Learning objectives are as integral to instructional design as cream is to butter, but it wasn’t always so.

Psychologist Robert Mager conducted studies in the early 1960s whose results still influence the way eLearning and other adult instruction is designed and implemented. For instance, Mager pioneered an approach to instructional design that included creating performance-based learning objectives. Mager also studied the sequence of instruction; his recommendations influence self-paced eLearning and other online instruction.

Mager’s approach to instructional design is called criterion-referenced instruction (CRI), and it is based on a four-step process:

  1. Task analysis or goal analysis—Identify what needs to be learned
  2. Performance objectives—Specify the outcomes and how they will be evaluated
  3. Criterion-referenced testing—Determine the knowledge or skills needed to accomplish the stated outcome goals, and decide how to evaluate that they have been learned
  4. Development—Create learning modules based on the objectives

CRI uses many ideas from Gagné’s Nine Events of Instruction; it also emphasizes learner initiative, so it is useful in designing learning for adults, particularly self-paced eLearning. The underlying principles appeal to many adult learners who become frustrated when eLearning is repetitive or covers basic material they already know. Mager based his principles on a study that found that, when given the opportunity to direct their own learning, adult learners followed a different sequence than the instructor, skipping sections that covered material they knew. He also found that learners who were able to consider and use their own base knowledge were more motivated and engaged.

The principles of CRI are:

  • Design instructional objectives that are directly tied to skills and knowledge learners need to perform their jobs; ensure that each objective is verifiable using defined criteria.
  • Learners study and practice only skills that they have not yet mastered. They are required to achieve only the level of mastery needed for job performance.
  • Learners have opportunities to practice each objective; they are given feedback on their performance.
  • Learners are offered repeated practice, such as refresher courses, so they can maintain their level of proficiency. This is especially important for difficult or frequently needed skills.
  • Learners choose the sequence and pace of their learning, while following any constraints imposed by prerequisite knowledge or skill requirements.

Crafting learning objectives

Ideally, according to Mager, learning objectives include:

  • A definition of the desired performance by the learner: What should the learner be able to do?
  • A description of the criteria under which the learner will perform: Under what conditions must the learner be able to do it?
  • Criteria for evaluating the learner’s performance: How well must the learner be able to do it?

The performance element spells out what the learner will be able to do once she has mastered the learning objective. Performance must be observable or measurable. That’s why instructional designers are cautioned to avoid words like “know” and “understand” when writing learning objectives. Rather than “understand” the meaning of a word, the learner should be able to define the word or use the word correctly in a sentence or list three synonyms for the word.

Once the task is defined, the instructional designer should specify any conditions attached to performance of the task. Conditions can include stipulations about what tools the learner can use, how much time she has to complete the task, the accuracy level required, or what the learner cannot use. For example, in a CPR course, one condition of success might be: Perform 100 to 120 chest compressions per minute. A condition might stipulate whether the learner can use notes or tools: Perform the five-step process without consulting notes or instructions. Conditions might vary depending on the task. For an accountant, one condition might be: Complete accurate financial reports by the deadline. In this instance, the deadline varies but would be stipulated for each report. Conditions are useful for providing clarity, though some tasks might not have conditions.

The final element of the learning objective is the criteria for evaluation: How well does the learner need to perform? This can be a rate: Pack six boxes of widgets per minute. It can be an accuracy level: Identify the compromised sample with 90 percent accuracy, or nine times out of 10. It can be a quality measure: Write a letter free of grammatical errors. Again, not all tasks will have criteria, but including criteria does avoid ambiguity and make impartial assessment easier.

Learning objectives can be simple or complex; loaded with conditions and criteria or simple statements of a task.

  • A learning objective can be: Write an article about learning objectives. No conditions; no criteria.
  • With conditions, it might read: Write a 500-word article about learning objectives without referencing the Internet or your class notes.
  • With conditions and criteria, it could read: In two hours, write a 500-word article about learning objectives for an instructional design magazine. The article should be free of errors in spelling, punctuation, and grammar.
A final caveat: The objectives and assessment criteria focus on the learner’s performance, not the instructor’s method or performance.