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Is It Time to Leave Learning Objectives for Performance Objectives?

Learning objectives have been around in instructional design for as long as instructional design has existed. They’re also used the same way whether designing instruction for K-12, higher education, or a company.

While learning objectives may have been a decent place to start decades ago, in the ever-changing world of workplace training, they may not serve us well, especially as a mindset. It may be time to reevaluate effective strategies for modern employees and organizations.

The traditional idea of using learning objectives has long been questioned, and I’m ready to do the same. The realization is that learning is only meaningful to the extent that it changes performance in the workplace. That means performance is typically seen as more valuable.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of each approach? That’s part of what we’ll unpack in this post. I’ll also touch on whether learning objectives should still be used in workplace training or whether we should shift our focus to performance objectives.

Learning objectives may have had their day for corporate training.

To truly understand why learning objectives are acceptable for some training but not workplace training, it’s essential to understand the difference between the two approaches. Learning objectives focus on ideas, knowledge, or useless facts or information, whereas performance objectives target specific competencies and tangible results.

Companies need and want tangible results in the workplace and for employees to be able to perform accordingly. Performance objectives target measurable outcomes, such as the quantity of output produced, the quality of the product, and the amount of time spent on tasks.

Performance-focused objectives provide guidance and feedback on individual employees’ progress, enabling employers to recognize strong performance and areas for improvement. This combination of qualitative and quantitative results makes performance objectives the preferred choice for workplace training.

Performance objectives offer many advantages and are more suitable for the modern workplace. But before we explore the benefits and wonders of shifting our mindset and training design to performance, let’s examine learning objectives more closely.

All About Learning Objectives

Learning objectives have long been a staple in workplace training programs and the focus in most instructional design degree or certification programs worldwide. They’ve also been around longer since Robert F. Mager popularized them. Learning objectives clearly outline what employees are expected to learn and achieve through the training. But who cares about the training? What about job performance?

What about performance on the job?

It’s essential to question whether learning objectives are still serving us.

One of the most significant issues could be misinterpreting what learning objectives were intended for. Their original intention could have been not only learning but also achievements.

Learning objectives were first introduced to guide instructional design and ensure training programs aligned with specific goals. They outline the knowledge and skills employees should acquire during training. While this approach has its merits, it also has its drawbacks.

Where Did Learning Objectives Come from, and Are They Relevant to The Workplace?

I’m sure the concept has been around for some time, but as mentioned above, Robert F. Mager popularized learning objects as they are currently taught for instructional system design. Clearly defined objectives were believed to enhance learning outcomes by providing a roadmap for employees and trainers.

In the workplace context, learning objectives have been widely adopted to guide the creation of training, the employees while taking it, and the measurement of the effectiveness of training. However, their relevance in today’s fast-paced and dynamic work environment is questionable.

The Benefits of Learning Objectives

Learning objectives are beneficial when used appropriately as long as the focus isn’t passive. They provide structure and direction for trainers and employees, ensuring everyone is on the same page regarding what needs to be achieved.

They’re quite good for soft skills, where the goal may be simply to learn something to improve your work in general but not a specific performance outcome. Not every type of training is about learning how to do something.

Learning objectives can help employees stay motivated by giving them a sense of purpose and progress. They know right from the start what a course or session will cover, so they know what to focus on during training. When they see what they’re working towards, they’re more likely to engage actively in the learning process.

It primes them to know what to focus on. That’s why Will Thalheimer proposes focusing objectives rather than learning objectives.

The Drawbacks of Learning Objectives

Despite their advantages, learning objectives have several drawbacks that make them less suitable for modern workplace training. When learning objectives are declared in training, employees might tune out any additional information since their focus is only on the learning objectives being important.

I don’t see that as a drawback since much training simply has too much information in it anyway. If the instructional designer didn’t do their job to cut the fat, then the learning objectives will allow employees to ignore the stuff the instructional designer should have cut.

If it’s not part of the objectives, then why are we learning this?

Another major drawback is their focus on knowledge acquisition rather than practical application. While originally intended for application, their focus is on knowledge and understanding rather than performing and doing.

That’s programmed into the name, so it’s hard to escape the learning aspect of learning objectives.

Learning objectives often prioritize theoretical understanding over real-world skills and competencies. This can lead to a gap between what employees learn in training and what they need to perform their jobs effectively.

Or worse, they may have to make that connection themselves, which would be a more complex process of learning and connecting. Do you think employees will bother with that?

Another drawback is that learning objectives tend to be rigid and inflexible. As with the rest of the instructional design process, no objective should be written in stone.

Why Learning Objectives Don’t Fit into The Workplace

It isn’t easy to see the benefits of training when it’s abstract and only about learning. How are you supposed to apply what you learned? Nobody knows when learning is the objective, and it’s vaguely applicable to the work being done.

In today’s fast-paced work environment, organizations need meaningful and relevant training approaches (relevance is king in training, after all). Learning objectives don’t align with this need for meaning and application to job tasks.

