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—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 straightforward 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 a 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?


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.


  • I think when it comes to objectives, defining the degree or criterion can be the biggest challenge. Making sure it measurable, setting an achievable standard and making sure they actually measure the correct type of learnings. All within ways in which you can actually conduct that type of testing. The higher forms of learning are a real challenge in finding ways to set the criteria in ways that you can fairly grade. I’d love to see an article that addresses objectives focused around the higher forms of learning. And how to objectively grade them.

  • I appreciate this helpful article a whole lot, my only question is how often do organizations run into the problem behind the Criterion performance objective? In many cases standards are different from many, so it is interesting to see how often do standards collide with others.

  • I think the most challenging part of learning objectives, especially with self paced module type learning is defining the condition. Especially if your are not supposed to refer to the training as the condition. If a learners only resource is the module isn’t that the condition? Using the information found in the module recall….? If someone could help me out here …??

  • I find it helpful to use the following list for action verbs:

    Knowledge: define, identify, describe, label, and list.

    Understand: explain, describe, interpret, paraphrase, and summarize.

    Apply: solve, apply, illustrate, modify, and use.

    Analyze: analyze, compare, classify, contrast, and distinguish.

    Evaluate: reframe, criticize, evaluate., and order.

    Create: design, compose, and create.

  • This article is very interesting, especially considering the updates to Bloom’s Taxonomy (01/2022)! I’m curious how that may change the perspective that the article is written in. Starting with the Objectives can either be forward or backward design, depending on the preference of the L&D Professional.

  • Ginger Ulloa-Enright

    This article is so helpful! I printed it out to keep on hand as a resource. It provided a thought link that I was missing the mark on and gave me the “ah ha” moment. Objectives link everything from assessment to evaluation in the training process. I see them as a training/learning mission statement for whatever is being taught. Everything from the learning content, design, testing and etc. need to be circled back to the objectives. If at any point in the process the objectives aren’t being met, then the process needs to be reassessed to ensure that learning transfer will occur and can be measured. It was also helpful learning about the common errors in writing objectives. I know I used abstract words such as understand, learn and know which aren’t measurable. Following the Mager/ABCD framework and Bloom’s Taxonomy is foundational for creating solid learner objectives!

  • I found this article to be very helpful. It really doesn’t matter how many times I write objectives. I still like going over the components outlined by Mager or the ABCD model before doing so. I find the ABCD model (audience, behavior, condition, and degree) easy to remember. I struggle most with the criterion/degree, both in terms of clarity and in terms of linking it to an assessment tool. If the criterion can be assessed with an objective tool, such as a multiple-choice question, then the wording in the objective seems pretty straightforward. However, how do we adequately convey something that is more subjective? For example, is it acceptable to use terms like “effectively” or “convincingly” in an objective, assuming that the assessment tool will address what that means?

  • I thought the portion of the article covering the common errors for writing objectives was very useful. I do have a tendancy to use the 100% accuracy in objectives, as well as many of the other errors listed. I think it’s funny that writing objectives seems like something that is very simple to do, but when you start writing one you realize how difficult it can be.

  • Writing a performance objective sounds like it would be easy as it is simply stating what the learners are expected to do. Performance, conditions and criterion makes up the body of the performance objective. Sounds pretty easy to do based on this. The article points out six common errors that both novice and experienced learners make. I am pretty sure I violated each of these six common error when I have made performance objectives in my career.

  • This article provides an interesting insight into how to write objectives. Very often people are guilty of 2 things, writing objectives with language that can not be measured or assessed, and also using assessments that do not directly reflect the objective or show if the learner has obtained the skill. Using this strategy when writing objectives, sounds like it will fix all problems because it focuses on condition, performance and criterion which is straight forward. With that said, the article also made sure to mention, when writing objectives we must be aware of the language we are using (active verbs) and the degree to which we are asking for mastery/development of a skill.

  • Writing objectives is something that I have always struggle with and after reading this article it seems simple, but it is not. I know what I want the learner to learn, but it confusing to understand how the learner will learn information because we all learn information differently. This is why I get twisted when trying to create an objective that fits the needs of everyone. More important, I have to teach in a way that all learners will comprehend as well.

    This is a great article that I could re-read again and again because it serves as a great reminder as to create a perfect performance objective by Robert Mager. Understanding how to identify the performance, condition, and criterion and remembering to use Bloom taxonomy helps, me. However, knowing that experienced designers struggle with this too means that I am not completely missing the mark, this takes consistent practice. Great article, thanks, Prof. Iverson!

  • I appreciate this article. I found it useful. Sometimes we add too much to an objective statement. It is essential to be clear and measurable. The three components, performance, conditions, and criteria, can be applied to almost every learning experience. There are so many various areas where this theory can help and build learning, and I think you did an excellent job of making this theory easy to understand.

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