Learning Objectives Can Mean More for the Designers Than for the Learners

Have you ever opened a course, online or a textbook, and skipped right over the statement of learning objectives? I have. Even if I read them, they don’t really make sense to me. Not yet.

I need a little orientation first.

Back in 1985, Robert Gagné said that there are nine steps to effective instruction. Providing learning objectives is Step 2, not Step 1. The first step is getting the learner’s attention. This involves laying out the problem that will be solved by the learning experience that is about to unfold and making clear why the learner should care. (Check out Don Clark’s Big Dog website for the entire nine steps.)

Only then do you provide the roadmap. It’s: Here’s the need that brought you to this course (step 1) followed by: Here’s how we’re going to satisfy that need (step 2). Then, before we get into the instruction proper, we let the learner reflect on what he already knows and how the instruction will fit in (step 3).

Learning objectives are certainly important for the learner, but they are not the first thing.

For the learner.

For those of us who design courses, however, learning objective serve a different function. They are out plan for course development. They help us determine how to apply most of the remaining steps in Gagné nine-steps of instruction. For each learning objective, there are materials to present to the learner, activities to design to get the learner to rehearse new knowledge and skills, coaching and feedback, assessment, and so on. While learning strategies may vary depending on the type of learning objective, an entire sequence needs to be implemented for each one.

Our project plans are built around learning objectives.

“Portable Content” May Not Be So Portable After All

You invest a lot in developing course content, so you hope to get maximum use from it. Right?

This is the idea behind content management. You write a piece for insurance agents and you want to use it again for underwriters. You write a piece for financial analysts and you want to use it again for consumers. You write a piece for senior advisers and you want to use it again for support staff. You write a piece to help folks pass a test and you want to use it again to improve job performance.

Content management systems are designed to help you achieve your reuse aims. But does it work? Sometimes it does. But sometimes, content written for one audience goes over the head of another—or it flies beneath their radar. Why is that?

It all has to do with needs analysis.

To develop a superior financial education product, you need to understand what you are trying to accomplish and who your learner is. What is their need? What is their prior knowledge? What motivates them to learn? What engages them?

So a piece written for insurance agents may talk about customer needs. Agents are gregarious people-oriented folk and their purpose in life is to make a sale. Underwriters may have instructional needs that overlap the agent’s, but underwriters are more concerned with statistics and profitability for their company.

A piece for a financial analyst may focus on investment portfolios. Their resources allow for a great deal of research. Consumers may be interested in similar topics, but minutia may not get them where they need to be.

And so on.

I’m not saying that content management systems miss the point. They are great in making the intellectual property of a company available for reused. I’m just saying that it is not as automatic a process that we hope. That’s because learners are involved. And different learners have different needs and motivations.

It’s the learners that we are trying to reach.

Writing That’s Not Understood Is Worse Than Useless

Financial concepts are . . . well, usually difficult to understand. We in the financial education business accept that as a given. Our mission is to pierce the fog of rules and regulations and numbers. To accomplish this, three questions must be answered:

  • Who are we trying to communicate with?
  • What do we want them to learn?
  • Why do they want to learn it?

And the last question is key. This is a conversation. The more I know about why you are in the conversation, the more I can help you get what you need out of it. Are you a student, an investor, a sales rep? Each of these individuals have different expectations and different prior knowledge. Knowing this is essential to developing instructional materials that hit the target.

If you don’t hit the target, what have you done? You’ve wasted peoples time. You’ve conveyed erroneous information. You’ve put people to sleep or you’ve angered them.

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809 Financial Education is dedicated to excellence in financial education. This is our first post. Come back again and we’ll continue the conversation.