Why requiring learning objectives for great conference presentations sucks

by Adrian Segar
Photo by Flickr user orange_squash_123
Photo by Flickr user orange_squash_123

I have been filling out quite a few conference presentation proposals recently, and began to notice a pattern in my behavior. My mood changed when I had to fill out the session’s learning objectives (which are statements of what attendees will be able to do by the end of the session.)

Specifically, every time I had to fill out the learning objectives for a proposal I got really, really annoyed.

Over the years I’ve found that paying attention to patterns like this is nearly always a learning experience for me. And I had just watched Chris Flink‘s TEDx talk on the gift of suckiness, where he makes a great case for exploring things that suck for you…

…so I reluctantly delved into why I started to feel mad when required to write things like “attendees will be able to list five barriers to implementing participant-driven events“.

At first I wondered whether my annoyance at having to come up with learning objectives (with active verbs, please, like these…)

Learning objectives action words

From http://apha.confex.com/apha/learningobjectives.htm

was because I was a sloppy presenter who hadn’t really thought about what my attendees wanted or needed to learn. I imagined the conference program committee wagging their finger at me (or sighing because they’d seen this so many times before). Listing learning objectives was forcing me to face what I should have thought about before I even suggested the session, and I didn’t like being confronted with my lack of planning.

And then I thought, NO. I DO have goals for my sessions. But they’re much more ambitious goals than having participants being able to regurgitate lists, define terms, explain concepts, or discuss issues.

I want to blow attendees’ minds. And I want to change their lives.

OK, I admit that would be the supreme goal, one that I’m unlikely to achieve most of the time. But it’s a worthy goal. If I can make some attendees see or understand something important in a way that they’ve never seen or understood before, so that they will never see or understand it in the same way again—now that’s worth striving for.

Here’s an imaginary example (not taken from my fields of expertise). Suppose you are evaluating two proposed sessions on the subject of sexual harassment in the workplace. The first includes learning objectives like “define and understand the term sexual harassment”, “identify types of sexual harassment”, and “learn techniques to better deal with sexual harassment”. The second simply says, “People who actively participate in this session are very unlikely to sexually harass others or put up with sexual harassment ever again.”

Assuming the second presenter is credible, which proposal would you choose?

Learning objectives restrict outcomes to safe, measured changes to knowledge or competencies. They leave no place for passion, for changing worldviews, or for evoking action.

That’s why requiring learning objectives for great conference presentations sucks.

What’s your perspective on learning objectives?

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  • Adrian, I do like this post and what you are saying here. However, let me approach this from the POV of someone who has to read over speaker proposals. I always ask for three learning objectives. Why? Most speakers do such a terrible job explaining their session that I need the learning objectives to figure out what it is they want to present and why my audience would care about it. If the learning objectives seem to be a valuable match for my audience then I will consider working with the speaker to come up with a more compelling description.

    The learning objectives also act as a filter. If the speaker cannot organize his or her thoughts enough to come up with three-five learning objectives then their presentation will be all over the place and will be too difficult to follow. Or, it shows me the speaker is just way too lazy and does not care enough about my group to put the time and effort into their proposal and will likely do the same with their talk.

    The entire proposal process is a way of weeding people out. As the president of our local BMA chapter I got a number of e-mails every week asking if this or that person can come speak to our group. I reply to every one, please fill out the attached proposal. I’ve gotten two back over the last two years. Approximately a two percent return rate. As soon as a bit of effort is involved…not many are really that interested in speaking to your group.

    Why not include your mind-blowing goal as one of your learning objectives? Sure it may not match the measurable action words example but it will certainly get my attention.

    • I agree completely with you, Traci, that providing learning objectives are necessary and useful for 1) novice presenters to focus on what they’re going to be presenting and 2) for initial filtering of proposals. I’ve been presenting for 35 years now, and perhaps what I’m steamed up about is that no one ever asks me in one of the proposal forms about my goals for the presentation, just my learning objectives. “I want to blow attendees’ minds” would be rejected as too vague a learning objective by the guidelines some of these proposals include. I’m glad to hear it would be a positive for you!

  • Totally agree. In fact, I would say that we cannot establish learning objectives for anyone! Learning is an internal activity. My learning objectives may be totally different from the attendee sitting right next to me. Simply state what you are going to present/discuss and let attendees decide what they plan to derive from it.

    • Frankly, Heidi, that’s where I’m coming from too. I think the kinds of learning objectives routinely asked for are fine if you’re in a training scenario that requires competencies, e.g. “Participants will be able to describe how exposure time is controlled in an x-ray machine”. But I think they’re pretty useless for gauging adult learning that cannot be fit into well-defined boxes—and that includes what’s really important for our development and growth.

