Who needs learning outcomes, anyway?

In the second of our new series of blogs from our in-house Learning Experience team, Ross Dickie explains what learning outcomes are, and why they're so important.

Written by Ross Dickie
Published 13 May 2022
Who needs learning outcomes, anyway?
By the end of this blog post, you will be able to:
  • explain what learning outcomes are
  • write your own performance-focused learning outcomes
  • present learning outcomes without relying on bullet points.

In this latest blog from the Learning Experience team, Ross Dickie shows us how they really should be done.

What is a learning outcome?

 For most people, “learning outcomes” will evoke memories of the worst kind of learning experience: an e-learning course or workshop that begins with some version of the bullet points above, and then tediously wades through each point before arriving at a final assessment.
But, done right, learning outcomes can and do serve a useful purpose. And not just for learners!
For the organization, they provide a clear definition of what the learning intervention is aiming to achieve.
For learning designers, they help clarify what’s important and – crucially – what’s not.
And for learners, they clarify what they will get out of the learning experience: the “What’s in it for me?”

Want to learn more about learning outcomes? Listen to our podcast!

In a recent episode, the Mind Tools L&D Podcast team, Ross D, Ross G, Tracey and Sean explored the characteristics of good learning outcomes and their connection to business objectives. 

Don't have time to listen to the podcast right now? Continue reading our article below.


Organizational outcomes

Before rushing to design a learning intervention, the first question you should ask is: “What would success look like?” Without a clear understanding of the organization’s goals, there’s a risk that you’ll end up with a solution in search of a problem. In other words, a course or resource that’s stuffed with content that doesn’t feel relevant, and fails to develop skills that support the needs of the business.
So, spend time defining your organization’s problem(s), then ask: if this were solved, what would we expect to see? That’s your desired organizational outcome.

Learning outcomes for developing content

 The next step is to translate that into learning outcomes. Put simply, you need to determine what you want learners to do differently as a result of your intervention.
A good place to start here is with what learning designer Julie Dirksen refers to as “gaps”. Gaps explain why people don’t do the things that we think they should be doing. These could be:
  • A knowledge gap – People don’t know what it is that they’re meant to do.
  • A skills gap – People don’t have the skills or have never had a chance to practice.
  • A motivation gap – People aren’t motivated to do something.
  • A habit gap – People are motivated to give it a go, but it’s not a habit so they often forget.
  • A communication gap – People haven’t been told what to do, or it hasn’t been explained well.
  • An environment gap – The environment discourages people from doing something. For example, maybe the safety equipment is locked up and difficult to access so doesn’t get used.
Not all of these are “learning” problems, and that’s why starting with an organizational outcome is so important. If we focus on this, we can expand our options beyond learning.
For now, though, let’s assume that learning is the answer. Typically, we’ll focus our learning outcomes on “doing” rather than “knowing” because knowledge doesn’t necessarily lead to action. By identifying the specific actions learners need to take to achieve the desired organizational outcome, we not only account for gaps that aren’t knowledge-related, we also avoid the temptation to pack our intervention with stuff that is simply “nice to know”.

Learning outcomes for focusing learners

Okay, so you’ve established clear organizational outcomes, translated them into learning outcomes, and used these as the basis for your intervention. The next question is, how (or should) you present outcomes to learners?
While a list of bullet points at the beginning of a course may be clichéd, or even ineffective, that doesn't mean it isn’t important to find some way of telling learners what the course is about, why they’re taking it, and what they can expect to get out of the experience.
Assuming the audience for workplace learning is, at best, only semi-motivated to engage with the content, then the use of learning outcomes to articulate “What’s in it for me [the learner]?” seems like a no-brainer. Dr Will Thalheimer refers to these learner-facing outcomes as “focusing objectives”, as their purpose is to draw the learner’s focus to critical pieces of information.
That’s not a defence of boring bullet-pointed lists. It simply means that you want to communicate to your learners what they will get out of the course or experience. How you do that (animation, video, funky title, etc) is up to you.

So, what does this look like in practice?

 To understand what all of this looks like in practice, let’s consider an example.
Suppose you’ve been tasked with building the sales team’s knowledge of your company’s products. You think training is the answer, so you engage a learning designer to help you out.
A good learning designer will start by asking what it is that you want to achieve. Presumably, more sales?
Then they’ll ask: What’s getting in the way of sales now?
Sometimes, the answer really might be “a lack of product knowledge”. But, more often than not, it’s something else. It could be that the sales team are not incentivized to sell that particular product; or they struggle to handle objections; or the product itself might suck.
Assuming that learning is helpful in this situation, we might define an organizational outcome as: Increase sales by X% over the next quarter.
And, because we’ve had those upfront conversations, we already have some insight into how to do that.
Next, we ask: What does the learner need to do to achieve that outcome?
This approach is based on the work of US instructional designer Cathy Moore, whose action mapping process informs much of what we do at Mind Tools for Business.
Assuming that objection handling is the issue we’ve identified, we might need our sales team to identify customers challenges, tie the product to those challenges, and articulate why the product is a better solution than common competitors.
Because we’ve clarified what it is that learners need to do, the learning designer can exclude material that doesn’t support those outcomes.
Finally, when the learner accesses the course or attends the workshop, what do we present them with? A series of bullet points? Or, a clearly defined reason for being there: Increase sales by handling customer objections.
This learning outcome addresses a clear need, focuses the learner on how the experience will help them, and is clearly tied to the organizational outcome we defined at the outset.


About the author

Ross Dickie

Ross Dickie

Learning Experience Manager
Ross has been working in L&D since 2015 and is a key member of the Learning Experience team at Mind Tools for Business. Most of his time is dedicated to writing articles, scoping infographics and contributing to video projects.

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