Learning objectives

These notes are part of a series for the book.

Dirksen, J. (2012) ‘Ch. 3, What’s the goal?’, Design for How People Learn, Berkeley, CA, New Riders.


  1. Determine goals
  2. Identify the problem
  3. Set the destination
  4. Communicate learning objectives
  5. Determine the gap
  6. How long is the trip?
  7. Summary


Start with the gap

Before identifying the goals and learning objectives, identify the gaps that the training is supposed to bridge. ‘A lot of learning projects start with the goal, rather than the problem, but that puts you in the position of solving problems you don’t actually have, while failing to address the real issues’ (Dirksen, 2012, p. 60). Find out:

Next, define the learning objectives

Learning objectives should be measurable, so saying that the learner will “understand” something by the end of the course is too vague. Sometimes people work around this by using other verbs like “will be able to explain” or “will be able to define”, and this is also problematic because what you really want the learner to be able to do is not define or explain, but to apply the new skills to their job. That is, in the real world most of us are not asked to define or describe things as part of their work. Dirksen (2012) recommends asking these two questions about each of your learning objectives:

Then establish a level of learning or proficiency

Do one of these:

Table with Bloom's taxonomy on the Y-axis and Gery's proficiency taxonomy on the X-axis

(Dirksen, 2012, p. 70)

Write the objectives in ways that are appropriate for the people using them

You may need to share a learning objective with different audiences, who will use it for different reasons. (Dirksen draws on Will Thalheimer’s taxonomy  in this discussion.)

It’s not easy to write one learning objective that meets the needs of all three groups, so you may need to write the same objective in multiple ways to help each group.

Now, return to the gap

With the learning objectives defined, it’s time to focus back on the performance gap to identify their causes. What’s holding the learners back and preventing them from already performing at the desired level?

This helps you pinpoint whether or not the gap can be narrowed with training, and also helps you uncover how long it may take for the gap to be narrowed. In general, gaps involving knowledge (specific facts and how to use specific tools) can be addressed more quickly than skills and attitudes. Slower still are what Dirksen calls “foundation”: cultural, core values, and personality traits.

The goal of a course may include a mixture of learning objectives that are fast, medium, and slow to address. It makes sense to realize that you will not be able to really change the foundation, so anything you put in place must fit the learners’ existing culture, values, and personality traits. Design tips:

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