  • While attendees may be attracted to the session by the title or short description – which may or may not include a learning objective – the take away is always personal. I do agree with Traci’s comments when assessing the proposals. From a learner perspective, it is often only one or two comments throughout the presentation, and different for everyone, that become the “wow, so glad I came” moments. As an instructor, (I also teach event planning at a “polytechnic” college – BCIT) and it is the same there. We always have objectives, but what each learner takes away over the twelve weeks is vastly different, depending on their needs.

    Please keep sharing your message – we don’t learn best in what are the “traditional” ways!

    • Thanks for the encouragement Tahira! As you point out, what becoming clear through the comment discussion is that learning objectives have their uses, but don’t say much, if anything, about the truly useful takeaways for attendees.

  • Jpotterton

    The second sexual harassment example used is a learner outcome. The only difference between that and the example # 1 is the format of using an active verb. So if it was stated using an active verb it might look something like this: “Discover what constitutes sexual harassment so that you will never engage in such activity nor put up with it ever again.

    While stating learner outcomes might be seen as a waste of time for presenters, in my experience the average attendee uses the learner outcome statements as a way to select the programs that they are interested in attending. Keeping it in a simple format using active verbs makes it easy to understand especially when you might be looking at 60 to 100 sessions to attend.

    I agree that not everyone going to the session will walk away witness the same learner outcomes. And in fact they might walk out with very different outcomes than what was intended. Nevertheless, the learner outcomes help to frame the session and should keep the presenter or facilitator focussed on delivering at least the 2 to 3 learner outcomes that are publicized for the session.

    • John, thank you for coming to the defense of presentation proposals. Perhaps there’s a terminology confusion here, exacerbated by the photo I chose to illustrate the post, which displays the term “learning outcomes”, a term I didn’t use in the article.

      I find that I like your term “learner outcomes” much better than “learning objectives”. The former allows the inclusion of goals; the latter does not (at least in the way it’s popularly presented). And I speak to this in the penultimate paragraph of the post, where I say “Learning objectives restrict outcomes to safe, measured changes to knowledge or competencies.”

      So, now you’ve pointed out a better term to use, the only problem is that, looking back through the presentation proposal requests I’ve been filling out the last few months, I find that everybody asks for learning objectives, not learner outcomes. I guess I’m going to stay irritated while this state of affairs continues 🙂

      John, thanks again for helping me to clarify my understanding and learn something new!

  • Adrian, great discussion on this important topic. It sounds like it’s mostly a semantics issue…objectives vs. outcomes. I think if you were able to articulate the three ways or areas that you will blow an attendees mind, you’d be on track for what the organizers and attendees desire for session selection. Perhaps thinking about it in terms of what the learner will do differently or better after applying what they learned in your session would be a good filter.

    It’s also important to set the right expectations and deliver to those. If you were to write a session description and learning objective that said that you were going to blow participants minds…and that is not how they feel when leaving the room, you fail and so does the organizer. If attendees walk out of your session with blown minds, and they didn’t expect that, you’re going to be rated off the charts and everyone wins.

    LO’s are helpful guide-posts for vetting session selection and relevance. As Tracy points out, they also are critically important to sifting through and selecting speakers and topics.

    • Good points Dave. I think the difference between objectives and outcomes is more than semantics though. Objectives are about things that attendees will be able to do after the session. Outcomes include objectives, but also, crucially, can include changes in understanding and world-view, and energy around a topic or approach.

      So I think there’s a big difference between learning objectives and learner outcomes, despite the fact that they can both be referred to by the acronym LO.

      Also, I’d never presume to include “blow attendees minds” as a formal learner outcome for a session I led. (Ultimately, whether attendees’ minds are blown is up to them, quite apart from my limited ability to deliver such an outcome.) But it is often an unwritten goal…

  • A good idea for putting courseware together that has become jargonized (intended) and applied where it shouldn’t be.  Like “Change Management” and “Exceeding Customer Expectations.”

    I hated them as a student teacher – I thought “how do I know what the kids will learn?”  Now as an instructional designer, I value how they give direction and clarity to a course.

    And I would say that you should offer conference proposal evaluators the second of your two option.

    • Ah Annamarie, the blog post title sucked you in! [Full disclosure: Annamarie is a friend and an expert in instructional training and design.]

