Perfect Performance Objectives

By: Kathleen Iverson

targetAt first glance the premise of the perfect performance objective is deceptively simple. Dick and Carey (2009) define performance objectives as statements of what the learners will be expected to do when they have completed a specified course of instruction, written in terms of observable performance. To most novice designers, this sounds easy enough—just write down what learners will do after they complete their training. Experienced designers know that objectives are much more than a laundry list of desired outcomes. They provide an essential link between each phase of the training process from needs assessment, to design, delivery, and finally, evaluation. Trainers who scratch out their objectives quickly and easily are likely missing an essential component.

So what is a perfect performance objective? The most widely used framework for performance objectives was developed by Robert Mager (1997) and specifies three components that are included in each objective:

  • Performance – what the learner is to be able to do.  This is best described by using an active verb like list, describe, discuss, draw, explain.
  • Conditions – important resources or constraints.  For example: without using references; or using a map.  Think about what will be provided to the learner.
  • Criterion – the quality or level of performance that will be considered acceptable.  Think of this in terms of standards.  How much, how many, how well should the learner perform?

Although writing objectives can be very straight forward using Mager’s framework, even the most experienced instructional designer may find it challenging to hit the mark every time on every objective. So where do we go wrong? Here are some common errors that novice and experienced designers have made when crafting performance objectives:

  1. Failing to include each component in every objective (performance, condition, and criteria).
  2. Using vague terms for performance like understand, know, and learn. These terms are not readily observable and measurable. Think about it—how do we see and measure understanding? In fact, how do we define understand without adding specific behaviors? When in doubt, refer to verbs from Bloom’s Taxonomy (2001).
  3. Failing to link the criterion to the assessment tool. For example, an objective might state that the learner will “describe the three components of a performance objective,” yet, in actuality, learners take a multiple choice test, which really measures recall.
  4. Objectives that read like agendas. Adding unnecessary detail and specifics about the training sequence that fill the objective with confusing verbiage.
  5. Lack of clarity in the criterion. We often miss the mark by specifying an arbitrary criterion of “100% accuracy.”
  6. Including multiple unrelated performance outcomes in a single objective: “Learners will recognize the benefits of writing objectives and differentiate between the three components of an objective.”

Please add a comment to this article to share your challenges and successes in writing perfect performance objectives. Can you add to my list of common errors?

References

Anderson, L., Krathwohl, D., & Bloom, B. (2001) A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives. New York: Longman.

Dick, W. ,Carey, L. Carey, J. (2009). The Systematic Design of Instruction. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Pearson.

Mager, R. (1997) Preparing Instructional Objectives: A critical tool in the development of effective instruction. Atlanta, GA:  Center for Effective Performance.

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12 comments

  • This article was great, It really broke down the objective process. including the errors was super helpful it allowed me to check back over my own objective and see where I might have dropped the bar. For me the criterion or degree is the hardest part for me, you always ask yourself how can you measure this and what is enough.

  • As I read this post, I imagined raising my hand. I AM the novice objective writer and I struggle with conveying criterion in the objective. The desire is to complete at 100% but I know that’s unrealistic, so I truly struggle with saying just how much is enough.

    Additionally, I have a desire to include a “why”/justification to the objective. This is not a part of the framework but seems like a reasonable add especially for readers of the objectives who weren’t part of the decision to train team.

  • This was extremely helpful; #4 especially. Many times we add too much to an objective statement. The actually objective is hidden by the fluff. It is important to be clear, concise, and measurable so that the objective can be easily understood.

  • The best part of this article for me was the common errors designers make when creating objectives, specifically #3. It’s so important to “start with the end in mind” and think about how you will measure the change in knowledge, skills, behavior, or attitudes. Objectives can sometimes be too complex in an attempt to be perfect. Like error #4, objectives should not be looked at as a all inclusive list of what must be done. In my opinion, they must provide enough information to act as the foundation for a training process – kind of like a mission statement is to a business.

  • What stood out to me the most on your article is the use of the word “measurable” in #2 of the common errors list. Measurable is a key component, I believe, in writing solid performance objectives. If we are not careful we can write objectives that are subjective to the reviewer or person evaluating us, versus being based on hard data. This is an area that I am personally working on, in order to be able to evaluate a training program, or performance objective, I need to ensure that it is measurable.

  • Such a great article. I have seen many combinations of the six objectives you’ve written in various points in my academic and professional career. To be honest, before entering this program, I use to write very simple objectives that were not measurable. Crafting true performance objectives for any type of training requires a lot of work, because you are assessing the facilitation and expected comprehension of content and delivery.

    M.

