Instructional Objectives: Is Precision Worth It?

In order for my firm to give CPE credits, we have to meet the criteria set forth by a governing body and submit courses to periodic review by that body. A few years ago, when we submitted our initial application to give CPE credit for elearning courses, we had the honor of apparently being the first firm to pass the application process on the first pass. No shovelware do we make.

The rules we have to follow for giving credit for elearning are much more extensive than they are for live classes, even live classes delivered electronically. For instance, for no other instructional medium do we have to develop a test. The extra hoops can sometimes be a disincentive for developers, but I usually defend the regulations as being good sense rules that we should be following anyway, regardless of medium.

This year we had to apply for recertification. They choose two elearning courses at random from our catalog to review. We passed with findings, which meant we had some work to do. Most of the items were trivial–a missing developer bio, for instance. The one that was most interesting, though, was the finding that the objectives were too vague, featuring verbs like understand. A few years ago I would have been right there with them; it was a personal mission when I moved to my current firm to stamp out understand as a verb in instructional objectives.

I’ve mellowed over the years.

This is partly because in true knowledge transfer situations, I’ve found that encouraging SMEs to be precise in their learning objectives to be a pedantic exercise that takes time but doesn’t change the end result. And, indeed, that’s what it amounted to for correcting the findings of our governing body: I would go in and change the verbs in the objectives to match what’s in the tests. The change was work for me, but it’s hard to believe that it would have increased learning. (I say would have because we ended up pulling both self-studies from our catalog, one because a recent legislative change made the content inaccurate. They choose a new one at random to review, and it turned out to be one I wrote about instructional design basics; my confidence is high that they won’t find anything to complain about with my instructional objectives!)

Of course, a short term fix may not be the point. This will definitely force me to change our guides for developers to steer them towards more precise objectives, so maybe there is a longer term good. But I doubt it. I should make the distinction here that for skill-building* courses, precise objectives are still really important to me. SMEs need to be able to precisely define the skills they want to teach in order to succeed in teaching them.

But knowledge transfer? I’ve come to see it more as an art form than a science. I’d certainly be interested in opinions otherwise, though.

*What’s the difference between knowledge sharing and skill building? Knowledge sharing is teaching facts, concepts, and principles with the expectation that your learners will be able to apply them on the job without application practice in class. Whereas if you are building skills, you definitely need to practice applying the skills in class. While it is likely true that SMEs tend to overestimate the abilities of their learners to be able to apply abstract knowledge, I’m willing to concede there is a time and a place for knowledge transfer-oriented courses if done thoughtfully. This concession was actually kind of a breakthrough for me; for a long time, I treated knowledge transfer courses as just skill building courses with abstract skills.


One thought on “Instructional Objectives: Is Precision Worth It?

  1. Pingback: Media Decision Tree | Engaged

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