Suggested Readings

Chapter 6, Writing Performance Objectives, from Dick,Carey and Carey.

Background Information

By now you've assessed your needs to determine the skills and knowledge you want your learners to acquire. Then you wrote an appropriate, feasible, and clearly stated instructional goal. After that you analyzed that goal to identify substeps, subordinate skills, and entry behaviors. Finally, you analyzed the learners, the performance context, and the learning context. The next step in the Dick, Carey and Carey instructional design model is to write a list of objectives for your goal based on all of the information you have gathered.

Writing objectives is the best-known component of the instructional design model. Chapter 6 in the Dick, Carey and Carey book describes the process of writing objectives. This process works best as a component of a complete instructional design model as opposed to on its own. You need the information from the needs assessment, the goal analysis, the instructional analysis, and the learner and context analyses to be able write effective objectives. The objectives are then in turn carried over to subsequent stages of the instructional design process so that they influence all future design decisions. A set of clear objectives will give you a sound basis for selecting or developing instructional materials, as well as a means for evaluating whether or not your instruction has been successful. You can also use them in your instruction to inform the learners of what they will be expected to learn. Informing learners of the objectives can help provide more learner control and also help students link new knowledge to old knowledge.

Overview of Objectives

What is an objective? According to Dick, Carey and Carey, a performance objective is a detailed description of what students will be able to do when they complete a unit of instruction. It is also referred to as a behavioral objective or an instructional objective. Robert Mager, in his book Preparing Instructional Objectives, describes an objective as "a collection of words and/or pictures and diagrams intended to let others know what you intend for your students to achieve" (pg. 3). An objective does not describe what the instructor will be doing, but instead the skills, knowledge, and attitudes that the instructor will be attempting to produce in learners. This is a very important distinction. Mager emphasizes the need for clear, precise statements of what students should be able to do when they complete their instruction. He believes that this should be done before any development work is started.

Objectives are derived from the skills you identified in the instructional analysis. Generally you should write one or more objectives for each skill listed in your instructional analysis, including your entry behaviors. Objectives can be skills (intellectual or motor), knowledge, or attitudes. Worthwhile objectives are statements of behaviors representing:

  • Skills students will actually use in their real life.
  • Skills required in order to acquire other useful skills.
  • Skills the teacher wants students to use in their real life (and they will probably have the opportunity to do so).
  • Skills the students want to use in their real life.

How does an objective compare to a goal statement? Well, the goal statement is a much broader statement of what students will be able to do after completing a set of instructional materials, and includes a real-world (performance) context outside of the learning situation. Objectives are much more specific, and describe a context within the learning situation. They are therefore better to use as the basis for planning instructional activities. If a goal statement is written in the form of an objective it then becomes the terminal objective. The terminal objective has all of the components of a performance objective, but its conditions reflect the context that will be available in the learning environment as opposed to the performance environment.

Three Components of an Effective Objective

Before attempting to write your own objectives, it's important to understand what an objective should and shouldn't contain. According to Mager (1997), there are three main components of an effective objective:

  1. Performance
  2. Conditions
  3. Criterion

1. Performance

The Performance component is a description of the behavior that learners are expected to perform. It should be measurable and observable. It describes what the learner will be doing when demonstrating mastery of an objective. Mager distinguishes between two types of performances - visible and invisible. With a visible performance the main intent is visible or audible. For example,

  • Be able to dance.
  • Be able to interview.
  • Be able to paint a picture of a mountain.

In each of these instances you can tell when somebody is performing the task. If a statement does not include a visible performance then it isn't yet an objective. Therefore, you should modify each of your objectives until it answers the question, "What will the learner be DOING when demonstrating achievement of the objective?"

Here are a couple of poor examples:

  • Be able to understand mathematics.
  • Develop an appreciation of music.

If you apply the question above, what would somebody be doing if they were "understanding" mathematics or "appreciating" music? There's really no way to tell as both of those statements describe abstract states that are not directly observable.

Here are some good examples:

  • Be able to ride a bicycle.
  • Be able to write a letter.

What would someone be doing if they were demonstrating mastery of these objectives? Well, in the first case they would be riding a bike, and in the second case they would be writing a letter. Those are easily identifiable behaviors.

2. Conditions

The Conditions component of an objective is a description of the circumstances under which the performance will be carried out. It also includes a description of what will be available to learners when they perform the desired behavior. Specifying the conditions further helps to prevent misunderstanding of your intent. For example, if you are given the objective:

  • Travel from New York to Washington DC in 2 hours

You could probably do that - if you were on a plane. However, what if the objective were stated like this?

  • Given an automobile, travel from New York to Washington DC in two hours

or this:

  • Using your own two feet, travel from New York to Washington DC in two hours?