  • Developing an objective that is both accurate and fully comprehensive seems to be more difficult than I thought. This is largely in part due to the subjective nature around the final statement. Who decides if an objective meets the standards of an intervention strategy? Should we allow for the consultant/practitioner eot take lead, or the client to hone in on where they would like the work to go? Must we always make it a collaborative effort to reach consensus?

    Aside from having all three of the basic components for an objective statement to read successful, I’m more curious about the process of getting there. It seems as if the consultant needs to think far ahead to what a potential outcome of the intervention may be in order to step back and make a statement about result from an aerial view. The stability or flexibility of an objective statement from the perspective of Mager’s framework is a little vague. I’m not 100% familiar with the details of the model, but it reads a bit sure given the suggestions to building a well stated objective. Diving deeper into the specifics and testing the process is something I look forward to learning more about.

  • Thanks for a very useful review! I appreciate the reminder about putting unrelated outcomes into one learning objective. I see this frequently in objectives, and I have made that mistake myself on occasion. I think it’s important for the trainer but also for learners to separate out ideas. It makes it much easier to design learning activities when you are clear about all the things learners should be able to do. It can also help scaffold learning much more effectively.

    I have found it so helpful to keep focusing on writing learning objectives in most of the TRDV classes. I understood the basics when I started the program, but the repeated practice has helped me improve my objectives and clarify my design strategies. You can’t focus on how to teach something before you’ve defined what you’re teaching! (And you certainly can’t assess learning if you didn’t define what that learning would look like, either.) Objectives are the foundation on which you build.

  • Excellent article! In my opinion performance objectives help the learner to plan and organize their work in accordance with achieving predetermined results or outcomes. When setting and completing effective performance objectives, learners are able to:
    • Develop knowledge and skills that help them thrive, take on additional responsibilities, or pursue their career aspirations;
    • Support or advance the organization’s vision, mission, values, principles, strategies, and goals;
    Without setting clear performance objectives, learners may become confused when attempting to prioritize. The absence of effective goal setting substantially reduces productivity.

  • Performance Objectives are extremely important to include in all training programs or modules. Think about performance objectives in terms of a roadmap. It’s a great directional guide that sets the expectations of the class in regards to what the facilitator will discuss and how participants will benefit from the key deliverables in the curriculum. It also outlines how the training program will help each participant meet their own learning goals and objectives by attending the training program. Often times, performance objectives can also be used to entice participants to register for a particular training program as well. Have you ever registered for a training program based on listed performance objectives outlined in registration materials and were either pleasantly surprised or disappointed after attending the training program?

    I’ve experienced the good, weak, and invisible in terms of performance objectives both from the participant and facilitator’s perspective. Those that were good, more than likely emulated Mager’s framework by using all three of his performance, condition, and criterion components. They were clear, precise, and accurate in describing the course curriculum. The weak performance objectives were written in a haphazard format with little to know clarity and completely off the mark to what was actually included in the training program curriculum. Invisible performance objectives are just altogether absent and neither the facilitator nor participant can clearly grasp the direction or outcome of what will be included in the training program curriculum.

    At the end of training programs that include performance objectives, I’ve also seen it reintroduced at the end of the training program in the form of “what we learned” recap. The disappointment from a participant’s perspective is not receiving what was expected to be delivered in the first place. This could have a far reaching impact on how a participant will respond on any training program post survey or evaluation conducted.

    There is another common performance objective error that comes to mind. Writing performance objectives that are non-existent in the overall training program curriculum being delivered to the participants.

  • Thank you for posting this article. These tips and also examples of common errors will be very beneficial throughout my academic and professional career. I’ve seen how performance objectives that are measurable not only help the individuals who are learning, but the teacher or facilitator as well.

    Point #3 in the common mistakes really stood out to me.

    “Failing to link the criterion to the assessment tool. For example, an objective might state that the learner will “describe the three components of a performance objective,” yet, in actuality, learners take a multiple choice test, which really measures recall.”

    I have made this mistake before. It is very important to administer the proper tests to align with the information provided.

  • I think this article provided a very comprehensive list of errors made in the objective writing process. I do not have much experience in writing objectives, but I am curious as to what mistakes I may fall victim to in the process or what new ones I might discover along the way. I’ll be sure to post any for you all that I come across.

    I think Robert Mager’s framework for performance objectives is a useful tool in crafting objectives. Bloom’s Taxonomy can further guide and supplement the process. His lists of verbs and which category they fall in I find especially helpful. Both are necessary to use for well-developed objectives.

    To my fellow classmates, I suggest using the above list of common errors as a check for your written objectives. See if it holds up or has one or more of the errors listed above. I’d be shocked to hear of anyone writing perfect objective statements the first try unless they have years of experience in doing so. I like to think of it as a more fluid than linear process. You will likely have several drafts before the final version hits all three critical components of performance, conditions and criterion.

    Let me know your thoughts.

    -Grant

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