S.M.A.R.T Learning Objectives: How to Make a Truly Great Online Training Course

S.M.A.R.T learning objectives aren’t just a “good place to start”, when it comes to building truly effective online training. They are the solid foundation under every truly effective training experience – online or face-to-face.

In simple terms, your training objectives are the things you want participants to be able to do after they complete the course.  Using a dartboard analogy, S.M.A.R.T training objectives are that red circle in the middle.  To hit them requires skill.  You want every person that completes your course to be able to hit that bull’s eye effortlessly.

Every element of the online training experience should aim at that red circle, and only at that red circle! Because no matter how much time, money and effort you invest in training, it doesn’t matter if you don’t get measurable results.

To get measurable results, you must:

  • Establish clear learning objectives, and
  • Align your training with those targets

Focus on the Learner

Learning objectives should focus on the learner, not the training process.  As an instructional designer, I start each project by asking the client to identify their learning objectives.

Responses often start with statements like: “We want everyone to learn about…” or “We want to teach people about…”.

These statements provide important information about what an organization wants to accomplish.  They tell me lots about the topic of the training.  That said, they are not learning objectives.

S.M.A.R.T. learning objectives focus on the desired actions of individual learners.

S.M.A.R.T. Learning Objectives

Learning objectives should reflect the knowledge, skills and attitudes of the learner.  To be effective, each learning objective must meet five key criteria. These can be remembered using the acronym S.M.A.R.T:


A good learning objective is specific.  It uses clear, simple terms that everyone understands.  That means NO jargon and NO words that only a subject-matter expert can appreciate.  Have someone outside of the management team read your objectives.  Get them to explain what they think each objective means.  If they are having a hard time explaining it, the objective needs more work.

Each learning objective must be measurable.  This means that there is a tangible way to show that learners have met each online training objective.   On method is to include a test at the end of the training experience.  Alternatively, you could create an opportunity for learners to demonstrate their use of a newfound skill. Without measurement, there is no way to show that training has been effective.

Learning objectives must be realistic and achievable.  Learners should find the the online training experience challenging.  That said, it should not be so difficult that they become frustrated.  And it should seem relevant.  Learners need to see the connection between taking the training and improving their job performance or workplace environment.  If they are not confident that the training is purposeful, they will become annoyed at what they perceive as a waste of time.  In essence, they will tune out.

Lastly, learning objectives must be timely.  Before taking the training, participants need to know when they will need to meet the learning objective.  Typically, this is after training.

Stay On Target

Once S.M.A.R.T. learning objectives are in place, you can begin developing content. The content needs to cover those objectives – and nothing but.  This is an important point because it is easy to digress.

Check your content against the learning objectives.  Have others do so as well.  The more “on target” your training is, the more successful it will be and the more satisfied participants will be in the training experience.

When the content is complete, check to make sure it is aligned with the learning objectives.  Then, you can add additional elements.  This may include things like exercises to re-enforce key concepts, quizzes, supplemental materials, and testing.  As with the content itself, these elements need to align with specific learning objectives. It is important to make the learning experience engaging.  That said, never add anything to the training just to entertain or amuse.  

Gather Feedback

After training, observe participants and provide opportunities for feedback.  Observations and feedback must focus on performance of the learning objectives.  Remember that a single training experience, no matter how well put together, is unlikely to create a profound, long-term impact on individual behaviours or on the workplace environment.


Employees need ongoing training to learn new things and to reinforce their existing knowledge of company policies, practices, and procedures, including safe work practices and acceptable workplace behaviors.  They should also have access to professional development opportunities.  When you invest in your employees, you show that that your company is committed to them and values their contributions.

Successful business leaders recognize that training is a long-term investment in the most important resource of the organization – its people.

7 Point E-Learning Design Checklist cover

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Article written by Kim Scaravelli, CEO, Trust Communications Inc.  


We are Instructional Design and Digital Content Specialists.  We have created 200+ customized online and blended learning programs for companies and non-profit organizations across Canada. Tell us your vision. Let us help


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