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create e-learning learning objectives

All courses begin with an overarching goal.  Assuming that the goal is clear, you build learning objectives to meet the goal.  In today’s post we’ll explore a simple way to create objectives for your course.

Learning Objectives Start with Clear Goals

Make sure that when you work with your clients you have very clear goals.  What do they hope the course will accomplish?  From that conversation, you’ll be able to discern what the learning needs are.  This helps you build your objectives.

The main area of focus is to understand where you currently are and where you need to be.  Then map out the activities and learning experience to get from one point to the next.

learning objectives start here

What is the Core Learning Objective?

Start by creating your main objective and then use that to drill down to the additional content you need to meet it.  Basically, your objectives are built on three critical questions.

  • What needs to be learned?
  • Who needs to learn it?
  • What do they need to know before they can start?

What needs to be learned?  What you teach should be linked to real performance.  Essentially it’s all about what the learner is going to be able to DO with what they learn from the course.  Avoid using words like “understand.”  That’s not clear.  Find the basis for understanding and then build your objective around that.

Here’s a common type of objective: Understand how to edit time cards. 

This is vague because it is not aligned to a real measure.  What does “understand” mean?  A better objective is to state what the learner will be able to DO with the new information.  If they understand something, how would you know it?  Build a measurement around that.

explaining learning objectives

Who needs to learn it?    Who are your learners?  Who is going to take the course?  By including this in your objective you are able to qualify potential learners and tell your client who is being taught.  Are they new employees?  Managers?  At this point you don’t need to do a full analysis of the learner.  You only want to identify the audience for the course and what they’ll be able to do after completing it.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog: clear learning objectives help your client and learner know what's going on

What do they need to know before they can start to learn?  All elearning courses require some prerequisite understanding or experience. By identifying what that is, you avoid some assumptions about the learner. You can either require it prior to starting the course or you need to create the additional content to get the learner to the prerequisite level.

Think of it this way.  I give you a map and tell you to go to Seattle.  First you locate Seattle (your goal) and then you figure out where you’re at (prerequisite) so that you can chart your course.  You can’t reach your goal, if you don’t know the starting point. In the same sense, it’s difficult to teach your learners without knowing where they’re at.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog: learning objectives help tell you here does the learner start?


Once you have your main objective, you can start to drill down.  What assumptions does your objective require you to make?  Those assumptions become the foundation for your sub-objectives.  Let’s look at the example below.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog: learning objectives defined; who's the learner, what's being taught, and what do I need to know before I start?

You know who is going to learn (front line managers), what they’ll learn (edit time cards), and what they need to know to learn it (ACME payroll system).

Editing time cards assumes that the learner knows how to use the ACME payroll system. Thus, if you want your learners to be successful at editing time cards, they need to know how to use the payroll system.  So you can create another objective that includes learning to use the ACME payroll system.  From there, the prerequisite might be that the person knows how to collect the time card data.  Or perhaps they need to understand the company’s time card policies.

The key is to continue to drill down and ask what the learner needs to know prior to learning this new information.  At that point, you determine if you make it a requirement to take the course or if you’ll teach the additional content in your course.  Once you have your objectives, you can begin to collect and sort your content to meet them.

You have a lot of latitude in how you write your objectives.  You’re not stuck in any particular model.  What’s critical is that the objective is performance-based and that who the learner is and what she needs to know prior to starting is clear.

By following the approach above, you’ll align your course objectives with the overarching goals.  You’ll also communicate to your client what the course accomplishes.  And your learners understand what’s in it for them.  Once you have your learning objectives, you can begin to build the course.

When you build you courses, what do you do to determine your learning objectives?


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32 responses to “Here’s an Easy Way to Create Learning Objectives”

Gee! To think I slogged through an entire semester-long course in grad school on this subject. Thanks Tom, for boiling it down to a soup we can all enjoy quickly.

Question is: how many of us actually figure out the learning objectives? I know I don’t always take the time to plot it out on paper. (I usually do have a fairly good idea in my head but as you pointed out in a previous post, that’s not always the most accurate.) To answer your question: so much of the training I design is in answer to regulatory requirements that what I do most is determine to whom the regulatory training applies.


It was only a one day session for me as part of an instructional design seminar, but I feel the same. So clear and simple Tom! Anyone want to buy the Mager book from me?

Long-time reader, first-time commenter. This is one of your best posts yet. Many people spend a lot of time in learning and development and don’t grasp objectives this well. I will be passing this on to fellow L&D professionals.

So now how do we go from the objectives to content?


I agree. This post is very helpful. I understand objectives, but have trouble formatting them to be clear. The formula you present is user-friendly and highly functional. Thank you.

Great discussion of objectives. I also like to include learner benefit, either as part of the objectives section or a separate section, depending on the need. I find that it increases learner motivation to point out the specific benefit they will realize. Sometimes the benefit is inherent in the objectives, but just to point it out and reframe it from the learner’s perspective is motivating.


