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How to Write Learning Objectives that Meet Demanding Behavioral Criteria

Dr. Bob Kizlik

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Updated February 9, 2014

For most teachers, learning objectives are central to all lesson plans. That said, objectives that are used in education, whether they are called learning objectives, behavioral objectives, instructional objectives, or performance objectives are terms that refer to descriptions of observable student behavior or performance that are used to make judgments about learning - the ultimate aim of all teaching.   At some point, almost every teacher, especially new teachers and teacher education students, must learn to write these types of objectives. Here, such objectives are referred to as behavioral objectives. Acquiring this skill is something of a rite of passage in the process of becoming a teacher, yet it is a skill that requires practice, feedback, and experience. Over the past 30 years or so, the emphasis on, and attention paid to behavioral objectives has waxed and waned as different ideas change about how best to express instructional intent. To clarify a bit, I have included a rationale for developing and using behavioral objectives that provides in-depth information that you might find helpful. Any skill is learned more effectively if the learner understands the reason for learning and practicing it. Learning to compose behavioral objectives is no exception.

Behavioral objectives are about curriculum not instruction. This is a key point. Many tend to confuse behavioral objectives with objectives a teacher may have that relate to student conduct or behavior in a classroom. Behavioral objectives are learning objectives; they specify what behavior a student must demonstrate or perform in order for a teacher to infer that learning took place. Since learning cannot be seen directly, teachers must make inferences about learning from evidence they can see and measure. Behavioral objectives, if constructed properly, provide an ideal vehicle for making those inferences.

The purpose of a behavioral objective is to communicate. Therefore, a well-constructed behavioral objective should leave little room for doubt about what is intended. A well constructed behavioral objective describes an intended learning outcome and contains three parts, each of which alone means nothing, but when combined into a sentence or two, communicates the conditions under which the behavior is performed, a verb that defines the behavior itself, and the degree (criteria) to which a student must perform the behavior. If any one of these three components is missing, the objective cannot communicate accurately.

Therefore, the parts of a behavioral objective are:

1. Conditions (a statement that describes the conditions under which the behavior is to be performed)
2. Behavioral Verb (an action word that connotes an observable student behavior)
3. Criteria (a statement that specifies how well the student must perform the behavior).

A behavioral objective is the focal point of a lesson plan. It is a description of an intended learning outcome and is the basis for the rest of the lesson. It provides criteria for constructing an assessment for the lesson, as well as for the instructional procedures the teacher designs to implement the lesson.  A behavioral objective determines the criteria for any assessment rubric.  As you will see, without an objective that clearly communicates specific student behavior or performance, it is difficult, if not impossible to determine exactly what a particular lesson is supposed to accomplish.

In order to write behavioral objectives, one should begin with an understanding of  the particular content to which the objectives will relate. Understanding in more than one way the content to be learned should be a goal of teachers as well as students. This implies that teachers or others who prepare objectives as part of lesson plans or curriculum documents and guides should have more than superficial knowledge of the appropriate content. Writing a series of objectives that are within a body of content, but which have neither internal nor external consistency with that body of content is not a productive use of time. However, the purpose of this is not to delve into the area of curriculum consistency, but rather present some pointers to help the reader write better objectives. So, with that in mind, let's begin.

1. The Conditions

The conditions part of an objective specify the circumstances, commands, materials, directions, etc., that the student is given to initiate the behavior.  All behavior relevant to intended student learning outcomes can best be understood within a context of the conditions under which the behavior is to be performed or demonstrated. The conditions part of an objective usually begins with a simple declarative statement such as the following:

Upon request the student will (this means the student is given an oral or written request to do something).
Given (some physical object) the student will (this means the student is actually given something, such as a map, a number or multiplication problems, a literary passage, etc.,  that relates to performing the intended behavior).

Notice that in the examples above, there is no mention of the description of the instruction that precedes the initiation of the behavior. The instruction that leads to the behavior should never be included in the actual objective. Instruction that leads students to accomplishing an objective is a separate issue. Here, we want to concentrate on describing only the conditions under which the desired student behavior is to be performed.

2. The Verb

We all learned in elementary school that a verb is an action word. In a behavioral objective, the verb is also an action word, but it is also a special kind of action word. The verb in a behavioral objective is an action word that connotes an observable behavior. For example, although we as teachers all want our students to appreciate one thing or another, it is impossible to see when a student "appreciates" something. Understand is another noble word that connotes something we want our students to do, but we cannot see "understanding." The best we can do is make inferences that a student appreciates or understands something based on what the student does or says in a controlled situation.

What then are behavioral verbs? The answer is quite simple. A behavioral verb is a word that denotes an observable action, or the creation of an observable product. Verbs such as identify, name, and describe are behavioral because you can observe the act or product of identifying, naming, or describing. Some verbs are embedded in a phrase that gives them a specific behavioral meaning. Examples are state a rule and apply a rule. In this case the behavior is contextual, and the context is the rule in question.

3. The Criteria

The criteria part of a behavioral objective is a declarative statement  that describes how well the behavior must be performed to satisfy the intent of the behavioral verb. Usually, criteria are expressed in some minimum number, or as what must be, as a minimum, included in a student response. For example, an objective might be of the form: Given a list of the first 100 numbers arranged in ascending order (conditions), the student will identify (verb) at least nine prime numbers (criteria). Notice that the objective doesn't specify which nine numbers, and sets a floor of at least nine as a minimum. Also, the method by which the student identifies the minimum nine prime numbers is not specified; that is determined in the actual assessment. The student could circle the numbers, highlight them, draw line through them, etc. It is also implied that the student will be correct if he identifies more than nine correctly, but does not specify whether it is acceptable to identify nine correctly and one or more incorrectly. According to the objective, it would be acceptable to circle the following numbers and still meet the intent of the objective: 2-3-5-7-11-13-17-19-23-24-26, because he got nine correct, and two (24-26) incorrect. If the student must identify only prime numbers, then the objective would need to be modified to include that provision.

Putting it all together

Well-written behavioral objectives are the heart of any lesson plan. If the objectives you compose are "fuzzy" and difficult, if not impossible to assess the rest of the lesson plan you create that is based on the objective is likely to be flawed. Before you begin to write an objective, spend a little time thinking about what you are describing, and remember to make the student behavior observable. You will find this process helps you to clarify what you intend, and you will be better able to communicate that intent to your students, regardless of their grade level, age, or subject. On the matter of being "fuzzy," remember this: fuzzy thinking might get you through the day, but it will never get you through a career.

Any time you write a behavioral objective, ask yourself the question, "Does this objective clearly communicate and describe the intended learning outcome?" If you can find exceptions or loopholes as a way of meeting the objective, then the objective should be rewritten. Learning to write behavioral objectives that describe what you want takes patience and practice. Make sure you get as much feedback as possible about your efforts.

You might also want to read "What Does it Mean to Understand Something?"  It will give you another perspective regarding the ends of these types of specific objectives.

Toward that end, I sincerely hope this short explanation is helpful to you. 

There is much more available. If you really want to learn and improve your skills in writing objectives or selecting objectives written by others, please consider purchasing "Effective Teaching Power Pack 2.0." It is available in both download and CD format. It is inexpensive, and most of all, it really does work. Click on this link to read more.


R J Kizlik

To see how objectives fit into an instructional system, be sure to visit the ADPRIMA Instruction System page 

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