How to Write Learning Objectives - Training and Development

To be useful, learning goals should contain:

  • Performance ( Magerr says it describes what a learner will be able to do)
  • At least one criterion (measurable, says Mager)
  • Conditions of performance (usually, per Mager).

The recipe sounds simple, but it requires rigorous thinking. Observable actions are hard to find; we tend to think of covert actions that we assume to be "hidden inside people somewhere." These are affective goals, and we need to find an outer observable action. We're also reluctant to pin down precise criteria— even more reluctant to insist that they be measurable.

Observability and measurability are important if we wish to evaluate; without actions that we, as well as learners, can see, or criteria that we can measure, how will we know we have succeeded? For people who want them, observable actions and measurable criteria can be established. It's always helpful to start with the clause, "After training, the worker will be able to ..." Note the magic phrase: "will be able to."

Next,let's think of verbs and objects. For example, "compute the tax" or "relieve tension." With these verbs and objects we have our observable action.

Now for "measurable criteria," which answer such questions as "How often?" "How well?" "How many?" "How much?""How fast?" and "How high?" "Conditions" can best be expressed with prepositional phrases such as "without reference to the manual" and "unless course attendance is mandated." Through such grammatical/mental exercises, we can translate ambiguous objectives such as"counsel effectively" or "understand adequately" into concrete performance standards, which are also learning goals. These are behaviors that learners can see and give themselves feedback for achieving as they progress in class; these are behaviors managers can see and reinforce when graduates apply them on the job.

Let's look at a range of tasks from the very concrete to the somewhat abstract. Table below shows four examples: salesclerks are learning beginners' skills in the example across the top; the middle example deals with drivers; the third is from customer relations training; managerial skills appear in the example at the bottom. The vertical columns identify the action, criteria, and conditions of performance for each of these four cases.

conditions of performance

Standards for Learning Behavioral Objectives

Success in establishing useful learning goals depends largely upon the willingness to do the necessary thinking and to make the effort to envision successful performers.

There is no magic formula for writing good learning objectives, no list of "right and wrong" words. However, for novice writers, the words listed in Table below are often "doorways." If accompanied with some honest analysis,these words can lead to the actions and criteria desired in some of those ambiguous tasks.

Standards for Learning Behavioral Objectives

Useful Words for Learning Objectives.

Three Domains: Cognitive, Affective, and Psychomotor. Another tool for specifying learning behaviors is the Bloom (1956, 1964) Taxonomy of EducationalObjectives. Compiled by a committee of college and university examiners and published by David McKay of New York City, this list arranges objectives into three general domains. The three domains parallel what industrial T&D departments have always said they did: produce new knowledge, different attitudes, and new skills. The three domains are cognitive, for mental skills; affective, for growth in feelings or emotional areas; psychomotor, for manual, physical skills. The Bloom group produced an intricate analysis for each of the first two domains, but none for the psychomotor domain. Their explanation: They have little, if any, experience in teaching manual skills at college levels. In the cognitive domain, the taxonomy cites six distinct types of behavior:

Useful Words for Learning Objectives.

Types of Cognitive Behavior.

The affective domain covers learning objectives that change interests, values, or attitudes. This would include the development of appreciations and adjusting to new systems or policies. The affective domain specifically identifies:

Types of Cognitive Behavior.

Types of Affective Behavior.

The two volumes of the "Bloom Taxonomy" further subdivide each objective into even more specific levels of behavior. They do regard these as"levels," each successive behavior being more difficult than the previous. It's easier to teach Knowledge than Comprehension. Either of those is definitely easier than Valuing, they contend. This is partly because each behavior involves earlier learning's. For example, people cannot make evaluations without having analyzed, and they cannot analyze without possessing knowledge. Yet one wonders about all those people who constantly make judgments based on no facts at all. The point is that educated minds do insist upon facts first.

From the Bloom list, T&D specialists are particularly influenced by the conclusion that affective behavior is more difficult to develop than cognitive—and that psychomotor is the most difficult of all! One rationale for this conclusion is that useful manipulative, physical behavior does indeed rest upon highly trained minds and emotions. Then, as the books themselves say,"We find so little done about it [psychomotor skill] in secondary schools and colleges" (Bloom 1964,1:6-7).

Other educators have developed a set of sub objectives within the psychomotor domain,but this domain has never been the problem in organizational training. The manipulative skills very easily reveal observable actions and measurable criteria. It's easy to define learning objectives in the psychomotor domain.

There is a lesson here—particularly for T&D specialists who find their organizations reluctant to define learning objectives, or for T&D managers who find that some of their very own T&D specialists resist all the hard work that goes with "pinning down" the learning objectives or performance standards.

Why not begin in the psychomotor domain? Why not obtain good observable and measurable statements for programs that demand manipulative skills? The "smell of success" there can often encourage reluctant T&D specialists to apply the technology to more ambiguous tasks. It can gradually create the norm that states,"We like crisp learning objectives in this organization." It's a place to start in creating good objectives for future programs. Later on,managers come to expect and demand that there will be good objectives for all learning programs.


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