This was perfect timing for this article. I’m getting my masters in Instructional Technology at the end of December. I just applied to teach an online course and I have to write my objectives for my proposal. If anyone has any good sources for teaching online, please share!


I don’t find examples like filling in time cards very helpful. Can you give an e-learning examples of what someone will learn to DO for students learning about things like:

1) Keynesian interpretations of the current economy

2) The Enlightenment and its impact on the U.S. Revolution

3) Hawking’s “Brief History of Time”

4) Piaget’s theory of learning

5) The ontological preconditions behind Newton’s calculus


@Marsh: excellent question. I actually wrestled with this because there are many readers who are in the academic/education world and their approach to elearning is a little different.

I’ll take a stab at a couple of these. In the subjects above I’d switch from the DO to how you measure the learner’s understanding. So, instead of a test on Piaget’s theory, you have the learner design a project that represents that. For an online course, it could be selecting elements that represent Piaget over those that don’t. You could build a scenario that represents a mock interview with Piaget. The student has to determine if the information presented is valid or not.

What would the U.S. Revolution be had there been no Enlightenment? Perhaps the “Do” for the learner is that of time traveler and using information about the enlightenment to fix a revolution gone bad.

Ideally, you can tie the learning to an action. In some cases you can’t. However, you can still measure the learner’s understanding by getting them to apply the information in some manner. Hope that helps.

Hi Tom:

Thank you for addressing the subject of objectives. Writing sound instructional objectives (along with writing good assessment questions) are the two toughest parts of being a good instructional designer. It is a constant struggle getting my clients to be able to distinguish the difference between sound and unsound objectives. Although I am partial to Bob Mager’s criterion referenced method, your approach should definitely be included in the ISD toolbox!

Kind regards,

Jesus R.

PS. I’ll buy Julie Mager book (from one of the previous posts 🙂

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December 2nd, 2008

Great Post

Something I run into with clients is that they themsleves are unsure of what the performance is that they want. Using a tool like Kirkpatrick’s model and asking question about what transfer looks like is really helpful.

“So now how do we go from the objectives to content?

Here’s how we do it
Try something and have a mesasurement plan in place to do quality control,and have quality assurance in place throughout the contenet development process to project what event or series of events will cause the change in performance to happen. I think the key is building in coaching guides, job aids,etc., for use after the course so that the performance remains changed 6 months after the course.

December 2nd, 2008

I admire your patience, Tom, in responding so politely to Marsh’s post – a post that was, I suspect an excellent example of that old Anglo-Saxon slang phrase ‘taking the Mickey’…! Having said that, there are plenty of ways of meeting Marsh’s ‘needs’, such as requiring students to explain, describe, synthesize, state, list, compare and argue, for example, and plenty of worthy academic papers and studies on the subject.

Back to the main question, however…

I have been heard to argue that one place to pay attention early in the process is at the end – with the assessment. Once we know what we are going to do to assess user performance, within the course I mean, as opposed to subsequently in the workplace, we can challenge the learning objectives (I prefer ‘outcomes’) to ensure the two things match. And, as the content gets developed, course designers should not be afraid to keep returning to the learning objectives/outcomes and the assessment to ensure the relationship remains robust and coherent. Hands up, anyone who has made (sometimes significant) changes to learning outcomes and assessments as ‘sense’ started to emerge from detailed discussions with SMEs…well, that’s allmost everyone, then!

Another great post, Tom. Always informative as well as generating interesting discussions.

This response is for Angie. I don’t have any resources handy, but when I worked primarily as an academic (I’m now working more in training), here are some things I learned when developing on-line courses, esp. if you’re developing an academic course.

I would recommend two things:

1. Make sure you stress to the students that on-line courses are usually more work for both the instructor and the students.

2. Don’t assume that your students will be able to pick up the tech skills easily or automatically.

In fact, a tested technique (based on research) is to have an “orientation” period where students are allowed to orient themselves around the platform (like WebCT or Blackboard) and to practice the new skills required.

It is also important to make these activities “graded” or they won’t take them seriously. You can give certain amount of credit (points work well) for each activity (navigating the course site, posting to discussions, uploading a document) that they accomplish in the given orientation time. (These activities will mimic ones you will use in your course.) Good luck!

First of all got to say how I love your posts. I have never gotten so much help from anyone. However, I do think your process can be distilled even further.
From your phrase:

This course is going to teach frontline managers who use the Acme payroll system to edit employee time cards.

Go further – it’s all about you and it’s all about the benefits to you. Specifying Frontline Managers is a given or else you would not be at this course in the first place, that should be covered in the course title or audience.
Editing employee’s cards is a feature not a benefit. There is no value in being able to edit employee time cards but there is a benefit in you knowing that your employees will always get their correct pay. There is also a benefit in knowing that you can be clear with your employees about what the rules are regarding hours and over-time and holiday pay. These are good reasons you should do this course.

