From Learning Outcomes to Performance Outcomes

22 Sep

In most, if not all e-Learning and classroom courses, one of the first things mentioned are the Learning Outcomes. After all, they’re the purpose of the course. Unfortunately, in many cases, they appear to be slapped on with very little thought put into them. Here are three that I dislike seeing:

By the end of this course, you will:

  • Understand something, or
  • Be aware of something, or
  • Know something.

The problem with these outcomes is that they are too vague. Yet they are used all too often to set the scene for an online or face-to-face learning experience. Sure, understanding, awareness and knowledge are part of the learning process. You could even argue they are learning outcomes because hopefully by the end of a course, learners will understand, be aware and know something that they didn’t know before. The problem is these outcomes don’t go far enough. How can you tell if a learner understands, is aware or knows something?

They’ll be able to DO something.

As someone who works in “Learning and Development” my goal is to change behaviour and ultimately improve the performance of the employees in my organisation. There are many ways to do this both formally and informally but focusing on what will be learned i.e. the content, its stopping short of the ultimate goal of behaviour change and performance improvement.

For example, if I’m designing a course about our organisations Code of Conduct, a learner is aware of, and knows that, the code exists – just by participating.

So, an outcome of the course isn’t really:

You’ll be able to understand the requirements of the Code of Conduct.

It’s only part of what learners are able to do. A real outcome is:

You’ll be able to make ethical decisions while working at our organisation.

See the difference? The first one is content focused – what the code says to do, where the second is performance focused – making decisions based on what the code says to do. So why don’t we call them Performance Outcomes? Surely, by moving away from the term Learning Outcomes and calling them Performance Outcomes, we can focus on the desired performance required from learners and not what content is to be covered during the course?

A performance focus should also guide us through the analysis and design of the course resulting in an improved outcome for learners who are participating and the organisation as a whole.

What’s your view?



Posted by on September 22, 2013 in Instructional Design


Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

5 responses to “From Learning Outcomes to Performance Outcomes

  1. tanyalau

    September 23, 2013 at 12:12 pm

    Hey Matt, nice post on performance focused learning outcomes. Def agree – there is usually insufficient thought put into learning outcomes, and subsequently the result is info dump interspersed with a smattering of recall based questions. Which is both dull largely useless to both the learner and the organisation.

    BUT – whilst performance based objectives are a good start, they are only the beginning. Ultimately we need to follow this approach through and EVALUATE actual real world performance of learners. Until we do this, we have no idea whether what we’re designing actually meets the performance objectives we’ve created (regardless of how well written our objectives are, or how well we THINK we’ve designed the learning intervention).

    Measuring real world performance is not an easy task. And because of this, it’s a major weakness in probably most organisation’s learning strategies. But it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot, because unless it’s done, we really have no way of knowing whether what we’re creating is actually doing what we’re aiming to do, or making any sort of impact at all. This post on performance based smile sheets from Will Thalheimer is a really good start towards performance based level 1 evaluation

    This is a start. The other things we can do are: develop performance based assessments – either via real world scenario based questions or simulations OR workplace based assessments (level 2 eval). And I think it’s also important look at measuring business / org outcomes by first getting the business to define measurable business outcomes at the outset of the analysis / scoping phase – AND actually follow up with them in 6 or 12 months time to see what the outcomes are. This is something that I’m looking to do with the learning interventions I design. And whilst you will NEVER really be able to determine the exact impact of a learning intervention on improved performance (as there are many other environmental factors that likely will have impacted on performance – ….although xAPI has the potential to change that!), even being able to say that the intervention CONTRIBUTED to improved performance is a hell of a lot better than most of us can currently say.

    Anyway – thanks for bringing this up Matt, it’s a fascinating topic and one of many that I have also been thinking a lot about, and hoping to make improvements in!

    • learningsnippets

      September 25, 2013 at 12:58 am

      Hi Tanya, thanks for your comments!

      I’ve been reading a number of posts over the past few months – from Jane hart and Clark Quinn and others about performance improvement and thought that changing the way we frame the outcomes might be a good place to start.

      You’ve definitely hit the nail on the head. Often there isn’t enough done to measure real on-the-job performance improvements and I agree that it’s not easy – but we must find a way to measure the change and I think this will help L&D to be known for more than ‘booking people into training courses’.

      You’ve listed some great ideas for other things we can do and you’re right the outcomes a part of a bigger picture. Having the business define their objectives is a great one. I was talking to a friend who works at a large organisation and that’s what they do there.

      Thanks for the link to the Will Thalheimer post, he puts out some really great stuff (I also like the Decisive Dozen post).

  2. Kenneth Hansen

    September 30, 2013 at 9:10 am

    Hi Matt. Good questions.
    I wonder why E-learning always has to answer to learning outcomes, than traditional education. I many cases the traditional education is not questioned in the same way.

    Personally I work with three categories of learning objectives. Knowledge, skills and competency (normally qiute hard to measure).

    This helps me to differentiate between the objectives and building efficient evaluation and give the person asking a reasonable answer.

    – Kenneth

    • learningsnippets

      October 1, 2013 at 8:12 am

      Hi Kenneth
      Thanks for your comments.
      It does seem strange, I know classroom education has outcomes but e-Learning seems to have to be more accountable.
      The measurement is a really important part and while you can measure during the learning experience, I think that its really important to conduct some form of measurement after the event (when people are back on the job) to see if behaviour has changed and/or if performance has improved.


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