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A Rationale for Developing Learning Objectives
that Meet Demanding Behavioral Criteria

Dr. Bob Kizlik

May 14, 2015

This page is designed to give you a context for understanding learning objectives that meet demanding behavioral criteria are important to teaching and curriculum planning. If you want the complete version, please consider purchasing my inexpensive, highly regarded program, the all new Catalyst: Tools for Effective Teaching 2.0. Thanks.

As you have already discovered, or soon will, part of the process becoming a professional teacher is the development of the ability to articulate to others the reasons, the "why" of what you do. This rationale for learning objectives, which are also known as behavioral objectives, performance objectives, or instructional objectives, provides an explanation for why such specific objectives can be an improvement over other ways of communicating instructional intent. It is somewhat heavy reading, but you might find something here that can be useful to you. Well composed objectives help diminish fuzzy thinking about the ends of instruction. 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.

A Little Background for Starters

Learning objectives serve several instructional purposes, including the basis for lesson planning, the bane of many of those learning to be teachers. First and foremost, such objectives clarify the intent of instruction for the teacher. By stating his objectives in behavioral terms, the teacher exercises a type of professional discipline that will aid him in focusing his attention upon that which is really the purpose of all instruction -- learning. Because learning cannot be seen directly, objectives provide a basis for making the best possible inferences about whether learning has occurred. By formulating clear objectives of instruction, the teacher stands a better chance of devising instructional strategies that will effectively lead his students to learn what he intends to have them learn.

But, the usefulness of learning objectives learning objectives does not stop there. They also serve to clarify the purposes and intent of instruction for all who have an interest in the outcomes of instruction. Students, parents of students, principals, supervisors, school boards, college deans, and members of society at large all have some interest in instructional outcomes. Such constituents often complain that educators speak in a curious dialect known as pedagogese in response to inquiries for information, and may even claim that this is intended to deceive them.

Imagine, if you will, the plight of the parents of a third grade student who was given the homework assignment, "By tomorrow, know the continents." When he asked his parents for help they were understandably stupefied. What is knowing the continents? Is it naming them? Is it ordering them from largest to smallest? Is it labeling them on an outline map? Is it naming the direction each lies from the United States?

Assuming that naming the continents was all that was required, which list of names should be used? Some lists include Europe and Asia as one continent. Some list Australia separately and some include it in a complex called Oceania.

Judging from the test that the teacher gave, it turned out that what was wanted of the student was for him to list the names of the continents given in his social studies textbook. But at the beginning of his instruction he didn't know that, his parents didn't know it and maybe his teacher didn't even know it. The most dehumanizing occurrence, however, was that the student didn't know what was expected until he took the test. He knew then what was expected but it was too late. He had already failed and he was never given another chance.

Then there was a student who failed a social studies test on Patrick Henry's famous "Give me liberty . . ." speech. He had been told by his teacher that he should learn several lines of the speech. The student practiced by saying it until he could recite it with gusto from memory, with the inflections and intonations he imagined the great orator must have used. But, then his teacher tested the student's learning by giving him a copy of the speech, in writing, with blank spaces appearing where certain key words were omitted. Writing the proper words in the blanks did not give the student much difficulty; he knew what they should be. But because he didn't realize he would be tested in this manner, the student had not attempted to learn the way in which the words were spelled. Consequently, he failed the test because the teacher considered each misspelled word a wrong response. It is hard to imagine a set of circumstances that would do more to convince a student that he shouldn't try to learn.

A major reason for using learning objectives is to communicate. Any teacher should be able to communicate to his colleagues, his students, his supervisors, and the public, the intent and purpose of his instructional programs. In short, the teacher should be able to tell all who are interested what he expects his students to learn from instruction. He should be able to tell them in a way that will communicate to them in a consistent, orderly, and efficient manner.

This means that the teacher must first see the ends of his own instruction. If he is going to communicate, the teacher must have something to communicate. It is probable that teachers often fail to communicate because they do not have the ends, or objectives, of their own instruction in mind. When pressured, they may state some specific objectives that they may have clearly in mind at the time they are communicating them. But it frequently happens that the intentions of today are not the intentions of tomorrow. It is easy to forget what one meant by an oral statement delivered two or three months ago, particularly when it may not have been too clear. Therefore, it is desirable to have written objectives that communicate across time as well as at a point in time.

