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Recent research reported that the number one-way organisations are working to improve employee retention is by providing learning opportunities for their teams.

The study also revealed that three of the top five factors that drive people to pursue new jobs reflect their desire to stretch, grow and develop new skills.

With an estimated one million people leaving the UK workforce in recent years and an ongoing shortage of workers, the case for training as a means of retaining your people has never been stronger.

Learning is a vital component of personal and professional development. For an individual, being willing to learn new skills and respond to changing circumstances is essential to be successful at work.

For a business, providing your employees with the skills, knowledge and qualifications they need both now and into the future is equally essential.

Learning culture

Lots is being shared at present about the importance of promoting a learning culture in your organisation, but this is not an easy feat.

It relies on so much more than providing moments of formal learning, covering everything from the habits of leaders, your reward system, how you communicate, and much more.

An essential ingredient, though, is making sure that you have a clear plan for any training that you deliver.

Employee training can flop for different reasons, but most causes of failure are avoidable. Central to maximising the effectiveness of any training programme is to set clear objectives right from the start.

In this latest guide, we explore how to create learning objectives – or more accurately ‘performance objectives’ - to inspire your workers and help build a successful business.

Know how to ‘do’ learning

Organisations that know how to ‘do’ learning have a competitive advantage: they grow the knowledge and capability of their people, who in turn are more productive, more engaged and contribute more positively to the business.

They are also more likely to retain their top talent. On the other hand, companies that don’t provide learning opportunities for their workforce can fall behind or lose out to their competitors.

In these turbulent times, developing the workforce with the right skills at the right time is seen as critical to business success. But selecting and implementing the best learning programmes to upskill your workers is only one part of the job.

Of equal importance is ensuring your learners are on board and this can often be a major sticking point.

Employees can be unwilling to devote the time to training, citing they are just too busy to spend a day away from the office.

Others simply fail to see the point of learning. They might appear to be enthusiastic at the start but is this simply because it’s a chance to get away from the workplace and have an enjoyable day with their colleagues?

Having clear learning objectives in place is the best way to explain the tangible benefits of training to your workers and to get them fully engaged in the process.

Do we need learning objectives?

Do we really need to care about learning objectives? Can a few words really make a difference to the success or failure of your training course? The answer to both questions is yes.

Learning objectives are the canvas on which to design your activities, and even a subtle change of wording in the objective can set you off in a very different direction.

To bring this to life – imagine a call centre invested great time, effort and money in training their 1,000 agents on how to “understand the complaints procedure” compared to preparing training that enabled them to “resolve a customer complaint over the phone using the three-stage process”.

If you were a director in this organisation, or a customer, or a shareholder, which of those objectives would you be most reassured by?

As well as giving clarity to the person designing the learning intervention on what it should involve, learning objectives can also be a powerful motivator to your learners.

Another key ingredient to making training effective (which we won’t go into here) is that people have objectives – real-life challenges that they want to solve.

If you can demonstrate how the training will help them solve their challenges, or help them meet their goals, they are significantly more likely to engage in the session and subsequently implement whatever skill you’re seeing to unleash.

On the topic of keeping things real-world, learning objectives help define what learners are expected to achieve and provide a roadmap for their progress.

They should, in the words of Robert Mager, the psychologist and author concerned with improving human performance,

… describe what the instruction should accomplish, deriving these objectives from the world in which the student will be expected to function.

It’s for this reason that many L&D professionals are now referring to performance objectives, rather than learning objectives. Let’s face it – organisations aren’t so much concerned about what people know as what they do.

Ultimately, the few simple words that make up your learning objectives play a vital role in your training and will contribute to your company’s success.

Setting clearly defined objectives before creating any training content will:

  • Ensure your training session enables people to learn the things that really matter

  • Make designing the training an unambiguous task

  • Ensure you get the right people attending the training

  • Boost engagement within the group

  • Achieve better results

  • Make success easier to measure.

Remember, the better your objectives, the easier it is to create effective learning sessions.

Writing learning objectives

There are three things to include in your objectives: action, context and standard.

  • Action: it must say what someone will be doing when completing the objective, for example writing, solving, applying etc.

  • Context: it must describe the conditions that will exist, for example an irate customer.

  • Standard: it must tell how to recognise when the result will be considered satisfactory, for example customer complaints were resolved.

Creating learning objectives – the wrong way

A senior manager approaches you asking for a course on motivation to address negativity in their team. You trawl the internet, finding lots of good articles on motivation.