Those two might be a little more difficult, or impossible. In both cases the conditions of the objective make it clear what the intent is. In order to avoid any confusion regarding your objective you should state the main condition under which the performance will occur. In order to identify key conditions, ask yourself the following:

  1. What will the learners be expected to use when performing (e.g., tools, forms, charts, etc.)?
  2. What will the learner not be allowed to use while performing (e.g., checklists, notes, or other study aids)?
  3. What will be the real-world conditions under which the performance will be expected to occur (e.g., on top of a flagpole, under water, in front of a large audience, in a manufacturing plant)?

Here are some examples of conditions:

  • Given a standard set of tools and a malfunctioning motor...
  • Using a metric ruler...
  • Given a set of whole numbers...
  • In the presence of an irate customer...
  • Without the aid of class notes...
  • Using only a screwdriver...
  • Given a fully-functioning video camera...
  • Given a list of chemical elements...

Here are some examples of objectives with conditions:

  • Given a product and a prospective customer, be able to describe the key features of the product. (The performance is to occur in the presence of a product and a customer - these are the conditions that will influence the nature of the performance.)
  • Given a bicycle and a flat street, be able to ride the bike to the end and back. (The conditions that will influence the performance are the bike and the flat street.)

3. Criterion

The final component of an effective objective is the Criterion. The criterion is a description of the criteria for acceptance of a performance as sufficient, indicating mastery of the objective. In other words, how well must it be done? Stating the criterion lets learners know how well they will have to perform to be considered competent. In addition, it provides a standard against which to test the success of the instruction, and gives you a way of evaluating whether or not the learners can, in fact, do what you set out to teach them.

The criterion you specify should be what you consider to be the desired or appropriate level of performance, not necessarily minimum level. In some cases (a person stitching up clothes), a certain amount of error might be acceptable, while in other cases (a doctor stitching up a person), no error is acceptable. In addition, you should only impose criteria that are important.

Here's an example of an objective with criteria:

  • Given a computer with word-processing software, be able to write a simple letter. There should be no spelling, grammar, or punctuation errors. (The criteria are that there should be no errors in the final letter).

There are two main ways to define a criterion of acceptable performance: Speed and Accuracy

  1. Speed - providing a time limit within which a given performance must occur. If a time limit is important, it should be stated as part of the objective. If a time limit is not important, then do not impose a time limit. Some examples:
    • in under two hours.within fifteen minutes.
    • before midnight.

  2. Accuracy - giving a range of acceptable performance. Some examples:
    • within two inches of accuracy.
    • to the nearest whole number.
    • with no more than two incorrect entries in the log.
  3. Quality - adequacy in form, function, or aesthetics of the intended output. Dick, Carey and Carey suggest that the quality of the performance can be seen in the output that is produced. Some examples:
    • formatting follows APA format style (form).
    • features of the website work as designed (function).
    • the presentation includes appropriate color combinations (aesthetics).


Here's an example of an objective containing all three components:

  • Students will tell the time represented on an analog clock to the nearest minute.

"tell the time" represents the performance
"analog clock" represents the condition
"to the nearest minute" represents the criterion.

A poorly written objective dealing with the same topic would be "The students will know how to tell time."

Points to Keep in Mind When Writing Objectives

Mager describes three important issues to consider when writing objectives:

  1. They should be related to intended outcomes, rather than the process for achieving those outcomes.
  2. They should be specific and measurable, rather than broad and intangible.
  3. They should be concerned with students, not teachers.

Let's take a closer look at each of these points.

Outcomes vs. Process

Teaching and lecturing is part of the process of instruction, but it isn't the purpose of the instruction. The purpose is to facilitate learning. When writing objectives, make sure you are describing the intended results, and not the process. The following are descriptions of the process, rather than of the intended results:

  • To provide a lecture on renaissance painters.
  • Be able to read in front of the class.
  • This course provides practice and feedback.
  • Develop confidence.

Specific vs. General

If your objectives are not specific enough, then they are pretty much useless for their intended purpose. They need to be specific so that they will help you to make sound instructional decisions later in the ID process. Here are some fuzzy statements:

  • Understand energy.
  • Know the president.
  • Be able to think clearly.

Here are some statements that are clearer:

  • Tie a shoe.
  • Assemble a bicycle.
  • Shake hands when greeting customers.

With the specific statements you would easily be able to determine if someone has met the objective.

Measurable vs. Unmeasurable

Measurable objectives describe tangible outcomes that can be observed. The statement above that states "tie a shoe" is measurable because we can watch someone tie a shoe and determine if they have met the objective. The statement "understand energy" is not measurable. How would we know if someone understood the concept of energy? This would need to be broken down into much more specific, observable behaviors.

Students vs. Instructors

The last point is that instructional objectives should describe the student's performance rather than the instructor's performance. Here are some that relate to the instructor's performance:

  • Lecture on the Theory of Relativity.
  • Teach the importance of washing one's hands.
  • Arrange instructional activities.

Here are some that relate to the student's performance. These examples relate to specific, measurable student outcomes:

  • Be able to write a resume.
  • State three causes of the Civil War.
  • Add two digit numbers together.

