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Instructional Objectives

Characteristics of a Well-Written Objective, Characteristics of a Useful Objective, Kinds of Instructional Objectives

Most people would agree that the goal of education is learning. Most would also agree that education is likely to be more effective if educators are clear about what it is that they want the learners to learn. Finally, most would agree that if teachers have a clear idea about what learners are expected to learn, they can more easily and more accurately determine how well students have learned.

Enter instructional objectives. Because instructional objectives specify exactly what is supposed to be learned, they are helpful to the teacher as well as the learner throughout the learning process and are invaluable in the evaluation process.

Instructional objectives (also known as behavioral objectives or learning objectives) are basically statements which clearly describe an anticipated learning outcome. When objectives were first coming into their own in education, they almost always began with the phrase: "Upon completion of this lesson, the student should be able to…." This phrase focused on the outcome of learning rather than on the learning process. In fact, one of the criteria for a well-written objective is that it describe the outcome of learning, that is, what the learners can do after learning has occurred that they might not have been able to do before the teaching and learning process began.

Characteristics of a Well-Written Objective

A well-written objective should meet the following criteria: (1) describe a learning outcome, (2) be student oriented, (3) be observable (or describe an observable product).

A well-written objective should describe a learning outcome (e.g., to correctly spell the spelling words on page seventeen). It should not describe a learning activity (e.g., to practice the words on page seventeen by writing each one ten times). Learning activities are important in planning and guiding instruction but they are not to be confused with instructional objectives.

A student-oriented objective focuses on the learner, not on the teacher. It describes what the learner will be expected to be able to do. It should not describe a teacher activity (e.g., to go over the words on page seventeen with the students, explaining their meaning and telling them how the words are pronounced). It may be helpful to both the teacher and the student to know what the teacher is going to do but teacher activities are also not to be confused with instructional objectives.

If an instructional objective is not observable (or does not describe an observable product), it leads to unclear expectations and it will be difficult to determine whether or not it had been reached. The key to writing observable objectives is to use verbs that are observable and lead to a well defined product of the action implied by that verb. Verbs such as "to know," "to understand," "to enjoy," "to appreciate," "to realize," and "to value" are vague and not observable. Verbs such as "to identify," "to list," "to select," "to compute," "to predict," and "to analyze" are explicit and describe observable actions or actions that lead to observable products.

There are many skills that cannot be directly observed. The thinking processes of a student as she tries to solve a math problem cannot be easily observed. However, one can look at the answers she comes up with and determine if they are correct. It is also possible to look at the steps a student takes to arrive at an answer if they are written down (thus displaying his thinking process). There are many end products that also can be observed (e.g., an oil painting, a prose paragraph, a 3-dimensional map, or an outline.)

Characteristics of a Useful Objective

To be useful for instruction, an objective must not only be well written but it also must meet the following criteria: (1) be sequentially appropriate; (2) be attainable within a reasonable amount of time; (3) be developmentally appropriate.

For an objective to be sequentially appropriate it must occur in an appropriate place in the instructional sequence. All prerequisite objectives must already have been attained. Nothing thwarts the learning process more than having learners trying to accomplish an objective before they have learned the necessary prerequisites. This is why continuous assessment of student progress is so important.

A useful objective is attainable within a reasonable time. If an instructional objective takes students an inordinately long time to accomplish, it is either sequentially inappropriate or it is too broad, relying on the accomplishment of several outcomes or skills rather than a single outcome or skill. An objective should set expectations for a single learning outcome and not a cluster of them.

Developmentally appropriate objectives set expectations for students that are well within their level of intellectual, social, language, or moral development. Teachers, parents, and others who are working with preschool or elementary school children should be especially aware of the developmental stages of the children they are working with. No author or researcher has more clearly defined the stages of intellectual development than Jean Piaget. Familiarity with his work as well as with the work of other child development specialists (e.g., Lev Vygotsky's language development, Lawrence Kohlberg's moral development and Erik Erikson's social development) should produce better instructional objectives.

Kinds of Instructional Objectives

Instructional objectives are often classified according to the kind or level of learning that is required in order to reach them. There are numerous taxonomies of instructional objectives; the most common taxonomy was developed by Benjamin Bloom and his colleagues. The first level of the taxonomy divides objectives into three categories: cognitive, affective, and psychomotor. Simply put, cognitive objectives focus on the mind; affective objectives focus on emotions or affect; and psychomotor objectives focus on the body.

Cognitive objectives call for outcomes of mental activity such as memorizing, reading, problem solving, analyzing, synthesizing, and drawing conclusions. Bloom and others further categorize cognitive objectives into various levels from the simplest cognitive tasks to the most complex cognitive task. These categories can be helpful when trying to order objectives so they are sequentially appropriate. This helps to insure that prerequisite outcomes are accomplished first.

Affective objectives focus on emotions. Whenever a person seeks to learn to react in an appropriate way emotionally, there is some thinking going on. What distinguishes affective objectives from cognitive objectives is the fact that the goal of affective objectives is some kind of affective behavior or the product of an affect (e.g., an attitude). The goal of cognitive objectives, on the other hand, is some kind of cognitive response or the product of a cognitive response (e.g., a problem solved).

Psychomotor objectives focus on the body and the goal of these objectives is the control or manipulation of the muscular skeletal system or some part of it (e.g., dancing, writing, tumbling, passing a ball, and drawing). All skills requiring fine or gross motor coordination fall into the psychomotor category. To learn a motor skill requires some cognition. However, the ultimate goal is not the cognitive aspects of the skill such as memorizing the steps to take. The ultimate goal is the control of muscles or muscle groups.

The Role of Objectives in Teaching and Testing

Objectives can be helpful in instructional planning, during the teaching/learning process, and when assessing student progress. Instructional objectives are often either ignored (by both teachers and students) or are, at best, occasionally referred to. However, it can be argued that instructional objectives should guide the teaching and learning process from beginning to end.

Most lesson plan forms include a place for the objectives of the lesson to be recorded. However, to write an objective down and then to plan the lesson around the topic of the lesson rather than around the learning outcomes to be reached is missing the point. There is good evidence in the human learning literature that different kinds of outcomes are learned differently. Robert Gagné was one of the first researchers to articulate this; it follows from his research that instructional planning must take into account the kind of learning the students will be engaged in as they seek to reach an objective. Effective teachers learn to categorize their instructional objectives and then develop the teaching and learning activities that will help students do the kind of thinking required for that kind of learning.

It's time to evaluate. How does an educator know what to measure? Look at the objectives. How does a teacher know what kind of information gathering tools to use (test, rubric, portfolio)? Study the objectives. Any test item, any rating scale or checklist, any technique devised to collect information about student progress must seek to measure the instructional objectives as directly and as simply as possible. Instructional objectives are an extremely valuable teaching tool that guide both teachers and students through the teaching and learning process.


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