Robert F. Mager passed away May 11, 2020, just shy of his 97th birthday. His influence on instructional design theory and practice in the last 58 years, even for new designers who are not aware of his name or his work, has been enormous.
Mager was one of the founders of the International Society for Performance Improvement (or ISPI, originally known as NSPI) in 1962. His first book, published in 1962 under the title Preparing Objectives for Programmed Instruction (later re-published as Preparing Instructional Objectives) is probably the most widely-read book ever written on the topic of instructional design. In fact, Bob Mager is one of the 10 most-cited authors in the field. Collectively, over 3 million copies of his books have been sold.
If you are not familiar with Mager, you owe it to yourself to get, read, and build your own instructional design work on his most significant books, “The Mager Six-Pack”:
- Preparing Instructional Objectives
- Making Instruction Work
- Analyzing Performance Problems (with Peter Pipe)
- Goal Analysis
- Developing Attitude Toward Learning
- Measuring Instructional Results
Managers should add to that list What Every Manager Should Know About Training: An Insider's Guide to Getting Your Money's Worth From Training.
Not to sound melodramatic, but Bob Mager changed my life. Seriously. I met him when my wife and I attended his workshop “Preparing Instructional Objectives” in San Diego in 1974. It was eye-opening to me at the time to learn first that if a person could do a task because his or her life depended on it, this was not a problem that required training. (As Mager put it, "If you put a gun to their head, could they do it?") And second, to learn that an instructional designer should be concerned with the outcomes of instruction for the learner, not with the activity of the instructor. I have used what I learned from Bob Mager in every development project I have done in the almost 50 years since because everything he taught me—from writing instructional objectives to how to write a book—works. Mager had an analytical approach to the work, but his delivery was relaxed and humorous. Here is a video example (thanks to Guy Wallace for the link).
Read the tributes that follow from some of the many leaders in learning who knew Bob or his work.
Ruth Clark, EdD; Principal, Clark Training & Consulting; Past President, ISPI
Writing performance-based learning objectives has become such an instilled practice in both educational and training environments that many do not realize the role of Bob Mager in articulating and disseminating this foundational instructional cornerstone. Mager-style learning objectives serve two critical roles: 1. Flipping the focus from what the instructor should do to what the learner should do when achieving desired learning outcomes, and 2. Shifting outcome evaluation from comparisons with others (e.g., grading on the curve) to comparison with a learning criteria (e.g., criterion referenced instruction). Both in writing and in person, Bob Mager articulated the basics of instructional design clearly and with a sense of humor. Bob’s work leaves all instructional professionals with a lasting legacy—one to be be honored and attributed.
Karl M. Kapp, PhD; Professor, Bloomsburg University Institute for Interactive Technologies
I did not know Robert Mager personally—never met him and never heard him speak live—but in spite of all that, he had a tremendous impact on my career in two key ways. The first is his work in the field of instructional design. I was captivated by the way he conceptualized and packaged ideas about learning objectives, making instructional design practical and impactful and how he always had an eye on performance. He was required reading in my graduate program of instructional technology. And for good reason, he truly moved the field forward.
The second impact he had on me was his willingness to share his ideas and thoughts about the "process" side of our business—about this writing process specifically. He was a prolific writer and he encapsulated his thoughts and ideas about writing in his book, The How to Write a Book Book. (Editor's note: Available online in Google Books). I have purchased that book several times and given it to friends and colleagues who are interested in writing a book. Mager's book strikes the perfect balance of practical, step-by-step advice and motivational kick in the pants. As I reflect on his life and accomplishments, it's interesting to think that a person I've never met or spoken with has had such an influence on my career. His passing has simultaneously left a huge hole in the field and a monumental step-ladder helping others to reach the next level.
Guy W. Wallace, CPT; EPPIC, Inc.; Performance Analyst and Instructional Architect
Bob Mager came to my attention in August of 1979 on my first day in my first job right out of college. My new manager at Wickes Lumber's Training Services function in Saginaw, Michigan gave me Bob's Six-Pack, and asked that I start with the Mager & Pipe book, Analyzing Performance Problems. I devoured it that first evening and then bought four copies for some college friends, who didn't appreciate my gift to them. I was "pumped" because I had joined an organization who were going to follow the principles and practices espoused in that and the other books in his Six-Pack. Their flow diagram is still valid today. I only wish more people in the business were familiar with it and encouraged to use it.
I met Bob the next April but didn't get to know him very well until I started working with him to get his 1999 ISPI Conference banquet speech, The Perfect Banquet Speech, online after months of begging him. I had to edit it a half-dozen times before he, a perfectionist, would allow me to post it. But I knew what I was getting into, as his reputation certainly proceeded him.
I am thankful for getting to know him well into his retirement, and happier to have had others guide my professional development using his many writings, his "Criterion Referenced Instruction" materials, and copies of several of his conference presentations before I entered the field. RIP Bob Mager. You will be missed but your writings endure and will keep you alive in the profession.