Learning objectives focus on individual learning rather than organizational performance. Performance objectives emphasize measurable outcomes and results and are better suited for promoting collaboration and achieving organizational goals.

What’s The Best Alternative to Learning Objectives

Performance objectives, hands down. That’s the best alternative to learning objectives. The workplace is all about performance and doing your job better or learning to perform other jobs.

What do you need to perform your job better?

In some cases, learning objectives might be helpful, but only if they contribute to increasing performance. Performance objectives ultimately promote ownership and a higher level of engagement among employees, helping organizations create an innovative and productive work environment.

Performance objectives guide the creation of training, which focuses on what employees should be able to do after completing it, which is more valuable than focusing on what they should know.

Workplaces are based on performance so how employee training happens should be based on performance objectives.

It’s evident that, for the most part, learning objectives are no longer the correct term for workplace training. It’s time to shift our focus to performance objectives instead. With clear goals and objectives, employers can better measure employee performance and optimize their workforce.

So, the answer is clear: it is time to abandon learning objectives and embrace performance objectives for workplace training.

Performance objectives define the desired outcomes and behaviors that employees should demonstrate in their roles. Training content can be more impactful when it focuses on affecting employee performance.

Performance objectives link training programs to business goals. They help employees understand how their learning directly contributes to their job performance and the organization’s overall success.

Considering the Different Training Needs

It’s important to note that different organizations have varying training needs. While some may still find value in using learning objectives in some or all of their training programs, others may benefit more from performance-based approaches.

It may be more difficult to tie all objectives to performance for some soft skills training. The performance shift isn’t meant to be rigid and unchanging. It’s intended to focus on performance first and learning and how learning relates to job performance second.

The decision between learning objectives and performance objectives should be based on careful consideration of organizational goals, employee needs, and the specific topic to be trained.

Deciding What Is Right for Your Workplace

Organizations should assess their unique requirements and consider the advantages and disadvantages of both learning and performance objectives to determine the most suitable approach for workplace training.

It also doesn’t have to be all or nothing. While most training should use performance objectives, some may continue to focus on learning objectives.

While it might not be a workplace issue but rather an issue of what’s being trained, there should be some overall guidance. Not all training needs a tangible performance change that’s easy to measure or define. Learning to communicate better is an example of something that could be a challenge for performance objectives. It’s not necessarily a performance issue but rather being aware of different communication challenges and how to overcome them.

Organizations can ensure that their training efforts are effective and impactful by aligning training objectives with organizational goals and focusing on performance outcomes. Still, ultimately, the organization must determine what works for them in any training program.

Wrap Up

While learning objectives have been around for a long time, there’s no reason they need to continue to be the focus of guiding instructional design or training. They may no longer be the best approach in today’s dynamic work environment.

Performance objectives offer a more flexible and results-oriented alternative for companies that tie training to employee performance and business goals. By shifting the focus from knowledge acquisition to practical application and measurable outcomes, organizations can better equip their employees to succeed.

It may simply be a better path to professional development.

Ultimately, the decision to use learning or performance objectives should be based on carefully considering project and organizational needs and goals. It’s time to be more aware of alternatives and how learning objectives could hold employees back.

It’s time for most workplace training to be based on performance objectives rather than learning objectives.

Let’s all reevaluate traditional approaches and mindsets to workplace training and embrace strategies that align with the demands of the modern workforce. At techstructional our focus is typically on performance objectives since we focus on corporate IT training. This, by nature, has tangible performance goals that can be written to guide training.

Let’s change your organization’s focus on training with instructional design consulting, which will help your organization’s training focus on performance more than the vagueness of learning. Just schedule a free consultation, and we can discuss your company’s goals and how we can help you shift the way your organization approaches staff development.

2 thoughts on “Is It Time to Leave Learning Objectives for Performance Objectives?”

  1. I’m struggling with this at my workplace right now. I keep trying to bring the focus back to skills and performance, I reference Cathy Moore, and have become a broken record of “How will employees use this on the job?” I’m a nobody, there, though. Our value is in how fast and how many Storyline (“death-by powerpoint”) courses we can churn out each month.
    I work for a big global company, so it’s really sad that we’re not doing right by our learners.

    Thanks for writing this article.

    • Keep at it and never give up. You’ll eventually break through, and they’ll start seeing you as the innovator you are. I’ve been through the same thing, and eventually, people will start listening. But I’m sure you’re not a nobody there, it just feels like it sometimes, but they’ll see you’re not eventually, just takes time.

      Wanting to create more and faster is a large problem, and I think that’s exacerbated by the whole AI thing. The only thing it’s going to do is make it easier to create more faster, but it doesn’t seem to increase the quality at all. On the contrary, it nearly always lowers the quality because now instructional designers use less critical thinking and time to encourage the right content rather than more content.

      I’ll keep writing if you keep reading 🙂


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