New Taxonomy for Learning Objectives

Will’s Note:

Original Post from 2006:

Let me propose a new taxonomy for learning objectives.

This taxonomy is needed to clear up the massive confusion we all have about the uses and benefits of learning objectives. I have tried to clarify this in the past in some of my conference presentations—but I have not been successful. When I get evaluation-sheet comments like, “Get real you idiot!” from more than a few people, I know I’ve missed the mark. SMILE

Because I don’t give up easily—and because learning objectives are so vitally important—I’m going to give this another try. Your feedback is welcome.

The premise I’m working from is simple. Instructional professionals use learning objectives for different purposes—even for different audiences. Learning objectives are used to guide the attention of the learner toward critical learning messages. Learning objectives are used to tell the learner what’s in the course. They are used by instructional designers to guide the design of the learning. They are used by evaluation designers to develop metrics and assessments.

Each use requires its own form of learning objective. Doesn’t it seem silly to use the exact same wording regardless of the use or intended audience? Do we provide doctors and patients with the exact same information about a particular prescription drug? Do designers of computer software require the same set of goal statements as users of that software? Do creators of films need to have the same set of objectives as movie goers?

Until recently I have argued that we ought to delineate between objectives for learners and objectives for designers. This was a good idea in principle, but it still left people confused because it didn’t cover all the uses of objectives. For example, learners can be presented with objectives to help guide their attention or to simply give them a sense of the on-the-job performance they’ll be expected to perform. Instructional designers can utilize objectives to guide the design process or to develop evaluations.

The New Taxonomy

  1. Focusing Objective
    A statement presented to learners before they encounter learning material—provided to help guide learner attention the most important aspects of that learning material.
  2. Performance Objective
    A statement presented to learners before they encounter learning material—provided to help learners get a quick understanding of the competencies they will be expected to learn.
  3. Instructional-Design Objective
    A statement developed by and for instructional designers to guide the design and development of learning and instruction.
  4. Instructional-Evaluation Objective
    A statement developed by and for program evaluators (or instructional designers) to guide the evaluation of instruction.

I made a conscious decision not to include a “table-of-contents objective” despite the widespread use of this method for presenting learners with objectives. I can’t decide whether this should be included. There’s no direct research on this (that I’ve encountered), but there may be some benefit for learners in having an outline of the coming learning material. Your comments welcome. I’m leaning toward including this notion into the taxonomy because it is a stategy that I’ve seen in use. Maybe I’ll call them “Content-Outlining Objectives” or “Outlining Objectives.”

One of the clear benefits of this taxonomy is that it separates Focusing Objectives from the other objectives. These objectives—those presented to learners to help focus their attention—have been researched with the greatest vigor. And the results of that research are clear:

  1. Focusing objectives guide learner attention to the information in subsequent learning material that has been targeted by objectives, but they also take attention away from the information not targeted by objectives.
  2. Similarly, focusing objectives improve learning for the targeted information and hurt learning for the information not targeted.
  3. Prequestions are as powerful in creating this focusing effect as learning objectives, and they may be more powerful.
  4. The wording of the focusing objective or prequestion must specifically mirror the wording in the learning material. General or abstract wording doesn’t cut it.
  5. Adding extra words, particularly words that specify the criteria of performance (ala Mager) will actually distract learners and hurt learning.
4 replies
  1. Jerry Haynes
    Jerry Haynes says:

    Hi Will,
    As usual, you are right on top of the issues concerning how instructional objectives might be used. The 2003 book ‘Instructional Systems Design Revisited has a great article by Allison Rossett. I’ve recently been doing some presentations for our San Antonio ISPI chapter and raising these same questions. I’ve been using the term ‘EXPECTATIONS’ for communicating the instructional intent to the workshop participants. I’ve also been advocating that the decision of how to indicate the expectations to the workshop participants should be part of the front-end analysis. In many cases the instructional intent does not need an up-front page or screen of its own, but can be clearly comunicated in topic headings or even embedded in the content. The formative evaluation may also provide specific expectations to the students, depending on the design of the instruction.
    I have been playing around with Hersey & Blanchard’s Situational leadership model to develop a heuristic for the use of instructional designers in deciding how best to communicate instructional objectives. If I come up with anything really useful, I’ll send it to you.

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  1. […] los objetivos de aprendizaje son útiles de la misma manera o destinados a la misma audiencia. En 2006, Will Thalheimer, presidente de Work-Learning Research, publicó una “Nueva Taxonomía…, que delinea cuatro tipos de objetivos de aprendizaje, cada uno con una función específica. Estos […]

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