So maybe —

You will learn how to use the Acme payroll system to ensure your employees get their time cards approved accurately and on time.

I don’t know if this goes along with the rules. But it is an objective and the benefit is clear. It is direct. I try to avoid an abstract language style. Also, by avoiding the use of the term Frontline Managers, we can open up the training to others who might need the training too.

Cheers – Ian

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December 4th, 2008

The problem with objectives is that there may be too many SME’s pulling the course in different directions. But, the ISD is the right person to decide which objective will best deliver the result to the learner as well as the trainer 🙂

Hi Tom,

Great timing, though I feel for an instructional designer, any time is perfect time to discuss the best way to write objectives. I always used to think I am the only ID who has to deal with this, but I now see, I have company! “Understand” is an objective which I have come across a lot in my career as an ID. Mostly, this type of objective would be provided by a Subject Matter Expert who would simply say “But I just want my learner to “understand” the concept not create anything new!!” Its been very frustrating trying to explain to them that how do we “understand” that they have “understood” the concept, if you know what I mean. But its great the way you have explained so simply. I will use the same explanation for my SMEs :). Thanks.

Thanks for a very simple explanation. We use “ABCD”

A-udience (who needs to learn it)
B-ehavior (what they need to do- keyword: do, not “know”- but there are “knowledge checks” for things like understanding of policy embedded in our courses- generally an enabling objective is knowledge based whereas our terminal objectives are performance based)
C-ondition (what tools/resources/environment is in play – in your example, it might be written in our world as “edit employee timecards using the ACME payroll system)
D-egree (what/how you will measure to determine completion)

Seems to resonate with our SMEs.

Did want to comment on “you are here and need to be there”- when I add to that “and we need to develop the most cost-effective resources that folks will use to move them from here to there”- is when CEOs who don’t speak training lingo immediately understand. Seen too many confuse CEOs with training terms and lose the opportunity.

As always, thanks for another focused, thoughtful, and easily digestable post.

I like the concept of user stories from agile software development.

As a xxxx
I can xxxx
So xxxx

For example,


Also, you can add a test to each user story that will tell you if that feature/requirement has been met.

For example,


If a user (learner in instructional design terms) can perform this test and pass it then the course passes it’s UAT and can be released (published) much like a new software feature can be released once it has passed UAT.

December 9th, 2008

Tom, great content again. Coming from the UK armed forces we would always develop objectives for our training and (in answerto one of the above comments)in my University post I would always insist my design staff create objectives in conjunction with the client, else how do we know if the training meets the client’s needs, and how do we measure the students achievements?

My only objection here is in your first part of the objective statement. “The course will teach….” We teach; the course is incapable of teaching anything. The course can enable, allow, provide etc… This may sound pedantic but but getting the wording right we clarify what we are trying to achieve, in a measureable way. Otherwise there would be little to stop us creating great teaching materials which may not meet the learner’s needs, and then claiming success as we taught them the subject, they just failed to learn it.

I would also ask what about including the standards such as accuracy and time limits in the objective to make the success criteria measureable in real terms? “with than 5% rejects per batch, within 12 hours of them being submitted by staff.”

Just wanted to stop by and say I like this post and you blog, have it in my Greader 🙂 Going to develop some courses for the spring and this is a big help to focus my thoughts.

Nice article one can aspire to in order do structure curses and document the outcomes. This could be embedded into a workflow like SVN for example:

I’ve just started in the whole e-learning business. And this topic gave me a good start in how to start with setting up a new course. And not just start to fill it up with ervery bit of information you can get your hands on

Thanks for your article. I cleared my interview with success.

Hi there,
I found great ideas and discussing on your Web site.
Well done ! Thanks for that and keep on doing
Greetings from germany , Thomas

One thing that often isn’t incorporated into teaching (well everywhere that I’ve been educated) is a consistent emphasis on the student progress. A lot of teachers simply fire information at you in a way that best suits them without giving much thought into the consequences. As you say, the idea of learning objectives is simple but revolutionary. This having been said, perhaps it would be worthwhile having regular assessment and a means of comparing performance against objectives. It makes the teacher end of the bargain appear more useful than them simply standing up and feeding you information. Obviously there is only so much ‘babying’ that can be done on their behalf, but I think incorporating something following the method just discussed isn’t asking too much! A big challenge (sadly) in school is realising the deficiencies in the methods of teaching, seeing past them and ‘playing the game’. We all handle that in different ways. It would be nice however to not have so much to see past

than you . this is agreat blog

This is perfectly concise and clear. May I use your words and images for a lesson I am teaching on preparing content?

@Sarah: yes

[…] There’s an excellent short post about coming up with learning objectives on Tom Kuhlmann’s Rapid E-learning blog. […]