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Learning objectives aren’t just a serious (and mostly boring) version of a Mad Lib

Mad Libs are a fun activity designed to allow you to choose any random word that aligns with the fill-in-the-blank component of the sentence (in this case a verb). While it's true that you need to insert a verb to complete this sentence, it really can't just be any old verb you pick from a chart of Bloom's Taxonomy.

“Learning objectives” have been on my mind a lot lately.

In a team meeting last Friday, our entire team dove head-first into a conversation about crafting and wordsmithing learning objectives for one of our colleague’s projects. Then earlier this week, I released a short podcast on learning objectives – what they are and how to write them for best learning results.

I’ve also been in a lot of training sessions that spend time focusing on learning objectives, and one comment I hear from time to time is: “Just google ‘Bloom’s Taxonomy’ and pick a verb!'”

It’s not always that simple.

First, let’s define “learning objective.”

For the purposes of this blog post, a “learning objective” is a statement that declares what you want your learners to be able to do new or differently or better as a result of a learning experience. (If you want to take a look at several other uses of the term “learning objective” as well as the research behind how they can best be used, check out this video that Will Thalheimer released several years ago.)

Even with this definition, sometimes people think that crafting learning objectives is similar to playing a game of Mad Libs. For example, if we were to create a learning objective for a sales training session, some might say that the following Mad Lib-like statement would work pretty well:

Objectives Mad Lib 1

Mad Libs are a fun activity designed to allow you to choose any random word that aligns with the fill-in-the-blank component of the sentence (in this case a verb). While it’s true that you need to insert a verb to complete this sentence, it really can’t just be any old verb you pick from a chart of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

I’ve written in the past about how the verb you choose for your learning objectives needs to be both action-oriented (which most verbs are, by their very definition) and observable (so cancel out verbs like “know” or “understand”). One additional consideration would be the parameters of the training program itself.

Are people supposed to be experts by the end of the training segment?

How much time do you have?

If they don’t need to leave your segment as experts, and if you don’t have a lot of time, then using a verb such as “teach” or maybe even “demonstrate” would not usually be appropriate in the above blank. Given a shorter training session, appropriate verbs such as “list” or maybe “explain” or “describe” could work.

If, on the other hand, the learners really are expected to leave the training session with the ability to use your 4-step sales process in the real world, with real customers, tomorrow, then the verb you choose grows even more important (assuming you’ve been given adequate time to introduce the sales process, learners have had adequate time to explore the process and you have adequate time for learners to “demonstrate” their grasp of the process while also receiving, and maybe even giving peer feedback).

Why is this conversation around learning objectives anything more than a frivolous, nerdy, inside baseball, training geek type of conversation? Because when you, as a training designer, develop well-crafted learning objectives, they truly will write the rest of your training for you.

Choosing a verb such as “list” will lend itself to a vastly different set of activities (and assessments) compared to a verb such as “demonstrate”.

While Mad Libs are generally more fun when you choose the first verb that comes to mind, designing learning objectives and designing learning programs in general is a more fun process when you’re intentional and take your time to think of the right verb.

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