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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8 comments

  • Being able to write a clear performance objective not helps the designer stay on course but assists them in preparing for changes that may be necessary to complete a successful training program.

    Clarity is usually a problem for me when creating a performance objective, I always want to add as much as possible to it, adding as many additional aspects to a simple singular objective. When re-reading this objective, at this point, it becomes more of a ten step program which includes components that have no or little relation to the core objective. I believe this is a common occurrence either due to overconfidence by the creator of the objective or other external pressures that may facilitate or pressure an individual, to add these unrelated elements into a singular objective.

    I have been in training sessions in which either a scarcity of resources or even time became factors for trainers to include additional areas to cover, upon what was a major but singular (objective) agenda. Thereby creating a mishmash of expectations or required outcomes that were mentioned in this blog, the outcome is usually chaos and an ineffective training experience for the learner.

  • Just when you think that you can get away from objectives you circle back to you. I truly understand now why we review objectives throughout this program. When you are not focused on writing them daily you tend to forget how to write a good one. I think that we should actually review objectives before every course. I am finding out how closely related that they are we each course. I am currently enrolled in the Evaluation course and our first assignment was to review and write an objective. If it wasn’t for the review, I am quite sure that I would not have written it correctly the first time out. This is why this subject is so very important. I feel challenged every time that I have to write one to make sure that I have included all of the ABCD’s to formulate a good objective. This is something that I need to practice and keep fresh. To answer the question above. One common error that I have seen with some of our curriculums is that that instructor has not taken time to align the activities with the objectives. They are so focused on the content that they forget to align the activities to the objective so that they person can practice in the class and actually meet the objective by successfully completing the activity. Great blog and great subject.

  • I recently completed an assignment crating objectives, I a hard time focusing on one set and molding it. I wish I had read this blog before it would have helped out quite a bit. Thanks for the post.

  • Professor Iverson,

    Nice article. This article was helpful to me because I still get confused when writing objectives. It was good to find out that even experienced people find it difficult to nail down the objective. Considering they are the foundation for the training to come I san see why it is important to be able to compose objectives that do more than just list out items.

  • I thought you item about utilizing vague terms for performance was really accurate. On my own job, I have had to bring to the table many changes in our performance appraisal system in order to make it function the way it needs to. Also, by being specific, it allows a person to truly understand how he/she is being graded.

  • This is a wonderful blog post, Dr. Iverson. I think the most challenging aspect of writing learning objectives is determining the appropriate criterion that coincides with the overall objective. What are your thoughts? Do you have any suggestions on how to overcome this challenge when writing learning objectives?

    • Hi Lisa:
      I agree, specifying the criterion is a challenge. In fact, most designers do no specify a criterion when working in the field, but only include the behavior and audience. But including the criterion leads to good evaluation. Not only do you know what you will measure but you have a goal or result in mind. If you think about exactly what learners should be able to do and make the criterion numerical (#acceptable errors, time limit or speed) you will have a stronger objective that leads to a stronger evaluation.

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