Monday, April 16, 2012

Developing Learning Objectives: Systems Theory and Tools

This post is a bit longer than I plan for a Blog post and is in response to the Poll question and some comments regarding difficulty with developing objectives. It may take some uninterrupted time to make the best of it.  But I hope you find it valuable.
Learning Objectives
The purpose and function of a learning objective was covered in the post, Learning Objectives - The Rosetta Stone of ISD. This post will detail the process of developing sound learning objectives that will serve you well as you design course content.
Learning objectives are statements that describe what the learner is expected to achieve as a result of instruction including the specific behavior, the conditions under which the behavior is to be performed, and the criteria for successful achievement of the objective.
Each part of a learning objective is like a leg on a three-legged stool.  In order for a learning objective to function correctly, you need all three parts.  Otherwise… thud!

An Objective By Any Other Name
Objectives go by many names; behavior objectives, instructional objectives, learning outcomes. Regardless of what you call them they serve the same purpose as defined above.
Note: This is different from a goal which has a broader, less specific intention.
Developing Objectives -Determining the Behavior
The method used to identifying behaviors depends on the primary source of information for your instructional design. I propose there are two types of sources: Subject Domain and Performance Based. How the behavior is determined is very different.

How to Determine the Behavior in a Subject Domain
The subject domain is the one that requires the exercise of more judgment on the developer’s part.  In our information rich society, the amount of information in a topical area can be overwhelming; making it easy to put the student into information overload.
Look back at your education; a person or body of authority decided what would be taught.  And, I am sure you have experienced at least one class where your interest level was low and probably thought the content had little or no relevance.  I have little to offer on how to identify the content; although I can offer a process for identifying the desired behavior.
The steps to determine the Behavior in a Subject Domain include:
·       Define the content
·       Determine the type of learning outcome
·       Choose a level of achievement
·       Choose the behavior (verb)

Each step will be covered in more detail.
Define the Content
The information to be included may be broad or very specific.  For example, think about the domain of history.  The content could be broad like a survey of the history of civilization or as specific as the history of the Alphabet Houses of Richland, WA.  Now it’s your job to decide.

This decision may be influenced by the amount of time allotted for teaching and how much information can be reasonable covered in that time.  Your task is to define the content.

Determine the Types of Learning Outcomes
Once the content is identified, the appropriate type of the learning outcome(s) must be chosen.  Learning can be divided into three areas of outcomes: affective, cognitive and psychomotor.  

For the purposes of this post, I am going to assume you are familiar with the types of learning outcomes. At least from the Basic Trainer’s Training Course.
If not, Cindy Vinson gives a good overview and, there are details on Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain by Iowa State University.
Choose a Level of Achievement
Each type of learning outcome has increasing levels of complexity (note: not difficulty). For example, Bloom’s Taxonomy of the Affective Domain begins with receiving and ends with internalizing.  It is like a catalog that offers several versions of the same product with different quality; you might remember the old Sears good, better, best approach.

Levels of achievement for the Affective Domain of Learning Outcomes
Your decision will be influenced by abilities of your potential audience and how it aligns with other learning goals.  Usually, the levels of complexity build on each other.  For example, in order to achieve behaviors at the “Respond” level you must have acquired the “Receive” behaviors.  Your task is to choose which level of complexity to teach to.
Choose the Behavior (verb)
Each level of complexity has a set of verbs that describe the behaviors. Think of it as a thesaurus for that level. In the affective learning outcomes, the “Receiving” level refers to the behaviors of: awareness, willingness to hear, and selected attention. 
Your task is to decide which verb most closely matches the behavior you desire your students to achieve.

 Verbs Related to the Receiving Level in the Domain of Affective Learning Outcomes
As you have probably experienced, what a designer chooses may not be of interest or relate to you; definitely a concern in the world of adult learning. There is a tendency for Subject Matter Experts to want everyone to know what they know and the best service we can do as instructional designers is to temper that tendency.

How to Determine the Behavior from Performance Based Source
The other method for determining the desired behavior is to use the results of a job analysis. I define a job analysis as the process used to collect information about the duties, responsibilities, necessary skills, outcomes and work environment of a particular job. The result of a job analysis is a list of the tasks that are performed.

