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4 Steps to Writing Cafeteria Learning Objectives

Tuesday, November 22, 2016
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Our last post offered a brief introduction to the idea of Cafeteria Learning. Like any learning experience, Cafeteria Learning starts with drafting the right learning objectives, which are unique in that there are relatively few of them and the design is typically based around three core objectives. They also are designed specifically to allow for choice. Here are four steps L&D designers should keep in mind. 

Clarify Content 

Subject matter experts (SMEs) and learning professionals need each other. Each brings different strengths and information to a project. The learning design expert can build an innovative, beautiful framework, but without the content expert’s contribution, the structure could easily crumble. In the end, we all have the same goal: a dynamic learning experience that captures the audience’s attention and makes a meaningful difference.

Some SMEs think learners should know everything possible about a given subject and thus would like to cram as much information into the learning program. They may be expressing their perceived need, or their stated request, typically a result of a problem they are experiencing. This is often phrased in terms of a preconceived solution they have already in mind. Instead, a well-designed learning experience should be limited to only the content that will achieve the desired goal. The process of writing effective and strategic learning objectives involves not only knowing what content to include, but nearly as important, what content not to include. This is why it’s so essential when crafting your learning objectives to always begin with the end in mind.

By clarifying content, you’ll be able to provide an effective structure for the vast amounts of information that you (or your SME) possess, crafting strategic learning objectives in the process. Here are some tips to remember when working with SMEs to clarify content:

Understand your role. Learning professionals are not often experts in the content areas they write about, nor should they expect to become experts. Learn as much as possible about the subject to create a learning experience that’s meaningful for the audience. The added expertise will enable you to organize and create a fabulous learning program.

It’s mostly about respect. Regard SMEs as the true experts. Sometimes they bring 30 years of detailed knowledge. Even if this knowledge comes in the form of a pile of printed materials thicker than the tallest coffee mug, still take the time to review the information the SME compiled. By building respect with the SME, you’ll improve access to reliable resources that you’ll need to accomplish your goals.

Guide the conversation. Communicate the big picture for the learning program and ultimately design the course only using the content that supports the learning objectives. If multiple SMEs are involved and they’re saying different things, actively listen to seek clarification and consistency. 

Identify the Learning Outcome 

For the most part, training requests won’t come to you as, “We need a Cafeteria Learning workshop.” Instead, requests will likely sound like “we need sales training” or “we need diversity training” or “we need a conflict management workshop.” However, these requests don’t describe the desired outcome for the learning experience; they may provide a clue as to what the goal might be, but not the specific goal itself. If you receive these kinds of requests, dig deeper and uncover the specific learning outcome.

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When identifying the learning outcome, think of it as the tangible, measurable benefit to the organization as a result of the learner’s participation in the learning experience. For example, an outcome for a workshop on the science of learning might be to increase the use of brain-based learning principles when designing sales training. 

Identify the Learning Objectives 

The next step is to determine the learning objectives that will contribute to the achievement of the goal. Learning objectives are the measurable results of the learners’ participation in the learning activities, or stated another way, what the learners will be able to demonstrate as a result of what they have learned.

Aristotle once said, “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” And David Kolb (1984) proposed that to gain knowledge from an experience, the learner must:


  • Be willing to be actively involved in the experience. 
  • Be able to reflect on the experience. 
  • Possess and use analytical skills to conceptualize the experience. 
  • Possess decision-making and problem-solving skills to use the new ideas gained from the experience.

So when you begin writing learning objectives, you should determine what knowledge, skills, and attitudes learners will need to demonstrate the stated outcome. If your initial list consists of more than three learning objectives, the next step is to condense your list to just three around which your Cafeteria Learning workshop and activities will revolve. Over time, we’ve found that three learning objectives is the right number to deliver a two- to three-hour Cafeteria Learning workshop. If you have more than three learning objectives, the workshop can become chaotic; if you have less than three, there aren’t enough choices, which affects the richness of the learner’s experience. 

Allow for Choice 

Writing learning objectives for a Cafeteria Learning workshop should allow for choice in learning. They should be written in such a way that you will be able to design three different activities for each objective. Regardless of what activity the learners choose, they all should be able to reach the same learning objective.

This is the beauty of Cafeteria Learning—learners have a choice of activities to participate in rather than only having to experience the one activity that has been provided to them. By its very nature, Cafeteria Learning leaves the how to learn the content up to the learner. Learners can construct their own knowledge in an exploratory and self-directed manner, one in which they’re free to choose their own unique learning paths within a defined framework aligned with the learning objectives.

Bottom line: a well-designed Cafeteria Learning workshop creates a learning environment in which all learners reach a similar destination regardless of the path they take; writing learning objectives that allow for choice will help you on your way to creating that environment.


About the Author

Jillian Douglas is co-founder and chief experience officer for Idea Learning Group. With more than 20 years of experience in adult education, Jillian has a passion for conceptualizing and delivering operational, managerial, and leadership-focused employee development programs. She also facilitates classroom learning and conducts speaking engagements on a wide variety of topics related to adult learning and development. 

About the Author

Shannon McKenzie is co-founder and chief operating officer of Idea Learning Group, where she oversees business operations, leads a talented team of learning consultants, and dishes out daily doses of wit. Shannon has a passion for ensuring that each individual’s learning needs are met clearly, simply, and effectively and helping people perform their work more efficiently and businesses excel.

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