How To Use SMART Learning Objectives To Create Impactful Online Courses

When it comes to educational programs, SMART learning objectives are a must. They’re the solid foundation that supports every element of the learning experience. And this holds true regardless of whether the training is in-person or online.

Over the past 20+ years, my company has created hundreds of online and blended learning programs for organizations. With each project, I start by asking stakeholders to identify the purpose of the course.

Responses often start with statements like:

  • “We want everyone to learn about…”
  • We want to teach people about…”

These big-picture statements provide insights into the mission-based objectives of the organization. That said, they’re not functional learning objectives.

SMART learning objectives focus on the learner. They define the knowledge, skillsets, and attitudes learners should acquire by taking the course. And they elevate the effectiveness of the training by setting concrete goals instead of vague hopes and dreams.

What does SMART stand for?

SMART is an acronym for a strategic framework that helps you set learning objectives based on 5 criteria. For each objective, you must ask yourself:

  • Is it specific? 
  • Can it be measured?
  • Is it achievable for learners?
  • How relevant is it?
  • And, is it timely?

Let’s take a look at each criteria…


Each objective should focus on one specific outcome, and be written in clear, simple terms that everyone can understand. That means NO jargon and NO words that only a subject-matter expert can appreciate.

Have you ever given someone instructions to ‘clean up’? (Parents of teens will TOTALLY relate to this example, but it works for anyone who has ever shared a space with another human).

CLEAN is a subjective term. Someone may struggle to know when they’ve been successful at cleaning up. As a result, they’re apt to become discouraged and unmotivated. You need more specific outcomes, so they know when they’ve hit the mark.

Non-specific:  Clean up


  • Make your bed
  • Clear the clutter from flat surfaces
  • Remove debris and tripping hazards from floor spaces

When it comes to online training, I recommend having someone from outside the program read your objectives. Ask them to explain what they think each objective means.  If they’re having a hard time explaining it, you’re not being specific enough.


MEASURABLE means there’s a tangible way to determine that the learning objective has been reached.

When it comes to online learning, testing is the most common way to verify knowledge transfer. Another option is to provide opportunities for learners to demonstrate a newfound skill.

For example, blended learning programs often require participants to complete online training then attend an in-person workshop. During that time, participants can demonstrate the application of their knowledge and skillsets.

Regardless of how you choose to measure success, it’s essential that some form of measurement be integrated into the learning experience. Because without measurement, there’s no way to show that training has been effective.


Learning objectives should be challenging enough to engage learners, but not so difficult that they feel over-whelmed. If you set goals that are too ambitious, the risk is that people will struggle to achieve them. Ultimately, this will reduce their motivation and set them up for failure instead of success.

When it comes to difficulty level, consider both the scope of each specific outcome and the total number of outcomes. I recommend setting no more than two or three learning objectives for each module of online training. If you can’t stay within that range, perhaps you need to develop more than one course. You may want beginner level training with subsequent options to dive deeper into the topic.


Learning objectives should be meaningful to participants. Relevance is especially important when the audience is adult learners. While school-aged children are accustomed to learning things simply because they’re supposed to, adults are less amicable.

If they don’t see how the knowledge and skillsets can produce real-life benefits, they are apt to label the learning experience a waste of time. You may still be able to drive them through the course content, but you won’t capture their enthusiasm. In effect, they’ll simply be going through the motions.

Tip: Using an “I will be able to…” format for learning objectives can help establish relevance.


Lastly, your learning objectives must be timely.  Ideally, learners should be able to apply their newfound knowledge as soon as they complete training – or in the very near future. If there’s too much time between learning and applying that learning, the risk is that they will forget.

Conclusion: SMART Learning Objectives Keep You On Target

Once SMART 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’s easy to digress.

Repeatedly 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.

Online programs require significant investment of time, money, and effort. SMART learning objectives help to ensure that you get tangible results and transfer the required knowledge to participants.

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