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ATD Blog

Is Your E-Learning Focused on Knowledge or Performance?

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

List, define, describe, explain; I see lots of e-learning courses that start with objectives using these words. For example:

  • Define workplace safety.
  • List the four most common reasons for back injuries in an office setting.
  • Describe the appropriate way to lift a box.
  • Explain your role in workplace safety.

Most likely, the safety team, the lawyers, and the CEO aren’t really concerned that employees can list the four reasons for back injuries; they want employees to avoid doing those four things. Sure, knowing the common reasons can help them get there—it’s hard to avoid risks that you don’t know exist. But knowing the common reasons for injuries is only the means to an end. As learning designers, we need to focus on the end. Our e-learning programs (whether a full-blown course, performance support tools, or microlessons) will be more effective if we as designers focus on what we ultimately want our learners to do.

So how do you get there? When faced with a list/describe/explain objective, ask yourself, “Is this what we want the person to do on the job, or is this a step to help them get there?”

Sometimes, these verbs do describe end performance. For example, a sales person might truly need to describe the benefits of a new product feature to a prospective client (although I might argue that the true performance is for the sales person to convince the client that the benefits of their product are better than the competition’s). A doctor might need to explain treatment options to a patient.

More often than not, though, listing, describing, defining, and explaining are not the ultimate goal. Use this test to help you decide. You are passing your boss in the hallway and need some help. Your boss says, “I can’t talk right now. I have to go help James [insert objective here].”


Let’s try it out.

“I can’t. I have to go help James explain the benefits of the new project to one of his clients.” Yep. That’s something your boss might say.


“I can’t. I have to go help James describe the proper way to lift a box.” Nope. It’s highly unlikely your boss is rushing off to help James describe that. What might your boss be rushing to do instead?

“I can’t. I have to go help James safely move all those heavy boxes that just arrived.” Or perhaps, “I can’t. I have to help James decide how to move all those heavy boxes.”

This simple exercise can help you get closer to your true performance goal. When you take a few extra minutes to determine what the real performance goals are, you can make sure the e-learning content sets your learners up to be able to do them—not just talk about them.

Interested in becoming more strategic in how you approach e-learning design? Check out the new Master E-Learning Instructional Designer course.

About the Author

Diane Elkins is the president of Artisan E-Learning, a custom e-learning development company specializing in Articulate Studio, Storyline, Lectora, and Captivate. She has built a reputation as a national e-learning expert by being a frequent speaker at major industry events such as ATD's International Conference & Exposition, ATD TechKnowledge, DevLearn, and Learning Solutions. She is also the co-author of the popular E-Learning Uncovered book series as well as E-Learning Fundamentals: A Practical Guide from ATD Press. She is a past president of the Northeast Florida and Metro DC chapters of ATD.

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Excellent thought put in simple words on on target.
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I think you all make some excellent points. When you focus on the end performance goals, it makes it easier to see places where e-learning might not be the total solution. It will be more obvious if some practice or assessment might need to take place outside of the e-learning environment.
So glad it was helpful Angela! I'll reach out in email about your question.
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My team has had great conversation after reading your post! We are considering a brief video using live footage or animation to bring the 'test' to life. Our goal is a memorable piece of microlearning for educators that come to us with a strong Bloom's background but who need a nudge toward designing for the workplace. Would that be acceptable use of your content? We would attribute this post, of course, but wanted to reach out. Thanks for considering! [email protected]
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I agree with the author's complaint. I see lazy e-Learning instructional designers trotting out lower level cognitive objectives with no eye to business performance. However, the ID needed to recognize that delivering e-Learning for psycho-motor skills is inappropriate. Even the American Red Cross doesn't rely solely on their e-Learning component for CPR training. Better to match the performance objective with the delivery method than trying to force e-Learning to take on an ill-suited role.
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