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How to Write an Assessment Based on a Behaviorally Stated Objective

Dr. Bob Kizlik

Updated March 15, 2014

By definition, any objective, regardless of its form or subject-matter connection, implies some form of assessment that is descriptive of what must occur in order to determine whether it has been met. In education, when a teacher guides instruction toward a specific learning objective, it is safe to assume that there will be an assessment at some appropriate point. The purpose of any learning-based assessment is to determine whether the students have met or achieved the intent of the objective. If there is no appraisal, no assessment or test contemplated or made before instruction proceeds to the next lesson, then there is no rational basis for judging anything. Learning objectives, by their very nature, imply there will be an assessment specifically designed to determine whether the learners have actually learned what was intended. This is a simple, yet powerful concept.

To even begin to plan, design, and construct assessments based on specific learning objectives, it is absolutely necessary to be very clear about what the actual behavior in the objective means. Often times, definitions of education-oriented words can be fleeting, fuzzy, and even frivolous. If we are to actually become professionals, and be perceived as such by our clients, we must have something that approaches a professional vocabulary. Toward that end, I have provided definitions and examples for the verbs used in objectives. While not all may agree with these definitions, I believe they can provide a basis for further work and study in this area.

To create an assessment for a particular objective may require nothing more than to write a description of the conditions and procedure. For example, if an objective was of the form, "upon request, the student will name at least three of the seven wonders of the ancient world," the assessment would be pretty straightforward. In this case, a description such as the following would suffice. The teacher will have the students take out a sheet of blank paper. When all students have done so, the teacher says, "write the names of at least three wonders of the ancient world on your paper." That description satisfies the intent of the objective. The objective does not specify a time limit; that is left to the discretion of the teacher who uses reasonable and professional judgment. Notice also that the objective states "at least three" wonders of the ancient world. A student who names all seven has met the objective in the same way as a student who names but three. The objective DOES NOT specify whether extraneous names are acceptable; therefore, a student could satisfy the objective by naming three wonders of the ancient world AND the Eiffel Tower. The Eiffel Tower is certainly not a wonder of the ancient world, but the objective left that possibility open. The point here is that an assessment is only as good as the objective upon which it is based.

An objective may be written in such a way as to imply a certain form of assessment, but for which several valid interpretations are possible. For example, an objective could state, "Given twenty statement stems about World War II, with four possible completions for each, only one of which is correct, the student will identify the correct completion for at least fifteen of the statements." Obviously, a teacher could construct any number of multiple choice tests that satisfy this objective. Here, the uncertainty is in what "twenty statements about World War II" actually means. Professional discretion plays a key role in formulating assessments where there are multiple possibilities for correctly responding in a manner that satisfies the intent expressed in the objective.

Each semester, I require students in my social studies methods classes to write lesson plans. In the format used for the plan, is the requirement for specification of an objective and an assessment. The directions specify that they are to write an assessment description that indicates how the teacher will actually determine whether the behavior specified in the objective was demonstrated. I tell them there must be as nearly perfect correspondence between the objective and the assessment as possible. I tell them that these two parts of the lesson plan have to be in synchronization, that the assessment must specify nothing less or nothing more than the behavior implied by the verb of the objective. This concept is perhaps one of the most difficult for students to understand. For example, often times students will write a perfectly good objective, and later on in the lesson plan specify an assessment that has little, if anything, to do with it. "Describe" is a good behavioral verb. It can be used in a variety of ways to elicit behavior that is both meaningful and complex. I have seen this verb used appropriately in hundreds of objectives and lesson plans. Many times, however, students use describe in an objective, and then in the assessment description have the students take a multiple choice test. Somewhere in this sequence of events, a disconnect has occurred. 

Portfolios and other forms of alternate assessment have achieved considerable attention as a way of offering students a different means for demonstrating learning. Any form of assessment, including portfolios, projects, examinations, demonstrations, constructions, oral responses, written responses, compositions, and so on are only as valid as the objectives upon which they are based. Poorly written, fuzzy objectives contribute little to our ability to communicate with one another as professionals, and even worse, have negative implications for our relations with the constituents of the education process, including parents, administrators, politicians, and taxpayers.

Of course, often times confusion abounds when terms such as assessment, measurement, and evaluation are used in education. Unfortunately, these three separate ideas have been lumped into something akin to a measurement meatloaf. To clarify, I wrote a short piece on what I see as the differences. Here then, is my take on the differences. Go ahead, click this!

A word about rubrics. A rubric is a basically a description of a scoring model or schema for a particular objective. It defines for both the teacher and student what comprises an acceptable range of performance. Again, any "rubric" is no more valid than the objective upon which it is based. If writers of objectives are conscientious, they construct the objectives in such a way that the appraisal of the behavior is unambiguous. This means they are very careful to define the criteria part of the objective in such a way that varying interpretations are limited. In this sense, if an objective specifies a "floor" of behavior from which learning may be inferred, then performance above the "floor" may be categorized according to some legitimate model for the purpose of assigning grades. That is a context for the idea of rubrics.

Formulating worthwhile objectives that communicate clearly is not easy. Formulating assessments that actually measure the behavior of objectives is equally hard. The process requires thinking and commitment. It can be excruciating and frustrating, but ultimately liberating. It is much more than putting words on paper. It goes beyond being satisfied with the illusion of learning to the heart of the matter, which is meaningful learning. There is no magic formula for doing this. What is required is what is usually required for those things in life that are hard -- dedication, perseverance, brains, and a little luck.

"Anything not understood in more than one way is not understood at all."

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Robert Kizlik & Associates

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