More than 20 years ago, I was asked to write a curriculum for a course in international business in an MBA program. For the first time in my life, I needed to come up with learning objectives. I listed the books the students would be reading, my lecture topics, assignments, and a grading scale. Those of you who know learning objectives like the back of your hand are smiling right now. I missed the mark by a mile.
A very kind curriculum expert at the university offered to help. She told me, “A learning objective is not a list of the material or content or topics to be covered. It isn’t about the delivery system. It isn’t actually about you as the professor.”
As I listened carefully, she continued, “A learning objective is about the learner. There are some key questions that well-defined learning objectives will answer. What do you want to change in the learner? What will success look like? Will the objective be definitive, achievable, and measurable?”
I had a question. “How will I know I’m writing them correctly?”
She said, “Let’s look at it from a different angle. Let me explain what an incorrect learning objective looks like. You’ll know they’re incorrect if the objectives are too broad to develop measurables for, or so vague no specific outcomes can be called out.” Smiling, she said, “Oh yeah, you’ll also know if you end up describing the instruction and not the outcome. Outcomes can be reached by a variety of instructional strategies, defining the outcome is what is critical.”
Our team at Inno-Versity has spent a lot of time helping corporations, non-profits and higher education institutions around the world get clarity on their learning objectives. We’ve found that it is most beneficial to think about 3 pillars that are the foundation of learning objectives. We call them KNOW/DO/BELIEVE
The main idea is that learning objectives will primarily fit into one of these three pillars. Before we get into why this is helpful, let’s begin with definitions:
Learning experiences built on the KNOW pillar focus on increasing the learners knowledge. Some key components of KNOW learning experiences are information, facts, theory, and connectivity. Learners should increase their comprehension, understanding, recognition and ability to classify. The key question is “What should the learner KNOW at the end of the learning experience?”
The goal of a learning experience built on the DO pillar is to increase learners’ skills. These might be new skills or they might be enhancing skills already possessed. Some key concepts of the DO learning experience are operate, practice, and use. Learners should increase their ability to solve, fix, apply, create, and demonstrate. The key question is “What should the learner be able to DO at the end of the learning experience?”
The goal of the learning experience in BELIEVE is to increase the learners’ embrace of goals, attitudes, or culture.. Some key concepts of BELIEVE are value, attitude, mindset, perspective, and priority. The learner should be able to commit to and embrace a set of values, goals or objectives. The key question is “What should the learner BELIEVE at the end of the learning experience?”
Why are these three pillars helpful?
- Prioritization: In planning your learning experiences, it is helpful to ask, “What is our organization’s greatest learning need right now?” Chances are, it is a failure to know something, be able to do something, or a failure to believe something. Many of us have seen situations where people have the knowledge and the skills but have not embraced the goals of the company. They don’t believe. Or perhaps, it is a situation where a team member has the knowledge and embraces the goals but lacks skills. In other cases, someone has skills and believes in the mission but lacks the knowledge to complete certain aspects of their work. Working within the KNOW/DO/BELIEVE pillars can help clarify what problem you are trying to solve.
This stage can be considered diagnostic. The three pillars will encourage your team to focus on the bigger organizational goals. What is the most pressing need right now? It is that a new process that isn’t understood. A new tool for which solid training is missing. A mission or vision that isn’t widely accepted. Or some combination of all three.
- Type of Deliverable: The different pillars may require difference approaches for the learning experiences you develop. KNOW will be more of an information transfer that might lend itself nicely to a digital or blended learning experience. DO is more likely to require a hands-on experience, often with an experienced guide. BELIEVE may need to have a much stronger social learning element involving scenarios.
- Type of Assessment: This is one of the key reasons why we developed these three pillars or classifications of learning objectives. Writing a clear learning objective is vital to determining assessment strategy. KNOW will likely be a knowledge check. DO will probably be a demonstration. BELIEVE will, perhaps, involve scenarios and choices for the learner to make.
- Length of Learning Experience: Of the three, a learning experience focused on KNOW will produce the fastest change. Learning to DO something might require more time because of the need for practice and then demonstration of mastery. BELIEVE changes are often the most difficult to accomplish and require reinforcement and repeat engagement.
Before we conclude, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there are three important qualifiers to the above conversation:
- Levels: All three pillars have varying degrees. Not everyone needs to know everything at the same level or be able to do the same thing at the same skill level. Not everyone necessarily needs to embrace an organization’s mission and vision to the same extent. This is important to factor into the learning experiences you build.
- Crossover: There will be crossover in that is it likely that more than one pillar will be involved in a learning experience. There may be occasions when learning objectives will require that a learner knows something, can do something, and believes something at the end of their learning. What is key though is to get clarity and agreement on which pillar is the top priority.
- There is no single starting point. In some instances, it is best that a learner is given the opportunity to know something first, then given the chance to do something, and finally asked to believe something. But that is not always how things must happen. Much depends on the nature of the problem being solved and the organizational goals at any one point in time.
Properly considered and applied, classifying learning objectives on the foundation of the KNOW/DO/BELIEVE pillars can be a powerful tool, helping learning teams clarify the learners’ needs, goals and measurements for success.