SMART Learning Objectives: How to Make a Truly Great Online Training Course

Your learning objectives are the things you want participants to be able to do after they complete your course. When designing online training, SMART learning objectives are more than just a “good place to start”.

They are the solid foundation that supports the broader training experience. This holds true regardless of whether the training is online or face-to-face.

Think of a dartboard. The SMART training objectives are the bull’s eye.  Every element of the online training experience should be aimed at that red circle. Because no matter how much time, money and effort you invest in training, it doesn’t matter if you haven’t transferred the correct knowledge to participants.

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.

Typically, they reply 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…

Because SMART learning objectives focus on the desired actions of individual learners.

SMART 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 SMART:


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.

Testing is a standard way to measure. Another option might be to create an opportunity for learners to demonstrate a newfound skill.  Through one means or another, you need to measure.  Because 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 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 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. They need training  to reinforce their existing knowledge of company policies, practices, and procedures, including safe work practices and acceptable workplace behaviours.  And they should have opportunities for professional development.

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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Download the 7-Point E-Learning Design Checklist to help you develop a high-quality e-learning course or to assess the quality of existing programs.

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