One small step for learning objectives, one giant leap for your organisation

Ruth: “Nick, When do you think you’ll have your proposed blog entry ready?”
Nick: “I’m hoping to be able to sketch you something soon.”
Ruth: “Is ‘something soon’ your target?”
Nick: “Yes.”
Ruth: “It doesn’t sound all that SMART a target to me.”

Ruth is, of course absolutely spot on; my suggested ‘target’ was neither SMART nor was it smart. You’re probably familiar with the acronym SMART in the context of setting targets – it’s the idea that targets must be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely in order to be successful. Using this checklist, you can see that my target was too vague, and therefore bound to fail.

My favourite example of a SMART target can be found in President John F Kennedy’s speech to the US Congress in May 1961; the context is the Cold War and (obviously) the Space Race. Kennedy (and/or his team of speechwriters) came up with something that I regard as fairly flawless and in fact exemplary:

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.”

As you can see, although this target was ambitious, it was also conforms to all of the standards of a SMART target. If you disagree, please comment below!

Being able to formulate a SMART target is a skill that every project manager needs to acquire- however, the benefits of SMART targets extend well beyond the working world. It means that projects have a measurable chance of success from the very start, rather than a series of vague outcomes which won’t result in behavioural change.

However, what about training learners online to conform to SMART targets? Most elearning courses begin with a series of learning objectives, and generally these objectives are all stated in a similar form: “Having completed this course, you will be able to…” As we all know, the learning objectives should then continue with a verb.

However, often, I see such verbs as ‘list’ or ‘state’ or ‘describe’ or even, in one case, (I’m not making this up, honestly) ‘recite’. These verbs are nearly always inappropriate for workplace e-learning. Why? First, because they are not testable online in the way that they may be testable in a classroom with a trainer present. Second, because stating, listing and describing (not to mention reciting) are rarely suitable workplace behaviours, so it’s extremely unlikely that the client or sponsor for the really wants to train their people in such behaviour. Workplace training should be about the everyday choices that people make. Hence the verbs in learning objectives should be about testable choices such as ‘select’ ‘identify and ‘distinguish’.

Let me give you an example from an online course about the UK Bribery Act 2010. In the UK, the law on bribery is quite stringent, but at the same time hospitality has not been banned outright. In these circumstances, it seems reasonable to me that the learning objectives should be: “Having completed this course, you will be able to distinguish an acceptable gift from an illegal bribe.” I suggest that we can generalise from this example.

Often it makes sense to me that we train our learners to be critics rather than authors. Rather than setting the over-ambitious (and probably not testable) objectives “Having read this blog post you will be able to formulate SMART targets.” I’d much rather that we say “Having read this blog post you will be able to identify where a proposed target fails to be SMART and to find ways to remedy those failings.” As always the art lies in finding options that are incorrect but at the same time plausible. A significant yet common failing of e-learning, particularly compliance training, is that the correct and the incorrect options are both far too obvious, leaving the poor learners with the feeling that they are being patronised – a surefire way of losing their interest and attention.

So next time you’re designing learning, make sure that it’s focused in this way – if you’ve got SMART learning objectives, you’re well on your way to designing a course that will fulfil your requirements. Learners will be able to implement the behaviours they’ve been trained in and make an impact, rather than just ‘listing’ or ‘reciting’ what they’ve learnt. In the early stages of a project, securing learner’s enthusiasm is absolutely vital. John F. Kennedy recognised this during his speech, stating that ‘every technician, contractor and civil servant must give his personal pledge that this nation will move forwards’. There is no replacement for engagement and enthusiasm at every level of an organisation, and a SMART target is a great place to start!

About the author

Nick Simons - Leadership