Now that we've discussed each of the three points, here's an example of an objective that violates all three of them:

  • Students will be taught about the causes of the Civil War.

This objective is not related to outcomes, it is too broad, and is concerned with the teaching process instead of the learning process.

More About the Wording of Objectives

One of the biggest problems with poorly written objectives is the choice of words used to indicate the type of performance expected. In then poor example given earlier (The students will know how to tell time), "will know how to tell time" is not a clear enough statement of what the learners will actually be doing. There are many slippery words that are open to a wide range of interpretation when writing objectives. It is important not to use broad or vague terms when trying to convey a specific instructional intent, or you leave yourself open to misinterpretation. The following chart lists some of the most common unclear words used in goals and objectives, as well as more specific, better alternatives.

Common Ambiguous Words

"Better" Performance Words

  • Know
  • Understand
  • Really understand
  • Determine
  • Appreciate
  • Fully appreciate
  • Grasp the significance of
  • Enjoy
  • Become familiar with
  • Become aware of
  • Believe
  • Learn
  • Have faith in
  • Internalize
  • Be happy
  • Value
  • Acquire
  • Develop
  • Choose (or select)
  • Solve
  • Write
  • Identify
  • State
  • List
  • Recite
  • Apply
  • Sort
  • Assemble
  • Adjust
  • Build
  • Align
  • Compare
  • Contrast
  • Smile
  • Use
  • Perform
  • Execute
  • Classify
  • Draw
  • Construct

When looking over your objectives, ask yourself if you could observe someone doing the behavior. It's hard to observe someone knowing or understanding. If any of your objectives contain these vague words, rewrite them to include verbs that actually describe the intended behavior. What you want to do is state how learners are going to demonstrate that they know or understand the skills. Try using words from the list on the right.

To help you in writing your own objectives, here is a chart listing the categories of learning along with some of the more common verbs used when writing objectives for that category:

Category Common Verbs
Verbal Information State, Recite, Tell, Declare, Name, List, Define
Intellectual Skills: Concrete Concepts Identify, Label
Intellectual Skills: Defined Concepts Classify instances, Sort, Categorize
Intellectual Skills: Rules Solve, Show, Demonstrate, Generate, Develop, Create, Determine, Calculate, Predict
Intellectual Skills: Higher-order Rules (Problem Solving) Solve, Show, Demonstrate, Generate, Develop, Create, Determine, Calculate, Predict, Defend, Support
Motor Skills Execute, Perform, Swim, Walk, Run, Climb, Drill, Saw, Assemble, Build
Attitudes Choose, Decide, Participate

The following represent some poorly written objectives taken from a number of commercially produced instructional materials:

  • The students will demonstrate a knowledge of the principles of magnetism.
  • The students will be able to recognize that the practical application of democratic ideals requires time, adjustment, and continuous effort.
  • The students will understand the use of commas.
  • The students will recognize an autobiography.
  • Employees will demonstrate positive habits of the mind.

Another common problem with objectives is the use of superfluous wording that often makes the actual performance fuzzy. For example, using "Students will learn how to..." tends to emphasize the teaching rather than the learning (permanent change in behavior). Yet another common problem with poorly worded objectives is the description of instruction as part of the condition. These objectives might state, "After viewing a filmstrip..." or "Given a math worksheet..." and then indicate that students will be given some type of instruction. Things like instructional procedures, descriptions of the target audience, or format requirements are not useful and should be left out of objectives. For example, look at the following statement:

  • Following two lectures on the Civil War, ...

This statement does not serve a useful purpose, and is limiting. An instructor might be able to accomplish the same thing in one lecture, or some students may not need any lecture to achieve the goal. The objective should only be concerned with student outcomes. Here are some more poor examples, this time with improved versions:

Bad: The student will demonstrate metric measurement of length.
Better: Given a metric ruler, the students will measure the length of common linear objects to the nearest millimeter.

Bad: The students will solve addition problems with 80% accuracy.
Better: The student will correctly solve at least 8 out of 10 addition problems that require borrowing.
Best: Given two numbers not written in equation form, the students will place the numbers in equation form and add them together (some will require borrowing).


After generating a list of objectives, you will be ready to move to subsequent stages of the instructional design process, including the creation of assessment items and the development of instructional activities. It is important to begin with determining the objectives, and then decide on the most effective activities, NOT the other way around. Too often teachers decide that they have a really neat activity they want to do and have little idea of what objectives that activity will meet. It may be that the activity meets no relevant objectives, in which case the difficult decision may have to be made to eliminate the activity. This is not entirely bad, though, because it opens up the possibility of new, more relevant activities being created that do address the objectives.

In summary, to prepare a useful, well-written objective, make sure these questions are answered:

  1. What do I want students to be able to do?
  2. What are the important conditions or constraints under which I want them to perform?
  3. How well must students perform for me to be satisfied?