Friday 10 July 2009

Learning objectives: Jargon or a trainer's best friend?

Training know-how applied to laboratory science

Last month we looked at the 4 stages of the training cycle and it was observed that the outcome from the first stage, identification of learning needs, should be a set of learning objectives for the training event being planned. The purpose of these objectives is to state the goals which should be achieved by the learner by the end of the training. Taking the time to get these objectives right can make a huge difference to the success of your training event. A good set of objectives will make it easier to plan and design how the training will be delivered. During delivery they help to focus the trainer and the learner on what they need to achieve. After the training they allow a measure of whether the training has worked by investigating whether the objectives have been met.

Sounds good so far but where do you start? Basically you need to think about what you want your learners to be able to do after the training. Then you need to condense these requirements into a series of statements - the objectives. If you have set objectives before for other tasks then you may have encountered the SMART model, this simple technique can help you to make sure that your objectives are optimised.

S is for Specific
M is for Measurable
A is for Achievable
R is for Relevant
T is for Time-bound

The objective should specify exactly what is required from the learner rather than a vague high level statement. For example, rather than saying ‘learn about HPLC’, you should specify the aspects of HPLC which will be covered in the training whether it is separation theory, column chemistry, setting up a HPLC system, etc.

If the objective can be measured you have an easy way to ensure that the training is working. A careful use of language is required for a measurable objective.

Examples of measurable verbs are: Adjust; analyse; approve; calculate; carry out; complete; decide; describe; explain; implement; obtain; perform; solve; select; state; update; use; develop; identify; list.

Use of some verbs may be difficult to measure, for example: Hear; be aware of; listen to; attend; now; enjoy; grasp the meaning of.

The learner needs to be able to achieve the objective by the end of the training session so a realistic objective needs to be designed.

The objective should be relevant to the required outcome of the training. This helps to keep the training focussed on the learning outcomes without unnecessary distractions.

Typically the objectives need to be achieved by the end of the training event but in some circumstances further practice may be required and a time limit for this should be set.

There are some variations on what each letter in SMART stands for, an example is R which is sometimes quoted as being for ‘Realistic’. It doesn’t really matter providing the objectives are sensible. For the purposes of training the most important feature is that they are measurable, this enables evaluation of how well the training has achieved its aims.

An example of a SMART objective is as follows;
By the end of the training the learner will be able to prepare mobile phase for HPLC using different types of solvents, buffers and additives and understand the effect these have on the chromatographic separation.’

The objective is specific; it relates only to the preparation of mobile phase and defines the required reagents as solvents, buffers and additives. It is measurable; the learner can demonstrate their learning by preparing mobile phase or detailing the steps required to do so, and by explaining the chromatographic effects of the mobile phase. It is achievable; this is a realistic amount of learning to include in a training session. It is relevant; the training is an introduction to HPLC and preparation of mobile phase is a key requirement. It is time-bound, the objective should be completed by the end of the training.

Setting suitable learning objectives for training on analytical chemistry techniques is usually a straightforward task due to the practical nature of the training. If you need to be able to use an analytical instrument or perform a particular analysis then the competent performance of these tasks indicates that the training has been successful. Choose suitable measurable verbs such as ‘perform’, or ‘carry out’. If the training has included background theory then you can consider verbs such as ‘explain’ and ‘describe’. The number of learning objectives which you should set will depend on the actual training required.

Setting objectives is one of those tasks that is often included in a range of training events such as time management and project planning. It can end up feeling like management-speak jargon, especially if it is not explained adequately. The effort involved in setting learning objectives for training events is well worthwhile. They are the basis for the design, delivery and evaluation of the training and a good set of learning objectives will make these stages of the training cycle simple to implement.

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