Tag Archive for: learning objectives

This is NOT a post about Bob Mager. It is something else entirely.

In probably the best video I will ever create, I made the case that learning professionals and learners should NOT receive the same set of learning objectives.

The rationale is this: Because objectives are designed to guide behavior, how could one statement possibly guide the behaviors of two separate audiences? Sometimes maybe! But not always!

Arguments for the Infallibility of an Instructional-Design Hero

Recently, I’ve heard it argued that Bob Mager, in his classic text, “Preparing Instructional Objectives,” urged us to create instructional objectives only for us as learning professionals, that he never intended that instructional objectives be presented to learners. This is a testable assertion, which is great! We can agree that Mager gave us some good advice on how to craft objectives for ourselves as learning professionals. But did Mager also, perhaps, suggest that objectives could be presented to learners?

Here are several word-for-word quotes from Mager’s book:

Page 16: Heading: “Goal Posts for Students

Page 16: “Clearly defined objectives also can be used to provide students with the means to organize their own time and efforts toward accomplishment of those objectives.

Page 17: “With clear objectives, it is possible to organize the instruction itself so that instructors and students alike can focus their efforts on bridging the gap…

Page 19: Chapter Summary. “Objectives are useful for providing: … Tools for guiding student efforts…

Page 43: “Objectives in the hands of students prevent the students from having to guess at how they might best organize their time and effort.

So Mager clearly started the confusion! But Mager wrote at a time before research on cognition enabled greater insight.

Forget Mager’s contribution. The big problem is that the most common practice seems to still be efforts to create a set of learning objectives to use for both learners and learning practitioners.


I was even scolded for not knowing the difference between an instructional objective (for learning professionals) and a learning objective (for learners). Of course, these revisionist definitions are not true and are not helpful. They are fake news, concocted perhaps by a person who thinks or was taught that our instructional-design heroes are perfect and their work is sacrosanct. The truth is that these terms have been used interchangeably. For example, in a research study by my mentor and academic advisor, Ernie Rothkopf, he and his research partner used the term instructional objectives to refer to objectives presented to learners.

Rothkopf, E. Z., & Kaplan, R. (1972). An exploration of the effect of density and specificity of instructional objectives on learning from text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 6, 295-302.

My Main Points

  • We need at least two types of objectives (although I’ve argued for more)—one to guide the design, development, and evaluation of learning; one to guide learners as they are learning. I’ve called these “focusing objectives,” because the research shows that they guide attention toward objective-relevant content.
  • When we make arguments, we ought to at least skim the sources to see if we know what we’re talking about.
  • We ought to stop with hero worship. All of us do some good things and some bad things. Even the best of us.
  • Hero worship in the learning field is particularly problematic because learning is so complex and we all still have so much to learn. All of us attempting to make recommendations are likely to be wrong some of the time.
  • It is ironic that our schools of instructional design teach graduate students to memorize facts and hold up heroes as infallible immortals—when instead they ought to be educating these future citizens how progress gets made over long periods of time by a large collective of people. They also ought to be teaching students to understand at a deeper level, not just a knowledge level. But truly, we can’t blame the schools of instructional design. After all, they started with canonically-correct instructional objectives (focused on low-level knowledge because they are easier to create).

Finally, let me say that in the video I praise Bob Mager’s work on learning objectives for us learning professionals. This post is not about Mager.


There are so many confusions and mythologies on learning objectives that I thought I’d create a video to help disambiguate some of the worst misinformation.

Here is the video. Below the video, I have created a quiz so you can challenge and reinforce your knowledge. Watch the video first, then a day or more later–if you can manage it–take the quiz. Or, take the quiz first, then immediately watch the video–only later, after a few days, look at the quiz feedback.





Take the Quiz —

Before or After Watching the Video


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.

I got an email today from someone asking me about a term I created called “Evaluation Objectives.” I realize that I have not actually written anything for public consumption on this, SO this blog post will suffice until my book on workplace learning is released. Apologies if the following is not completely clear.

The basic idea is that we ought to have evaluation objectives rather than learning objectives in the traditional sense.

Specifically, we need to decouple our learning objectives from our evaluation objectives so that what we evaluate is directly relevant. Of course our evaluation objectives and learning objectives have to
be linked, but not necessarily with a one-on-one correspondence.


Suppose you want to train managers to be better at championing change efforts.

Traditionally, we might have objectives like:

The learner will be able to describe how people tend to resist change.

Or, put in a more performance-oriented fashion, a traditional objective might read:

The learner will engage in activities that lessen colleagues’ resistance to change.

Examples of evaluation objectives might be as follows:

The learner will initiate a change effort within one month after the training ends and be successful in getting 75% of his/her colleagues to sign a public statement of support for the effort.

OR, if real-world compliance cannot be assessed, an evaluation objective might be something like:

2. In the “Change-Management Simulation” the learner will score 65 points out of a total possible of 90.

OR, if a simulated performance can’t be created, an evaluation objective might focus on ratings by employees.

3. Two months after the training ends, the learners’ colleagues will rate them on average at least 4.5 (of 6 levels) on the multi-rater 360-degree change-management scale on each of the 5 indices.

OR, if this can’t be done, an evaluation objective might focus on a series of scenario-based questions.

4. On the 20-question scenario-based quiz on change management given two weeks after the course ended, the learner will get at least 17 correct.

NOTE: More than one evaluation objective can be used for any learning intervention.


Evaluation objectives are NOT tied to individual learning points that have to be learned, though of course they are linked because both should be relevant to the overarching goals of the learning program.


When objectives focus on the big picture, as compared to when there is a one-to-one correspondence between learning objectives and evaluation items, (1) they are more relevant, (2) the learners are more likely to see them as valuable and worth achieving, (3) organization stakeholders are more likely to see the evaluation results as having face validity, (4) the evaluation results will give us additional pertinent information on how to improve our learning interventions.