Corps completing electronics training. “Every course I took started with the list of objectives,” he explains. “I didn’t pay attention; no one else did either. It didn’t motivate me to learn; it didn’t get me ready to learn.”

While completing his formal education at Indiana University, he learned just how important learning objectives are, but once he officially started his career in instructional design, he admits he relied on the same approach to presenting learning objectives because “that’s what I thought I was supposed to do.”

That soon stopped.

Andy says we should always include the learning objectives. “They have to be there…for the design team and for the subject matter experts…to be sure they are focused on the content that needs to be there.” But he challenges us to “be creative in how we present them” to learners. He emphasizes that we must show the value of learning objectives and can do so in a variety of ways. Some ideas Andy has used and seen done effectively (for e-learning and instructor-led courses) include:

  • Begin an upfront discussion with learners that involves a series of questions about what they know/do currently.
  • Paint a scenario for learners that depicts a “real world” situation where specific knowledge/skill is required.
  • Identify challenges related to the course topic and have learners use/share their own experiences.

Andy says the point is to get learners to “organize their thoughts” so they are ready to learn.

Once they are ready to learn, you can summarize what you’ve done upfront by sharing the objectives, perhaps as a series of questions, considerations, or even images that distinguish current state from future state!

When it comes to learning objectives, Andy reminds us all to “think about the purpose, not just about the mechanics, of what you’re trying to do.”

I couldn’t agree more.

For more information on effectively presenting learning objectives, Andy and I both recommend Michael Allen’s Guide to e-Learning. Refresh your memory of Robert Gagne’s nine events of instruction by reviewing his book The Conditions of Learning. Both books are available on

  • Great Post! It sometimes takes more work and creativity but I love working my objectives into a story that continues throughout the lesson whether it be for elearning or an instructor led solution. If you can communicate your objectives in an attention grabbing intro to a story then you are off to a good start towards an engaging lesson. Death to dry objectives listed out on a power point slide!

  • Very thought-provoking. I like the idea that we need to be non-mechanistic when we are trying to encourage learning. A recent study suggests that engaging people with a seemingly nonsensical puzzle gets their brains moving at a higher level.

    The best lectures use surprise and challenge to elicit engagement. Leading the listeners to discover for themselves the purpose of the lesson seems to be the best way to make it stick.

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