Task statements are short sentences containing the actions performed and the objects involved in the performance.  Yep, action = behavior.
The list is then refined to determine which tasks will be trained on called a “task-to-training” matrix.
How to write a task statement is outside the scope of this post. The Department of Energy provides some guidelines in theri Training Program Handbook, A Systematic Approach to Training (DOE-HDBK-1078-94), Attachment-2, as well as, Kenneth Carlisle’s book, Analyzing Jobs and Tasks.
Here is an example task statement from the Training Specialist job: Boot-up computer and projector system. The action is “boot-up;” the objective behavior is “boot-up”.
I hope the mushy thought producing organ between your ears has just formed the exclamation WOW! No guessing, no assuming, the behavior that is actually performed on the job has the potential of being of value to the learner.
Determining the Condition
The condition in a learning objective is a description of the environment where the behavior is to take place.  The description should include any items or equipment necessary to perform the behavior. Condition statements contain conditions that either aid or limit. An aiding condition advises the learner of things that will be available to assist in performance of the specified behavior. Examples include, Given a list of options …; Using a calculator …; or In the Chemistry laboratory …
A limiting condition advises the learner of limitations that are likely to make the action more difficult to perform. Examples include, From memory state …; Without the use of a procedure …; In the absence of a computer …
In either case, the condition statement needs to be relevant to the performance of the action and should include only what will be provided or denied during performance evaluation.
Subject Domain Conditions
Conditions for learning objectives developed from a subject domain have a tendency to be restrained by the existing facilities. For example, the classroom. It is the exception that equipment or facilities will be purchased to support an objective so a level high in the taxonomy hierarchy can be achieved.  Think of it as the objective level is set so it can be accomplished in the current conditions.
Performance Based Conditions
Conditions are derived from information collected during task analysis. They also include equipment, tools, and references necessary to perform the task. The learning environment should represent the work environment as much as practical. In the world of work millions of dollars have been spent on simulators and equipment. HAMMER is a good example of having functional props for training.
Inferring a Condition
By convention, the condition “from memory” can be implied rather than specified. Using implied condition statements has an advantage of avoiding redundancy when the conditions are identical for a set of learning objectives.  Include relevant conditions for all other cases.

Determining the Criteria
The criteria part of a learning objective defines the degree of mastery or accuracy the behavior is to achieve.  It answers the question, how good is good enough? 
The standard will refer to the quality of the end product or the precision of the process and is usually expressed in terms of time limits, accuracy, quality, or quantity.

Subject Domain:
These criteria usually correlate to the level within the hierarchy of the taxonomy. In general, the lower level in the hierarchy, the less subjective the criteria. The Remember this level of the taxonomy in the Cognitive domain usually deals with facts and the criteria is usually 100% accurate. For example, Fact: The year Columbus sailed for the Americas (1492).
At the other end of the hierarchy is Evaluation and the designer must exercise judgment as to what is important and to what degree. Should the criteria focus on the final evaluation product or the process used during the evaluation? Is the scale used for evaluation (which should be supplied in the conditions), dichotomous or a relative scale? If it is relative, what is an acceptable degree of accuracy?
Performance Based Criteria
The best guide is to define the consequence for poor or incorrect performance of the target behavior. In general, the less acceptable the consequences the higher the criteria.
The criteria for an objective should be derived from the standard required by the task and closely approximates actual performance standards on the job.
Inferring a Criteria
By convention, the criteria, “100% accuracy,” can be implied rather than specified. Using implied condition statements has an advantage of avoiding redundancy when the conditions are identical for a set of learning objectives. Include the relevant criteria for all other cases.
Example of a learning objective
Given a task-to-training matrix develop a learning objective that includes: a behavior, conditions and criteria.

Levels of Learning Objectives
I have experienced designers that really get hung-up on the hierarchy of learning objectives.  To me it becomes a matter of practicality.  I don’t care what you call them it comes down to which one is a prerequisite in order to achieve the next one; an important consideration when designing instruction.
Terminal Objective:
Some designers believe there should be only terminal objective.  It is more akin to a goal and can be used as the global picture or final goal of a course.
The DOE Handbook (2) indicates “They are translated directly from the task statement, and provide the framework for the development of training/evaluation standards, enabling objectives, and lesson plans.”   This would mean there is a terminal objective for each task.
Enabling Objectives
Enabling objectives are a prerequisite behavior that must be achieved in order to master a terminal objective. The DOE Handbook (2) indicates enabling objectives are ”derived” from the knowledge and skills identified during task analysis”.
Subordinate Objectives
When necessary, subordinate objectives are prerequisite behaviors that must be achieved in order to master an enabling objective. The DOE Systematic Approach to Training does not address subordinate objectives; although they are used extensively in the Dick & Carey(3) systematic design of instruction model.
Summary and Conclusion
Remember for the instructional designer, learning objectives are a tool and the key to instructional development, design and evaluation. In my experience, it is worth the effort to be as rigorous as possible when developing them. It just makes the rest of the design process focused and easier. You may wish to review the Objectives, the Rosetta Stone of ISD post.

1.   Carlisle Kenneth, E. (1986). Analyzing Jobs and Tasks. Educational Technical Publications. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.
2.   Department of Energy - DOE-HDBK-1200-97 Guild to Good Practices for Developing Learning Objectives.
3.   Dick, W., & Carey, L. (1996). The systematic design of instruction (4th Ed.).  New York, NY: Harper Collins.


  1. You spelled "Carey" correctly in the reference section however an "e" is missing in the "Subordinate Objectives" section. Very intersting and insightful post.

    1. Hi:

      Your attention to detail is exceptional (fixed).

      Glad you found the post interesting. Anything specific?