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Is “understand” really a 4-letter word?

A lot of people say you shouldn't use words like "know" or "understand" in your learning objectives. Are they right?

When I was first learning how to write learning objectives, I was instructed that I should be very careful about the verbs I choose, especially verbs such as “know”, “understand” or “recognize”.

The thought process behind this warning is simple. When we create learning objectives, we’re not just putting words on paper. We’re outlining what our learners should be able to do, and if we’re holding up our end of the bargain as trainers, then we should be able to observe people doing whatever we said we wanted them to do in those learning objectives.

When we use words like “know” or “understand” or “recognize”, how can we actually observe those things happening since those happen mostly inside someone else’s head? Therefore, avoid those kinds of verbs and choose something more observable.

I would still say that’s 100% correct*. (With an asterisk.)

People toss around the words “learning objectives” and assume that we’re all talking about the same thing. Here is where the “never use the word understand in your learning objectives” dogma runs into problems.

When we’re working with subject matter experts (SMEs) or other non-training professionals to help put training together, most of them have never heard about this “never use understand” rule… and furthermore, few of them care about geeky training rules.

If we ask an SME what people should be able to do as a result of a training they’re helping us to put together and their first response is: Well, people should be able to understand _______. Our first response should never, ever be to say: Sorry, we can’t use the word “understand”, please try again.

I would say our job is to help the SMEs who are partnering with us and who have given up their time to hep us, to simply complete their thought. A response more along the lines of: “Ok, they should be able to understand this so that they can… do what” would be a more constructive response.

You and I get the fact that “understand” isn’t observable. Few other folks outside of training care about this rule, nor should they.

I really like this video from Will Thalheimer that breaks the idea of “objectives” down into different audiences. Objectives that our learners see (where “understand” is ok), and objectives we use behind the scenes on lesson plans (where we probably want to avoid “understand”).

Before we get ready to wash someone’s mouth out with soap for saying “understand” in the context of learning objectives, we should probably take a step back and think about how the objectives are being used and who will be seeing them.

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