Tips for Effective Employee Training: Writing SMART Learning Objectives

Published: Apr 06, 2022
Modified: Apr 09, 2024

Tips for Effective Employee Training: Writing SMART Learning Objectives

Employee training isn’t reserved for professional trainers. When new technologies demand new proficiencies from existing team members, when new hires need to get up to speed on established procedures, when teamwork gets derailed by poor planning or communication, or when an individual’s performance suffers due to a lack of knowledge or skills, the responsibility for training employees often falls on the manager.   

Whether you’re tasked with training an entire workforce comprised of hundreds or a single person, the session generally begins by stating the learning objectives—essentially the purpose and goal of training. Learning objectives range from acquiring the particular skills required to use a tool, execute a process, or navigate a project to developing critical competencies such as time management, decision making, or working effectively with others. Stating learning objectives gives participants a solid sense of what they can expect to gain from the training—what they will know or be able to do at the end of the course—as well as how their new knowledge or skills will apply to their job and might be evaluated.  

Given their importance to the effectiveness of any employee training effort, clearly defining the learning objectives should be a trainer’s top priority and the first step in designing the actual training course. But writing clear and effective learning objectives isn’t as easy as it might seem at first glance. In fact, it’s a specialized skill in itself.

American Management Association (AMA), a recognized leader in professional development and manager training, has a step-by-step system to help. It’s based on a trusted framework reinforced with a handy acronym: SMART. The SMART formula has been widely applied to goal setting, and as the experts at AMA show, it works for the challenge of writing learning objectives that make employee training worth the investment.         

As a manager, you might be motivated to train your employees to become better at dealing with difficult customers, better at troubleshooting IT issues, or better communicators. While these are all valid goals, they’re also perfect examples of vague learning objectives. When learning objectives are too vague, your employee training is destined to be ineffective.

To ensure effective employee training, focus on strengthening your learning objectives by making them SMART—that is, Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. Start by asking the most fundamental question: What do I want my training session to accomplish? Then, find the answer by writing learning objectives that meet these five key criteria:       

Specific. How specifically will your employees become better at dealing with difficult customers? Possible answer: “I will present four different responsive conversation techniques.”       

Measurable. How will you gauge whether your employees have gotten better at dealing with difficult customers? Possible answer: “I will keep a record of customer reactions to these techniques for the next month and then report the results.”

Attainable. Is this a realistic goal for your employees to meet? Have you planned adequate practice sessions?     

Relevant. Why does meeting this objective matter to my team, department, and company?  

Time-bound. Will my employees be able to learn these techniques within the span of the training session?  

Through the SMART process, the vague goal of training your employees to become better at dealing with difficult customers is transformed into an effective learning objective: “To learn and apply four responsive conversation techniques to the challenge of dealing with difficult customers, with a follow-up assessment in one month.”   

While you’re focused on writing your learning objectives, consider writing corresponding test questions or exercises for your training participants. Along with providing an observable, measurable way to confirm that the participant achieved the learning objective, writing test items at the same time as the learning objective helps to ensure that the content you include actually addresses the learning objective and does not accidentally teach a related but less significant task.  

Yes, it takes some thought, time, and practice. Yet, when you make all your learning objectives SMART, you’ll make employee training sessions more effective and more rewarding.

About AMA

American Management Association (AMA) is globally recognized as a leader in professional development. For nearly 100 years, it has helped millions of people bring about positive change in their performance in order to improve results. AMA’s learn-by-doing instructor-led methods, extensive content, and flexible learning formats are proven effective—and constantly evolve to meet the changing needs of individuals and organizations. To learn more, visit