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Backwards Design Moves Your Learning Objectives Forward

This was originally posted on in May, 2019.

When it comes to training and professional developmentbackwards design is a great way to get started. Backwards design in training means determining the desired training outcomes first and then building to them, rather than building something and then trying to find a way to get desired results out of it.

As an idea, this isn’t that novel. Most products are designed to fit needs, not invented in a vacuum with no result in mind. However, the learning and development sector often gets bogged down in design for design’s sake. Sometimes we get caught in the trap of producing learning that’s industrially sound but practically useless.

So how do we correct that through backwards design? Two words: learning objectives.

How to Create Good Learning Objectives

Once you figure out what you want people to do, put that into learning objectives; then you can design the training specifically to do it. Sounds easy enough, right? Well, not always.

The problem, Cathy Moore observes, is that people aren’t very good at designing observable, measurable objectives with real-world meaning. She argues that any objectives involving terms such as “know,” “define,” and “understand” aren’t good learning objectives at all. For example, if you’re writing a course called “How to Avoid Being Assassinated,” you don’t really care if learners know, say, three types of poisons commonly used in assassinations. You just want them to not get poisoned.

So that would be one of your learning objectives for the course: “Don’t get poisoned.” When you’re designing, you may include an activity about poison types, yes, but that knowledge takes a backseat to the observable, measurable objective of not getting poisoned.

How to Design Using Learning Objectives

To bring learners to the point of meeting a learning objective, provide them with the information they need to succeed and then give them a way to practice.

Providing information can be tricky. You don’t want to be too boring or too overwhelming, but you also don’t want to be overly light or not meet the learning’s needs. At AllenComm, we’ve developed a variety of ways to provide information without inducing yawns. These involve chunking information, putting some content in videos, learning through gamification, and more.

As for practicing, at AllenComm, we recommend simulations and other realistic exercises. These can be done online or in-person, depending on the needs of the content and the audience—but training shouldn’t end without an opportunity to practice the objectives.

In Conclusion

As Stephen Covey famously said, begin with the end in mind. Don’t start building training until you’ve hammered out good learning objectives. Once you’ve done that, then, and only then, can you start the design process.