You come across a few activities that people have written in blogs and turn it into a training course containing some inspirational quotes, some energetic activities and lots of moving around.

You run an enjoyable day with some helpful ideas and activities and receive positive feedback.

But is that enough? Are the team now more motivated? Have we really contributed to the success of the business?

There is always the temptation to quickly create some training to ‘fix’ something in your team, but if you really want to solve problems then you need to slow down to speed up!

Creating learning objectives – the right way: a step-by-step guide to creating successful learning objectives:

Step 1: Ensure you are working towards things that deliver meaningful impact for your organisation.

What we haven’t addressed in this blog post is the way that learning and performance needs are identified.

However, you uncover them, it is vital that you have clear and measurable outcomes defined before you start any training design.

As we’ve covered in our manager’s guide to learning & development eBook, often the solution is NOT to train people, and instead address the performance need some other way.

If you are creating training, then you must be able to signpost how the course you are intending to design will contribute to the organisation’s performance.

Example: A business goal is to increase overall sales by 20% in the next 12 months.

Let’s imagine that the company have decided to recruit some new sales advisors to achieve this goal. With the above goal in mind, any training needs to contribute towards it.

Step 2: Define what you want to achieve

There will be lots of ways that you might go about achieving the above goal. Besides training, you might want to consider how you reward your salespeople, how they are expected to balance their time, what systems and tools they have access to, and so on.

If you identify that in order to achieve the goal there is a need to develop peoples’ skills, then you’ve probably got a case for doing some training.

Start by defining the aim of the course. If someone asked you to describe it in a sentence, what would you say?

Step 3: Know your audience

Understanding existing knowledge and skills can help you establish clear learning objectives and the focus of your programme. There’s no need to take a lucky guess!

Having conversations with people who are identified as needing this training, and their managers, can help you to understand their particular challenges, goals, frustrations and expectations.

It can also help to identify who requires training and the most suitable type of learning experience. Take some time to assess what your learners need to know.

What are the core competencies they should have and how do these need to improve to achieve good performance?

Example: You want to run a course on food hygiene for your bar staff.

Prepare by carrying out a survey to find out what team members currently know. You could also speak to the managers to see what gaps in knowledge or behaviour they have identified in the team.

Step 4: What topics need to be covered?

Once your training programme has a clear aim, write down the different topics that need to be covered. Start with the end in mind.

The discipline is what to leave out because it isn’t relevant rather than what to include. A fun idea to explain the concept is:

Example: How to make a perfect cup of English breakfast tea.

Topics that need to be covered include:

  • The ingredients needed to make the cup of tea

  • The order the ingredients should be placed in the cup

  • The different steps involved in making the tea

  • Practice making the perfect cup of tea.

What wouldn’t need to be covered is the history of tea, different types of tea and where the ingredients come from (though you might want to make these resources available for those who are curious and wish to find out more!).

Learning objective: By the end of the session you will be able to make a perfect cup of English breakfast tea.

This is fine, so long as there is agreement on what is meant by “perfect” … (milky, no sugar, obviously). This important distinction leads us to our next point.

Step 5: Use the right action verbs, and defining the context

A good learning objective will clearly state what someone can do as a result of the training, to a set standard, in a way that can be observed.

It should describe an action that someone will do in their workplace, rather than a classroom.

Example: Here are two similar learning objectives for training on Microsoft Excel. The difference between them is the choice of verb.

You will understand how to create charts in Microsoft Excel

You will be able to create a scatter chart in Microsoft Excel

The first objective falls short because ‘understand’ is generic and not measurable.

When people return to their desk, what exactly are they going to do differently as a result of the training?

The second objective is more useful because it is specific, measurable and explains what people will actually do.

This objective is improved further with the inclusion of the context. This refers to what someone will have available when completing the task.

A top tip for defining the context is to think about what the learner will be “given” (e.g. “given an irate customer…” or “given three pegs, two poles and a rope…”).

Example: By the end of this session you will be able to create a scatter chart from two columns of data in Microsoft Excel.

Conclusion: Be realistic about success

Remember, that humans are complicated, emotional and unique. Unfortunately, this means you cannot rely on one intervention working in the same way for everybody.

Some people love training, some hate it. Therefore, when it comes to setting your learning objectives, be realistic! Try to find the sweet spot between challenging and discouraging your team.

Be careful about the amount of information you introduce in a course and don’t overload your learners. If you do, they may become discouraged.

Remember, one size does not fit all, and you must approach all learning and development with creativity and flexibility to cater for the needs of all your learners.