Learning Objectives – ID Versus SME/Trainer


There is a definate difference between Instructional Designers and SME’s, and sometimes Trainers.

This difference is extremely apparent when you start to identify what a learner needs to know. My experience is in the software development industry, so that is from where I will speak. The most common thing I have seen is SME’s looking at content from a functionality standpoint, rather than a task or role-based standpoint.

The tool in our arsenal to assist with this “learning objectives”.

Getting to the Learning Objective

When I sit with a SME to start interviewing them, my first question is to identify a high-level description of what is needing to be taught – this probably covers the basic functionality and frames the content for me, so I can further ask questions and narrow down the content. My next set of questions revolves around “What do the learners need to DO?”. This allows us to focus on what the content needs to be. From there, the content can actually follow a procedural path and any extra content the learners “need to know” can sit on top of the procedural content.

For example, I might be developing a training course for a Teller. Here is a typical SME-driven objective:

 The learner will know how to process a transaction.

Failure of the Generic Learning Objective

This means we have to train the learner everything there is to know about processing any kind of transaction on our system. This becomes a brain-dump and an extremely long course. It has no structure and not real ability for us to chunk it down to smaller bits of content.

Let’s dissect this a little:

  • What kind of transaction? Is it a check or cash? Is it a deposit or a withdrawal? Is it a savings account or a checking account?
  • What are the circumstances surrounding this transaction? Is the customer standing at the Teller line? Is this an after-hours procedure? Does the teller have any documentation they have to fill out that is not specifically software driven?
  • What is the level of expected speed the teller should be able to process a transaction?

A Successful Learning Objective

Let’s try a new objective. This is an ID-driven set of learning objectives:

  • Given five minutes, customer input, and a check, the learner will:
    • Process a deposit transaction into a checking account.
    • Process a withdrawal transaction from a savings account
    • Process a deposit transaction that carries funds across a checking account, a savings account, and provides cash back to the customer.
    • Process an auto loan payment.

Now, given these objectives, you can see there are four distinct things for the learner to do.

They need to:

  1. Process a withdrawal from a savings account
  2. Deposit a check into a checking account,
  3. Split the deposit funds from a single check into a checking account, savings account, and give the remaining funds back to the customer as cash.
  4. Use the check to pay for a car payment

We also know the customer is there, so we can use ID information or have the customer answer questions. There is also a time limit – the learner should be able to process any of these transactions in under five minutes.

This tells us we can create four distinct and independent lessons that the learner can go through. This is much better than a single chunk of content that covers all four.

Using the Learning Objectives to Build Your Course

Using this model, you won’t find a series of slides or a discussion of terminology at the beginning of a course. Instead, what you find is a procedure that the student works through with terminology and concepts addressed at the point of need. Typically, if the learner does not need to know it, we should work hard not to include it because it just takes up the learner’s brain cycles. If the SME insists on the content being part of the course, attempt to get it into the guide or provide a reference guide with the course and it can live there.

Here is how I would handle this situation with scenarios:

A customer comes to your teller window and hands you a check and a deposit slip (or a withdrawal slip). You need to process the transaction. I would then make the learner go through the motions of performing the activity. If there is information they need or terminology they need to know, I would present it at the point of need. Regarding the time element, I would not include that in the main body of the lesson. That’s too much pressure. I would save that for the final assessment and use a timer there.

Understanding Your SME

A SME, and sometimes trainers, see the presentation of content slightly differently. They believe their job is to share with the learner everything they know. If they have not, they are not doing above and beyond in their job role. Also, expect an element of pride. A SME is an expert, by definition. As such, they are a “sage” and feel good about sharing their knowledge. There is nothing wrong with this, but it is our jobs, as ID’s, to take this knowledge and corral it into meaningful and digestible chunks of content for our learners. I believe we are doing our learners a disservice if we don’t do this for them.

I Did Not Understand Learning Objectives

When I first started developing course content, I was a technical writer. I worked with an ID who was adamant about defining learning objectives. I never really understood the benefit. As a reader of the content, I tended to skip that page. However, one day, I asked him about this. His response was this:

“Learning Objectives are not for the reader. They are for the content creator and for management to identify what the learner was supposed to be able to do after the course.”

How Can You Use This In Your Next Course?

So, here’s a takeaway idea for you! Gather your objectives and make sure you define them well. But, rather than presenting your learners with a page of objectives, come up with an interesting way to present them to the learner. For our teller course, I created a series of customers from which the learner was free to pick. Each had a different level of difficulty, which we indicated, as was what service you needed to provide. The learner got to pick which customer to work with. The harder ones required the learner to do more without instruction. This allowed for a level of experimentation.

How do you use Learning Objectives and have you done anything unique with how you present them to your learners?


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