I’m an old guy who still thinks of Mager when the topic of learning objectives comes up, but I’ve also come to have some heretical beliefs about objectives that I’ll share with you here.

In other posts, I’ve extolled the benefits of thinking first about Job Aids and Performance Support Systems before determining that training is the best means of closing a performance gap.  In your real world, however, you may be dedicated by your employer to the delivery of stand-up training or the design of online, self-study learning experiences where learningobjectives naturally come into play.

I hail from the world of financial services, where the jobs of every employee, from tellers to top executives, require them to master a very large repertoire of tasks.  The lower echelon employees typically endure many, many hours of well-intentioned training, only to emerge only partly trained and largely confused, bored and vaguely depressed by the magnitude of our expectations of them.

The learning objectives we trainers share at the start of our learning experiences are often fairly general and not at all in keeping with instructional design á la Mager and other lights.  Our actual objectives—to judge by what we do and say in the classroom—are to embed in the mind of our learner many factlets—product features, steps in procedures, etc.  We know our learners won’t remember them all, of course, which makes our objectives more like wishes; we wish they’d learn everything, but we know they won’t.

We would do better by our learners to aim lower—to build our learning experiences around fewer objectives, and ensure that these are reached with the great majority of our learners.

Let me use product training for newly hired tellers as an example.  Each banking product has a fairly long list of “features.”  A checking account, for example, pays or does not pay interest, has or does not have a minimum balance required to avoid a service charge of x, has or does not have fees for certain types of transactions and penalty fees for various misdeeds, etc.  I’ve seen trainers go at these factlets as though their learners’ memorization of them was critical, not for one product type, but for twenty product types in a single session.  The factlets are covered, but few are memorized, with the costs noted above in boredom and panic.  We wish in vain.

What can replace our unreasonable wish lists?  Imagine that we adopted, for our new teller’s product training, the following objectives:

At the end of this experience, you will be able from memory to tell your customers that…

  • We offer a variety of deposit accounts, loans and bankcards.
  • We can help you choose the accounts, loans and bankcards that will best meet your needs.
  • With respect to deposit accounts…
    • Some pay interest and some do not.
    • Some have periodic fees and some do not.
    • Some have minimum balance requirements which, if met, will forestall periodic fees.

And so forth.

We would use actual product features to illustrate each case, but would tell our learners flat out that we don’t expect them to remember these factlets and that they will not be tested on them at the end of the learning experience.  We’d drill them instead on referring to brochures or other job aids when they needed to talk features.

Focusing on fewer factlets might mean shorter learning experiences.  That’s not a bad thing if it gets people back on the firing line more quickly.  Alternatively, some of the saved time could be recycled to enable the learners to work through scenarios culminating in their disclosing appropriate information to a customer.  For example, we could create a variety of scenarios in which a checking customer comes to the teller window upset about overdraft fees.  We would prepare the teller to say the appropriate thing in response to different prompts from their customers, few of which would require memorization of many specific product features.  The more time left for repetition of these exercises the better.

The bottom line here is that we need to let go of our long lists of unattainable wishes and replace them with shorter lists of realistic objectives that most of our learners will achieve most of the time.  We’d be doing our learners a huge favor and would set ourselves up to be more successful and less frustrated by our learners’ failure to learn and/or retain what we’ve shared with them for more than a few hours after we’ve trained them.

Comments below will be most welcome as will tweets to @dennisafahey.