Hate, Marc? You hate objectives?

You write that it really is not hate that you feel. It’s concern. You say you are concerned about the overuse of instructional objectives.

That isn’t the problem I run into. I see more underuse than overuse.

Objectives work for me

When I look at objectives, I gain insight into what the program is all about. I notice that the program is making idiotic claims, or I am delighted to see realistic ones. Just by glancing at a few objectives, I can discern the instructional designer’s grasp of audience, needs, culture, and concreteness. Is she tuned in—or is she promising perfunctory, murky, or overly ambitious outcomes? Am I looking at marketing pap masquerading as an instructional objective? Called upon to teach, coach, or judge, objectives help me get a handle on the designer and the work product.

Objectives work for the organization

A wise organization is concerned about the programs it places before its people. How better to render smart selection or revision decisions than to scrutinize objectives? How better to judge suitability than to consider those objectives given organizational priorities? (Are we crossing “T’s” and dotting “i’s” or are we committing to influencing minds, hearts, and bellies?) How better to judge quality than to consider how well the objectives match the strategies, practices, and tests? How better to judge value than to examine the cost of the program in light of the worth of these promises as articulated in the objectives?

Savvy executives are not likely to be schmoozing about the relative value of objective formats a la Mager vs. Gagne. What leaders would appreciate instead are tangible, pithy statements about how their people will be different and better as a result of investment in this program. Give them objectives.

Objectives work for instructional designers

I’ve taught ABCD objectives (audience, behavior, condition, and degree) on many continents, and in universities, companies, and government agencies. I promise you that students of instructional design appreciate ABCD. They rely on the mnemonic to help them produce and screen their efforts. Admittedly trickier is demonstrating where objectives come from, establishing that valuable link between the tasking, analysis, goals, and objectives. That is a story for another time.

Here are reasons for embracing the ABCD parts of objectives, presented in a table. (Note: If you are having difficulty seeing this table on a mobile device, just turn your phone sideways and view the screen horizontally.)

Table 1 The ABCD Parts of Objectives
Audience Behavior Condition Degree
What is it? For whom is the program intended? Who will be changed as a result of the experience? What behavior is intended? What will they be able to do? Under what circumstances will performance occur? Aided or unaided? If aided, how? What is good enough? How fast? How well? With what results? To what standard?
Why bother with it? Reminds IDs and instructors to attend to the learner, not what they themselves will do. Are we talking about defining, identifying, listing, creating, constructing, repairing….? Will we expect the learner to perform by heart OR to rely on a job aid or mobile device? This is an era of accountability. What will satisfy?
Examples A. The medic … … will be able to identify the kind and severity of the burn … … given pictures of burns, and a device with names and pictures of burns … … with 90% accuracy, to match veteran medic.
B. The medic … … will be able to apply proper bandage … … under fire from the enemy, on the battlefield … … so that the right soldiers return to the field and do not get infections.

When instructional designers work with attention to ABCD objectives, they grapple with weighty matters like enablers and aided performance. Enablers ask this question: In order to do that, what must the audience know and do first? In the example above, A (and other objectives too) enable B. The medic cannot treat until he knows the severity of the burn. He cannot decide whether to send the soldier to the field or to the field hospital without that diagnosis.

Aided performance is a particularly rich aspect of objectives. It’s why the “C” in ABCD is my favorite component. Are we expecting our medics (or middle schoolers, or sales people) to perform without assistance and in the midst of the action (battlefield or high stakes test or sales presentation) or may she perform at her leisure, with help from documentation, job aids, or performance support? In medic example A above, the audience members are beginners who are expected to turn to support (their devices) for burn concept identification. On the battlefield, in B above, no such aid is feasible. Attention to condition helps the ID be more mindful about the context for performance.

Objectives work for learners

Marc, you urge us to add expectations to ABCD, expectations that assure links to work and results. I say that good ABCD objectives are themselves that statement of expectations. For example, my medic-in-training will look at those objectives and perceive the benefits to come from participation. In this little example, he sees that he can expect to become savvy about kinds of burns and treatments, with a little help from his mobile device; and then he will advance to serving without aids, in difficult and dangerous conditions for diagnosing and treating, where his performance must be fluent.

Perhaps a medic already possesses textbook knowledge about burns, but has never treated them under battlefield conditions. Substantive objectives, including matched tests and self-assessments, then help him navigate his online resources. In this case, the medic examines the outcomes associated with the burn program and then reaches for what he needs, in particular.

What was my objective?

Marc, I wrote this because I value objectives and I value you. When somebody as wise as you gives permission to skip them, I urge reconsideration of the matter.

I know we agree that crummy objectives are useless, even harmful. Some are too big and some are just silly. Long lists cause eyes to glaze over, defying credulity. You respond and say that we should de-emphasize objectives. I say flush the wicked ones down the toilet.

But you and I must not abandon the mantra that WE BEGIN WITH THE END IN MIND. Today, more technology, mobility, and independence increase our need for ends, for objectives, for the right objectives.

Now, as I think about it, I bet you proclaimed that you hate objectives to get us to remember how much we value them and how important it is for us to get them right.