Good Learning Design Involves Alignment and Specificity

by Sharlyn Lauby | Posted | Learning

Good Learning Design Involves Alignment and Specificity

(Editor's Note: This is the second post in a five-part series about using the ADDIE model to enhance the learner experience. In the first installment, we talked about the importance of conducting an assessment, even when the organization knows exactly what they want to do. We hope you'll check it out when you have a moment. Enjoy today's post!)

Organizations want high performance. Shocking, right? High performance is the engine that helps organizations stay competitive and achieve their business goals. This simple truth is why many organizations use a cascading goal structure. The Big Idea is that the company's goals are broken into smaller department goals, which are further broken down into employee goals. Not only does this structure ensure that everyone is working together toward the same larger company goals, but employees are able to see directly how their contributions benefit the organization - a critical part of employee engagement.

But this also means that organizational learning efforts need to align with employee performance. Because ultimately, it's employee performance that's driving business results.


Any type of organizational learning activity - whether it's 1:1 meetings or formal classroom training - needs to have a clear connection to employee performance. And by clear, we're talking specific. Weak action verbs in the learning objective do not create proper alignment.

Make sure learning activities have a clear connection to employee performance. @sharlyn_lauby
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What do we mean by "weak verbs"? We're talking about words such as "discuss," "understand" or even "learn." These words are not specific enough to tell the organization what to expect when an employee attends training. They're also not specific enough to tell the learning and development function what to design. Here are a few examples to prove the point:

  • Participants will discuss the five steps commonly used for instructions systems design.
  • Participants will understand the five components used during instructional systems design.
  • Participants will learn the five parts of an instructional systems design model.

Did you catch the weak verbs? While it's apparent in our example that the training is about instructional systems design, it's not specific enough to set a level of expectation once the participant leaves the training. What will they be able to do with the information? Honestly, we don't know. So, to create alignment, we can use the design phase in the ADDIE model to establish program objectives. Just a reminder that ADDIE is an acronym commonly used in instructional systems design (ISD) and represents the five phases in the process: assessment, design, development, implementation and evaluation.

The design phase can be used during the creation of any type of learning, whether it's a five-minute demonstration about how to open a bottle of wine during a restaurant pre-shift briefing or a three-day leadership boot camp. The goal is the same - create a specific learning objective that directly links to employee performance. One way to do this is by using the ABCD method. Here's what ABCD stands for:

A is for audience

Know your audience. These are the individuals targeted for the learning. In orientation, it's the new hire employee. In a management development program, the audience is the group of managers who attend. Defining the audience (aka learner) helps to target the content.

B is for behavior

The behavior is what is expected from the audience after learning is complete. This should be an actionable behavior that can be seen back on the job. For instance, if the company has a training session on how to create Excel pivot tables, learners should be able to create pivot tables after the training is completed.

C is for condition

Is there something - cheat sheet, job aid, reference manual, etc. - that learners will be able to rely upon to do the behavior? Learning isn't always about memorization. It's about being able to work through challenges on our own, with or without an aid.

D is for degree

Learning isn't a race for first-time perfection. When learning takes place, the audience might not be 100 percent proficient, and that's okay. But the learning activity should identify how proficient the audience will be upon completion of the learning activity.

Let's use the earlier "weak verb" objective to show how the ABCD method can bring specificity and alignment to the learning process.

Using the article "Good Learning Design Involves Alignment and Specificity" as a guide, supervisors will create a learning objective using the ABCD method when given two opportunities to do so.

The audience is supervisors. The behavior is "creating a learning objective using the ABCD method." The condition is the use of the article and the degree is being given two chances. Using a method such as ABCD during the design phase of ADDIE helps the content stay on track. And it's that focus that makes the learning content deliver on its promise to the audience.

P.S. It might seem like we've spent a lot of time focused on planning learning and not enough creating it. Well, in the next part of the series, we'll talk about development. And that's where all of our planning pays off...for the learner. Keep tuning in!

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