Wednesday, August 11, 2010

What's Your Objective?

[Note: This originally ran on Training Magazine’s former “Training Day” blog on 2/12/2010]

Discussion of objectives in training could be a topic for a book all by itself, but lately I’ve run across 2 excellent examples of problems with learning/performance objectives. They provide a good basis for looking at just a couple of common problems.

Example 1: One summer afternoon my friend Jo left her son, 5-year-old Max, in the care of his grandmother. While Max was napping Grandma found a dead rattlesnake in the yard and thought to herself, “This is a good time to teach Max about snakes.”

Her objective: “Max will understand about snakes.”

So when Max awoke from his nap Grandma took him outside and said:
“See, Max, this is a rattlesnake. Some snakes are very dangerous so you must be careful if you are ever near one. They can be hard to see.” Using a hoe, grandma moved the snake into high grass, then onto a bed of pine straw, to show Max how the snake’s colors tended to blend with the setting. Grandma talked about being careful when running around outside barefoot, not bothering or teasing snakes, and taking care when playing near places snakes might be found, like fallen logs or warm rocks.

At the end of Grandma’s lesson she said, “So, Max, do you understand about snakes?”

And Max looked up at her and said,

“Oh, yes, Grandma. I love snakes.”

In the example with Grandma and Max, the problem was an objective too vague: “He will understand “ can be interpreted in more than one way, which is exactly what happened, and Max did not understand in the way Grandma meant him to. This is a common problem in compliance and policy training, where it’s more usual than not to see objectives like, “Learner will know the policy”, “Learner will understand the rules regarding unlawful harassment”. And regarding Grandma, well, as we say here in the American South, bless her heart. She did intend to help Max “understand” (learning) but she didn't specify actual performance. She tried to make the snake training meaningful and engaging. She did not read PowerPoint slides to Max. She included important information (they are hard to see in the ground cover) and offered some helpful tips (don’t tease). But the training did not accomplish what she’d intended.

I’ve seen the opposite problem as well: Objectives (and performance this time, not just "learning") so detailed and specific that the real point of the thing is lost. Which brings us to Example 2: A contractor charged with developing online tutorials on the new employee timekeeping system listed the desired performance objectives (below).

At the end of the training, the employee will be able to:

Log on and navigate to the employee section of the portal

Record and review time

View time statements

Display leave quota overview

Generate leave requests

Access system help resources

Assign charge object numbers

Report premium pay hours

The objectives were certainly detailed and specific. The contractor had thoroughly delineated desired performance. After weeks of tedious wordsmithing, next-level management finally signed off on the objectives. Senior management likewise approved of the plan. Everyone involved agreed that, yes, these are the outcomes we’re after.

Several million dollars later the training was launched, and several weeks after that the new time sheet software “went live” to 30,000 workers. And the critical problem with the tutorials quickly, and loudly, and in a most dramatic way, became evident. The list of objectives had not included:

At the end of this training, the employee will be able to
complete his or her
time sheet.

[This is not to oversimplify the other problems here, including the evidence that no one ever thought to ask even one potential learner to try the material out, or that much of the training content, like charge object hours, was relevant only to a fraction of the target audience.]

So: Before developing the instruction don’t just write objectives. Write the right objectives. What is this person really supposed to do back on the job? What does “understand” mean, and what evidence will show you that understanding has occurred? Devotees of Bloom’s taxonomy will argue that learner performance like “listing” and “describing” can constitute what he called ”enabling” objectives. That may valid, but they should not be the only objectives: Employees are rarely asked to “list” or “describe” anything, so it’s critical to move on to behaviors closer to desired performance, not just knowledge. And: Enabling objectives are easy to write, and to develop bullet points for, and to develop training around, and to write a quiz to assess. If you feel the training really must address these, fine, but be sure to push past them on to things that more closely resemble real performance. In my train-the-trainer course I don’t want my learners to describe strategies for engaging learners, I want them to deliver a piece of instruction in which they demonstrate the ability to apply those strategies. It’s more work for both learner and me, and much more time consuming, but it moves us far closer to the actual desired performance. And it makes the training worth doing.

Think Goldilocks. Not too little, not too much. And remember in developing objectives to keep an eye on the rock-bottom performance goal: Don’t get eaten by bears.

Other problems with training objectives? I asked Twitter training/elearning/ID folks and here are some of their answers. Perhaps we’ll expand on some of these in a future column.

  • Gina Minks @gminks, EMC: “When objectives relate to what someone wishes the performance was, even though that may be a fantasy.”
  • Jeffery Goldman @minutebio, Johns Hopkins Healthcare LLC: “Not setting them at all, not measuring whether they are met in the final assessment, and not providing content to meet objectives.”
  • Guy Wallace @guywwallace, EPPIC, Inc: “Objectives are not systematically ‘derived’ from solid analysis of ideal performance/gaps & are best guesses.”
  • Kevin Bruny @row4it, Chesterfield County VA Government: “Once used for design and communicated in training, we tend to forget about them and never return to validate.”
  • Kara DeFrias @californiakara, Intuit: “People get so wrapped up in objectives they forget to take time to make the actual learning meaningful & engaging.”



Steve F. said...

I think this is a Rummler test:

"Hey, Dad watch me..." + your objective.

It's a pretty good heuristic filter for objectives:)

Torre said...

I completed the first of three of Robert Mager's Criterion Referenced Instruction classes a few weeks ago. I was amazed at how much analysis actually goes into determining objectives -- the first three days of the week-long workshop are devoted to building the skills needed in order to "Derive Objectives" -- performance analysis, task analysis, goal analysis, audience analysis, skill hierarchies, etc. While it seems like a pain to do all that, the risk in not doing it is exactly as you described: objectives that are too vague ("understand," "know," etc.), or objectives that describe something other than a meaningful outcome.

Donna said...

Taking out the clear important details and priorities is what we need in setting objectives,if we want a good outcome.
Nice article.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to reference Cathy Moore again here because I think she has a very good point: What business goal, what end action are you trying to get the students to successfully perform, what are you looking to achieve with your training? Making it very specific helps. If the business goal is to get 90 percent of your employees to correctly complete their timesheets by the end of the next reporting period after they take the course, then that's an objective that makes sense.

The rest - the enabling objectives - are the topics/actions that you will teach to create the content that achieves the first objective.

For what it's worth, that's my take on it.