Rethinking Instructional Objectives


Clark Quinn (blog, website, Twitter)  recently cited some of my thinking about instructional objectives in the instructional technology forum of AECT (ITFORUM). I wrote a long email to Clark in response, thanking him, and going into more detail. I am reprising my response to Clark here:

In a recent post to this list, Clark Quinn rightly notes that objectives for learners and objectives for instructional designers need not be identical. Indeed, as both Clark and I have previously noted, the probably shouldn’t be identical.

Here’s the thinking: Objectives are designed to guide behavior. So, how can it be that identically-worded objectives can adequately guide the behavior of two disparate groups of individuals (learners and instructional designers)? It just doesn’t make any sense!!

And indeed, Hamilton (1985) found that presenting learners with learning objectives in the way Mager suggested, PRODUCES NO BENEFITS AND MAY BE HARMFUL. Here’s what Hamilton wrote:

“[An instructional] objective that generally identifies the information to be learned in the text will produce robust effects. Including other information (per Mager’s, 1962, definition) will not significantly help and it may hinder the effects of the objectives”

(Hamilton, 1985, p. 78).

Objectives are not only designed to change behavior for a particular set of individuals, but they are also designed with particular purposes in mind—or they should be.

So, when we talk of instructional objectives, we also need to think about what purpose we have for them.

The quote above from Hamilton is focused on how well learning objectives focus the attention of learners. Interestingly, this is the only area in which extensive research has been done on learning objectives. You might be surprised to know that learning objectives help learners focus on the information targeted by learning objectives, but actually diminish their attention on information in the learning materials not targeted by learning objectives. For example, in two experiments using specific objectives, Rothkopf and Billington (1979) found that when focusing objectives were provided to learners, performance on material related to the objectives improved by 49% and 47% over situations when focusing objectives were not used. However, the material not related to the learning objectives was learned 39% and 33% WORSE than it would have been if no learning objectives were used!

These types of instructional objectives—presented to learners prior to subsequent learning—I call “focusing objectives” because they are designed for the purpose of focusing learner attention on critical learning material. As the Hamilton (1985) review pointed out, it does NOT help to add Mager’s criterion information to focusing objectives, because it doesn’t help learners focus on the critical material.

NOW, here’s an important point (I say to focus your attention):  We don’t necessarily need to use focusing objectives with learners if we have other means to focus their attention!! We can use a relevant, gripping story. We can do a shout-out (example, “Here’s an important point…”). We can have them attempt to answer a relevant scenario-based question and struggle with it. Etcetera.

Here’s another important point: Focusing objectives are only one type of objective we might want to utilize. I have a whole list, and I’m sure you can think of more of them.

Instructional Objectives for Learners:

  1. Table-of-Contents Objectives
    To give learners a big picture sense of what will be taught.
  2. Performance Objectives
    To let learners know what performance will be expected of them.
  3. Motivation Objective
    To ensure learners know why they might be motivated to engage the learning or application of the learning.
  4. Focusing Objective
    To guide learner attention to the most critical information in the learning material.

Instructional Objectives for Developers:

  1. Instructional-Design Objective
    To guide developers toward the ultimate goal of the learning intervention.
  2. Evaluation Objective
    To guide developers (and other stakeholders) to the ultimate measurable outcomes that the learning intervention will be measured by.
  3. Situation Objectives
    To guide developers to the situations that learners must be prepared for.
  4. Organization Objective
    To guide developers to the organizational effects targeted by the instruction.



So, here’s some questions for you:

Is it okay to use the word understand in an “instructional-design objective”?

How about in a “focusing objective”?

Answer: It’s okay to use the word understand in a focusing objective—because it does not hurt the learner in setting them up to focus attention on critical concepts. But it is NOT okay to use the word understand in an instructional-design objective—because the word “understand” doesn’t have enough specificity to guide instructional design.

My point in asking these questions is to show that over-simplistic notions about instructional objectives are likely to be harmful to your instructional designs.

As usual, the research helps us see things we wouldn’t otherwise have seen.

Hope this helps!!

= Will


Will’s Note:


Hamilton, R. J. (1985). A framework for the evaluation of the effectiveness of adjunct questions and objectives. Review of Educational Research, 55, 47-85.

Mager, R. (1962). Preparing Instructional Objectives. Palo Alto, CA: Fearon Publishers.

Rothkopf, E. Z., & Billington, M. J. (1979). Goal-guided learning from text: Inferring a descriptive processing model from inspection times and eye movements. Journal of Educational Psychology, 71(3), 310-327.