Okay, I don’t really hate instructional objectives, but I can’t help wondering if we are overusing them, perhaps for the wrong purposes. Ever since Bob Mager popularized instructional objectives more than 40 years ago in his classic book, Preparing Instructional Objectives, they have become part of the Holy Grail for instructional designers and the training industry.

Be they enabling or terminal; cognitive, affective, or psychomotor; normative or summative; or behavioral, instructional, or performance objectives, no course is worthy without a host of statements that explain, sometimes in excruciating detail, what the student will be able to do after the instruction is completed. But are instructional objectives as valuable as we think they are?

The ABC’s (and D’s) of objectives: Do they really matter?

We’ve all had driven into us the mantra that objectives should have four parts: Audience, Behavior, Conditions, and Degree (so-called “A-B-C-D objectives”). Objectives should clearly define the audience (the “A”), describe what the audience will be able to do (the “B”), detail the environment under which the behavior will be demonstrated (the “C”), and state how well the behavior should be demonstrated (“the D”). That’s all well and good, but how much relevance does this have for the student/performer in the real world?

For instructional designers, objectives help a lot. They drive testing and evaluation strategies, they are a checklist of sorts for all the learning activities in the course, and they help us better meet learner needs. Designers can use objectives to better understand how well a course (classroom or online) is performing. Is the audience learning? Do the learning activities work? Are we covering the content adequately?

But do objectives truly help the learners? Even if they do, are they enough? We’ve all been there; sitting in class while the instructor reads (or we view online) any number of statements, sometimes dozens of them, for each lesson or module, that often begin, “at the conclusion of this course, the student will be able to…” Each objective focuses on a specific skill or knowledge taught in the course, but may be too much in the weeds to answer students’ bigger questions like, “Why am I taking this course?” “What’s in it for me?” and “How will this help me down the road?”

One four-hour eLearning course I know had eight lessons with an average of six instructional objectives per lesson. That’s 48 objectives. But when I asked a focus group of students what the value of the course was for them, I got wildly divergent answers and more blank stares than I had hoped.

The value of an advance organizer

It is this sense of value or benefit that seems to be missing from instructional objectives. We advise students well about what they will be doing in class and right afterward, but less well about how the course will help them down the road. This hurts motivation, especially when it comes to applying what they have learned in the real world of work. It also clouds the linkage between courses and organizational goals. Objectives tell you what the course will do, but they don’t tell you how you or the organization will benefit.

That’s why, at the very least, I want to amend the four-part, A-B-C-D objective paradigm with a fifth part: expectations. A-B-C-D-E objectives would require a statement of what the audience will gain from the course and how it will impact their work, competency, and/or career, as well has how it supports the mission and strategies of the organization. With a statement of expectations, students, and the organization will be able to relate what they do in an instructional setting with more meaningful macro success criteria.

Even better would be statements of expectations that can stand alone from the instructional objectives so that we can discuss and update them without necessarily having to go into the minutia of specific training timeframes, tactics, measures, or outcomes. We would generally introduce expectations up front (at the beginning of a course or sometimes at the lesson level), and they become a great advance organizer for what is to come. My eight-lesson, 48-objective online course would have far fewer, but more powerful, expectations statements that we could include in course descriptions and syllabi.

A question of expectations

Here’s a quick checklist of ten “expectations type” questions your learners will be asking (you can probably think of more):

  1. Why am I here?
  2. What will I learn?
  3. Why is this important to me?
  4. How will this benefit my job performance and my career?
  5. How will I use what I learn?
  6. How will my job change because of what I’ve learned?
  7. Why is this important to my organization?
  8. What do I need to be ready?
  9. Will my boss support this training?
  10. What am I supposed to do when I return from training?

So, by all means, keep instructional objectives, but don’t stop there. Add statements of expectations to truly broadcast the value and worthiness of your training efforts.


Still not sure? Ask yourself this: when was the last time a C-level executive in your organization asked anything about what the instructional objectives are for your training programs? Probably never. But they always ask (or should always ask) what the benefits of those programs are – to the business and to the employees. Can you clearly, succinctly, and strategically answer this question?

De-emphasizing instructional objectives may be heresy to some, but to learners, a better balance with expectations and value statements may be welcome indeed.