      Yes, learning objectives are completely appropriate for courseware (until we get courseware that’s run by true AI, if that ever happens). That’s because courseware provides a relatively inflexible learning environment, at least compared to that potentially available to a good presenter.

      Annamarie, do instructional trainers work with “learner outcomes” too?

  • Kathi Edwards

    Saw your Twitter post this morning, Adrian, and think it’s great you’re raising this topic again now. I agree the conversation is as relevant today as it was when this post first appeared, so I’ll toss in my comments (and they got way longer than expected…mea culpa!)

    From an instructional design standpoint, objectives do all the things mentioned thus far, and also guide evaluation of learners, speakers, and programs. The objectives state the intent…what the audience should know or be able to do when it’s over…and you can evaluate whether and how well it was achieved. In a good objective (or outcome), the verb is always in active voice…see Bloom’s Taxonomy…you can’t observe whether someone “knows” something, or “learns” it, or “understands” it, and thus can’t know whether it’s been achieved. If they just need to know something, or be able demonstrate that they know it, words like “list” and “describe” and “identify” are things a learner can do to demonstrate knowledge transfer (on a written test, for example, or privately to themselves after a conference). To APPLY what is learned is a higher-level behavioral outcome, and verbs like “examine” and “construct” would be used. However, evaluation at that level generally takes place 3-6 months after the learning event.

    I did the same kinds of things Traci did in vetting speaker proposals when I was responsible for speaker selection in associations. Objectives also tell me whether the speaker is over-reaching, or is likely to accomplish in the allotted time what s/he is proposing. Many do think they can achieve more than is feasible…and those are the sessions that lack depth. Determining objectives also provides a filter speakers can use to stay on point and help identify ”need-to-know” content. “Nice-to-know” content can be added if time is available.

    Ultimately, learning is about changing behavior, doing something differently as a result of learning something new. In a 75- or 90-minute conference session, chances are the most that can be accomplished is knowledge transfer…we don’t know whether participants actually DO something with this new knowledge and there’s no guarantee they will. 😉 How many of us go to conferences, get great ideas, have the best intentions to use those ideas…and then what I like to call the “tyranny of the urgent” takes over and a month or two later we still haven’t implemented what we learned (there ARE ways to enhance the likelihood!)?

    Speakers ALWAYS have some kind of intent for their sessions…yet is it what participants want to learn? Respectfully, it’s not about you! Nor is it ever about the speaker. My favorite quote on this subject came from Mel Silbermann, active-learning guru: “It’s not what you give them; it’s what they take away that counts.” Participants ALWAYS want to know “what’s in it for me?” As Dave and a couple of others said, objectives/outcomes help frame expectations, and from within those expectations participants can and do take away value depending on their individual needs.

    Can you tell I’m passionate about this? LOL It’s an important conversation whenever people focus on value received in learning events.

    Finally, let me ask you this: in the post, you state “I want to blow attendees’ minds. And I want to change their lives.” How? What does that look like? What would participants do if their minds are blown and their lives are changed? I’d bet your response would look suspiciously like an objective. 😉

    • Wow, Kathi, thank you for such an in-depth and thoughtful response! I agree with much you’ve said, so I’ll confine myself to the places where, perhaps, we have a slightly different perspective.

      From the perspective of a vetter of speaker proposals, especially those from novices, I agree that looking at a list of learning objectives has some value. They can, as you say, help pinpoint potential concerns and lead to useful pre-session guidance. But I think the danger with routinely asking for and reviewing learning objectives is that it can lull reviewers and presenters alike into the mindset that you outline towards the end of your post; namely that everything important about what happens at a session can be reduced to a specific learning objective.

      The problem is, again as you point out, that learning objectives need to be specific, and, by this criterion, my desire to “blow attendees’ minds” doesn’t qualify. Your asking me “what does that look like?”—i.e. requiring me to be specific—excludes the freedom you also refer to: the necessity and inevitability for participants to take away the personal learning that occurs during the session.

      I have been to workshops (and they’re always the highly participatory sessions; that why I call them workshops) that have “blown my mind”. And I know they have also blown the minds of others who attended them, but in ways that were different and appropriate for each of us. The designers of those workshops could not have predicted in advance what participants would learn there. Just as you wouldn’t ask an artist for their learning objectives for their art, asking designers of such sessions for learning objectives evokes the same kind of response I’ve attempted to convey in this post.

      Does that make any sense, Kathi?

  • Laura Kestner-Ricketts

    Great post. It was very helpful as I completed two proposals today! I was able to change my whole mindset as well. Here is my favorite new learning outcome: Be more thankful for the chaos that surrounds them 🙂

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