ABCD: The Four Parts of a Learning Objective

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[This is the fourth in a series of posts about learning objectives. We’ve now compiled all the posts into a single downloadable guide to writing learning objectives if you want to check that out.]

A simple way to make sure you’re building a useful learning objective is to use the ABCD method. Each letter in ABCD stands for a different part of your learning objective. These different parts answer four questions about your objective: who, what, how, and how well.

We’ll spell it all out for you below. Then you can use this information to create better learning activities as part of your workforce training program (or similar learning program).

The Four Parts of an ABCD Learning Objective

A classic way to think about constructing a learning objective is that it should have four parts. It’s not always the case that you’ll need each of the four parts, but it’s definitely a good idea to at least consider the need for each to ensure the learning objective is as clear, actionable, and measurable as possible.

A for ACTOR:

Every learning objective should state something that the learner should do. Sometimes, your objective may refer to the “actor” in general terms such as “the learner” or “you.” Other times, you may identify the actor by his or her job role, such as “the customer service representative” or “the press operator.” Regardless, remember that each learning objective states something that the actor must be able to do after the training. This is the “WHO?” of your objective.

Note: In courses with multiple learning objectives, it’s fine to begin a list of objectives with something like “the learner must:” written only one time. In other cases, you can leave the actor implicit and not state this directly, but be certain to keep the actor in mind when writing the objective.


B for BEHAVIOR:

Every learning objective should state something that the learner must do—a behavior of some sort. This may be something as simple as stating a definition or explaining a process, or it may be something more “physical,” such as performing an action. But it must be some form of observable behavior, not something unobservable like “know,” “understand,” or “appreciate.” This is the “WHAT?” of your objective.

Ideally, the behaviors of your learning objectives will mirror tasks the workers will actually perform on the job. That’s the point of workforce training, after all–to teach people to perform their job tasks.

Note: People sometimes refer to this as the “observable verb” step because behaviors must be stated as a verb that you can observe: define, state, build, construct, change, etc.

C for CONDITIONS:

Many times, the learner will have to perform the learning objective’s behavior within a set of given conditions. For example, you might say “given a list of words, circle the ones that are part of a given machine,” or “given a wrench, tighten this bolt,” or “given a schematic diagram, correctly identify the machines in a work area.” This is the “HOW?” of your objective.

Note: There may be times when a condition is not necessary, but always check to see if it’s appropriate to add one.


D for DEGREE:

This part of the learning objective explains the criteria for performing the task well enough. Examples here include “in less than ten minutes,” or “with 90% accuracy,” or “90 times an hour.” This is the “HOW WELL?” of your objective.

Note: There may be times when a degree is not necessary, but always check to see if it’s appropriate to add one.

Conclusion: ABCD Learning Objectives

A, B, C, D–four easy steps for building a learning objective that includes all the information it should. How could you NOT like a simple tool like this? Try the ABCD method the next time you create some learning objectives and you’ll notice how it keeps you focused on the things you really need to include in the objective (and helps you weed out the stuff you shouldn’t include).

Still curious? If you’re really interested in learning about learning objectives, try these articles too:

Let us know if you’d like help with workforce training management, online workforce training, or custom training materials, too.

And don’t forget to download the free guide to writing learning objectives below!

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How to Write Learning Objectives

All the basics about writing learning objectives for training materials.

Download Free Guide

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Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto is an Instructional Designer and the Senior Learning & Development Specialist at Convergence Training. He's worked in training/learning & development for 20 years, in safety and safety training for more than 10, is an OSHA Authorized Outreach Trainer for General Industry OSHA 10 and 30, has completed a General Industry Safety and Health Specialist Certificate from the University of Washington/Pacific Northwest OSHA Education Center, and is a member of the committee creating the upcoming ANSI Z490.2 national standard on online environmental, health, and safety training.

2 thoughts on “ABCD: The Four Parts of a Learning Objective

  1. It is so refreshing to see this information published. I learned this method in grad school and have used it ever since. When I managed teams of developers, some of which did not have a instructional design background, I often used this method to help them develop their learning objectives. Usually with this method they got it.

    1. Hi, Karen.

      Glad to hear we helped “refresh” you today 🙂

      I find this method pretty intuitive.

      Often, I feel it’s not always necessary to include each of ABCD, but at least to think of it.

      I think the A is there for the novices you’re talking about. Until they remember that the purpose of the LO is to see if the learner/actor can do something (by teaching them to do it, but creating materials to teach them, but designing materials that will teach them, etc.).

      I don’t think there’s always a reason for a C and a D, but I think you should have that on your internal/mental checklist as you write the LO to see if adding one helps.

      How do you write yours? What are your thoughts?

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