Many writers on the subject of learning objectives make clear the role of learning objectives in improving communications. Objectives stated behaviorally communicate better than non-behaviorally stated objectives. Curriculum developers have used learning objectives in curriculum design, not simply as a refuge from the cloudy and extensive verbosity that has characterized many statements of educational intent, but as a means of establishing a base for planning instructional programs. They are interested in designing programs that result in the learning that they intend to occur with the students who are engaged in the programs. To design programs, to evaluate them, and to communicate with others about them, one must know more than the content to be "covered." Educators who are concerned with improving the quality of instructional programs must know specifically what the student is to do to indicate he has learned. They realize that vague terms used to explain learning do not communicate very well in their first use and lose their meaning, what little they originally possessed, over a period of time.

Therefore, the need for using learning objectives to clarify instruction and to improve communications about instruction has become more widely accepted. But, do behaviorally stated objectives really communicate better than the more vague variety? According to Mager, a behavioral objective is composed of three parts: a statement of conditions, a behavioral verb, and criteria of performance. All three parts are essential. It is not the purpose of this to expound upon all of the techniques that are involved in writing quality learning objectives. One of the purposes, however, is to focus the attention of the reader upon a source of vagueness in the construction of learning objectives that may make them not much more meaningful than objectives stated in non-behavioral terms. That source of vagueness grows out of the ambiguity attending the use of verbs that are not defined behaviorally. An undefined verb leaves the reader of learning objectives wondering whether or not the verbs are behavioral. Or, if he concludes that they are behavioral, he may wonder what specific behavior is indicated by each verb.

For example, Mager says that appreciate, understand, learn, and know are non-behavioral verbs. He also says that identify is a behavioral verb. What is the difference? Can the reader of learning objectives be sure that identify is a behavioral verb? If it is a behavioral verb, exactly what behavior does it indicate? Without definition of any of the behavioral verbs, it is impossible for the reader of learning objectives that use these terms to design instructional situations, assess the progress of learners, or to communicate with others on a consistent basis.

Writers of objectives who can agree on the definitions of the behavioral verbs on the ADPRIMA site will be able to communicate more effectively with one another and with other people about their objectives. By mutually agreeing to follow set definitions for behavioral verbs, persons who are concerned with the instructional process will find that their communications concerning educational outcomes will be much enhanced. Likewise, a teacher who formulates a learning objective will not have to figure out several months later what he meant by the behavioral verb that he used when he wrote objectives for his instruction.

Let's take an example of how the use of defined verbs in the construction of learning objectives may improve communication concerning them, as well as add to their clarity. "Name" and "identify" are frequently used as behavioral verbs. Often they are used interchangeably. What does it mean to name? According to the definitions given for behavioral verbs, to "name" is to supply the name for something that has already been identified. To identify" is to point out something that has already been named. If the definitions are to be adhered to, these two words may not be used interchangeably in the construction of objectives. They do not mean the same thing. When a teacher asks a student, "Show me the continent of Africa on this globe," he has already supplied the name and he is asking the student to identify. When the teacher points to the continent of Africa on the globe and asks the student, "What is the name of this continent?" he has already identified the continent and is asking the student to name it.

There are instances when naming is the desired behavior. There are other instances when identifying is required. And there are other instances when both naming and identifying are required in a specific sequence, but they logically cannot be used together in the same objective. If these terms were used without definition it would be impossible, first, to tell if they were indeed behavioral and, second, to determine exactly what they meant. It is possible that they would be used interchangeably. Other terms could suffer a similar fate.

Definition of behavioral verbs is essential if one is going to construct objectives that are truly behavioral and that have consistent meaning for all who read them. The verbs are defined here.

There are also other advantages to having behavioral verbs defined. One is that the creativity of the person formulating learning objectives is enhanced considerably when he has at his disposal a list of behavioral verbs that may be used to construct his objectives. There is a tendency among objective developers to latch on to only a few verbs that are used often. These verbs are used often because the objective writer, through his experience, has come to know that they have been accepted by other objective writers as behavioral verbs. He is familiar with them and he knows that others are familiar with them. He knows that if he uses a verb like "interpret" he may be open to criticism for formulating non-learning objectives. He therefore limits the number of verbs he uses to the few that are generally accepted as being behavioral. A list of carefully defined behavioral verbs breaks this dilemma. Access to a variety of verbs that have been defined opens many new avenues for the creative formulation of meaningful instructional objectives.

The list of defined verbs, makes it possible for those who are composing learning objectives to construct objectives of greater clarity, communicate more effectively, and to formulate objectives more creatively.

WANT MORE? Of course you do! If you are serious and want to learn and improve your skills in writing objectives or selecting objectives written by others, lesson planning, and instructional programs, please consider purchasing my self-instructional, interactive program called "Catalyst: Tools for Effective Teaching 2.0.". It contains a great set of tools for new and future teachers.  It is available in both download and CD format. It is inexpensive, and most important of all, it really does work. Click on this link to read more.

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