How to Write SMART Learning Objectives

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[This is the the third in a series of posts about learning objectives. We’ve now compiled all the posts into a single downloadable guide to writing learning objectives if you want to check that out, PLUS check out our Introduction to Learning Objectives recorded discussion with learning researcher Dr. Patti Shank.]

As a kid, I loved the campy TV detective show “Get Smart.”

Now that I’m an adult and work as an instructional designer, I still like to get smart. Except now I get SMART when creating learning objective for workforce training and performance improvement.

We’ll discuss the importance of learning objectives and explain teh SMART test for learning objectives below.

A Quick Refresher: The What and Why of Learning Objectives for Job Training

A learning objective is something you write before you design, develop, and evaluate training. Once you’ve written the learning objective, you will use as a blueprint to create your learning assessments, learning content, learning activities, and learning evaluations.

If you do create learning objectives, and create them well, your training has a much better chance of successfully helping employees learn to perform skills and tasks and then use them on the job.

If you don’t create learning objectives, you’ll really have no idea what you’re doing when you’re creating training. You’re running in the dark with your eyes closed. You’ll most likely wind up creating poor training, wasting your own time, wasting money creating and delivering the training, waste the employees’ time, and waste more money as they complete the training. Plus your organization won’t get closer to the business goal that the training was supposed to support. That’s bad on a whole lot of levels, obviously, and it won’t do a lot of good for your job security.

Why the SMART Test for Learning Objectives Has Value

The SMART test is a handy way to double-check your learning objective and make sure it’s got a better chance of being successful. It’s probably not as important as the ABCD test for learning objectives, but it’s a helpful addition to your learning-objective-writing quiver.

How to Write SMART Learning Objectives

If it’s good for learning objectives to be SMART, it helps to know what the letters in SMART stand for.

So here it goes.

Specific: Use clear, direct language to tell the learner exactly what he or she should learn and what he or she should be able to do after the training. Don’t be vague, unclear, or misleading.

Measurable: The point of setting a learning objective is to determine if the learner can meet, perform, or satisfy it. And you can only do that if the objective is something that you can measure. That means, first, that it must be an action that you can observe. This is where the common mistake of using words like “know” or “understand,” which are not actions that can be objectively observed, in learning objectives is corrected. And second, the objective must be written so that any objective observer could watch the learner’s performance and agree if the objective has been satisfied or not. Don’t create a learning objective that can be satisfied only by your own subjective understanding of the performance, for example.

Achievable: Your learning objective must be something your learners have a chance of completing/satisfying. They must have enough pre-existing knowledge, time, and similar resources. For example, you wouldn’t create a learning objective that asks an elementary school child to construct a rocket in an hour–it’s just not achievable. While checking your objectives at this level, make sure your learning objective isn’t too easy, either.

Relevant: The objective should be something the learner sees the value in learning. Don’t teach material that’s not important or won’t be used. Remember that your training should matter to your learners–review this list of adult learning principles to see the importance of this. And to make this more clear, if you’re creating job training, your learning objectives should teach workers to perform skills they’ll perform on the job after the training is complete.

Timely: Make sure your learning objective is something your learner will have to use in a timely fashion–like tomorrow or next week instead of next year. Don’t deliver training about stuff people won’t do on the job for a long time–they’ll forget it before they need it on the job.

Using the SMART method is a great way to help you check your own work when you’re creating objectives. It keeps you focused on building a useful objective and works as a quick and easy “checklist” of sorts. If you haven’t used SMART in the past, try it the next time you’re writing objectives and see if it doesn’t help.

Conclusion: Be Smart With Learning Objectives

Still curious? Check out our next post in this series, which explains the ABCD method for writing a 4-part learning objective, and definitely check out our recorded interview with learning researcher Dr. Patti Shank on Learning Objectives.

For still more, check out any other article in our series on learning objectives (below):

All of this should help you greatly with your workforce training program or other learning needs.

And of course, feel free to download the free guide to writing learning objectives, too!

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How to Write Learning Objectives

Get this free guide to learn all you need to know to write learning objectives, create better training, and help improve workplace performance.

Download Free Guide

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Jeff Dalto, Senior Learning & Performance Improvement Manager
Jeff is a learning designer and performance improvement specialist with more than 20 years in learning and development, 15+ of which have been spent working in manufacturing, industrial, and architecture, engineering & construction training. Jeff has worked side-by-side with more than 50 companies as they implemented online training. Jeff is an advocate for using evidence-based training practices and is currently completing a Masters degree in Organizational Performance and Workplace Learning from Boise State University. He writes the Vector Solutions | Convergence Training blog and invites you to connect with him on LinkedIn.

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