You don’t have to read up on learning objectives for too long before you run into the name of Robert Mager and hear about his performance-based learning objectives. These are also sometimes called three-part learning objectives, behavioral learning objectives, or criteria-based learning objectives.
This isn't necessarily the only way to write learning objectives. Smart people have continued to think about training and the development of learning objectives since Mager's time, after all.
But even though there are other schools of thought about learning objectives, what Mager had to say is still solid advice in many cases.
Mager outlines his theory about the best way to create learning objectives in his classic book Preparing Instructional Objectives. You can read our review of Preparing Instructional Objectives if you’re interested, and we highly recommend reading the book, which is informative, quick, and fun. Oh, and here's a free online version of Mager's book for you!
Otherwise, here’s the crux of what Mager has to say, below. When you're done with this article, you might also be interested in our recorded discussion with learning researcher & instructional designer Dr. Patti Shank on Writing Performance-Based Learning Objectives (she calls them "performance objectives" because she focuses so much on job performance).
And hey, since you may be here because you're interested in Robert Mager's work, and also because people interested in learning objectives may also be interested in performance analysis, don't forget to check out our article about Robert Mager's Performance Analysis book and flow-chart, which is one of the seminal works in the field of human performance improvement, or HPI.
First, Mager makes it clear that a learning objective is a statement of “what the learner will be able to perform as a result of some learning experience.” If you pay attention to that, you’ll notice two very important things:
Those are the truly important aspects of the Mager objective. The rest is all about setting conditions for how the learner can perform the action and how the performance will be evaluated. But let’s step back and look at all three parts of a Mager learning objective. You’ll notice that although we just learned that the learner is the one who’ll be doing this, there’s no part that directly represents the learner, so you’ll have to keep that in mind.
According to Mager, a learning objective should include the following three components:
Mager admits that in some cases, “it is not always necessary to include the second characteristic, and not always practical to include the third,” but he goes on to say that the more you say about them, the better your objective will communicate. (That point about communicating effectively is one that Mager comes back to again and again in his book, and we’ll come back to it again later in this article as well).
Let’s look at each of those three components in closer detail.
In Mager’s words, the objective must specify "what learners must be able to DO or PERFORM when they demonstrate mastery of an objective." So, as we've said before, the key is that the learner must do something.
But you've got to be careful when you're writing a learning objective so that you write a performance that you or someone else can somehow observe, and you must tell the learner how their performance will be evaluated. Or, as Mager puts it:
The most important and indispensable characteristic of a useful objective is that it describes the kind of performance that will be accepted as evidence that the learner has mastered the objective.
Because there's an emphasis on having the learner do something that someone else can observe as evidence, it's important to avoid learning objectives that include words like "know" and "understand." Why? Because how can you tell if someone "knows" or "understands" something? Instead, focus on things people really do on their job.
For example, let's look at the two sample objectives Mager offers as his first quiz of the reader. You're supposed to pick the correctly written learning objective that includes a performance that someone else can witness or evaluate. Which of the two following learning objectives do you think is better? (Remember, these are directly from Mager's book.)
If you selected "Be able to write a news article," you picked the right one. That's an action that someone can later evaluate and clearly tell if it's been performed or hasn't been performed. And it's clearly something that an employee would have to a on the job--if the employee is a journalist, that is.
On the other hand, how would you know if someone has developed an appreciation of music? What are the clear signs of that--or is that too abstract? Mager would say there's no clear way to know if someone has developed an appreciation of music.
The next thing to do is to state the conditions, if any, in which the learner must complete the performance.
The conditions will tell the leaner things like the following (look for the italicized parts of the objectives below):
Remember that Mager said you may not always need to add conditions. As always with Mager, he suggests using them if they make things more clear and remove ambiguity. Mager's big on being clear and he's down on ambiguity, and that seems reasonable.
Finally, the third part of a Mager three-part, performance-based learning objective is the criterion or criteria. Or, as Mager puts it: "Having described what you want your students to do, you can increase the communication power of an objective by telling them HOW WELL you want them to be able to do it."
Note again Mager's focus on "the communication power of an objective."
Here are some examples (again, look for the italicized parts of the objectives below):
Mager notes that it may not always be practical to include criteria in a learning objective. When that's true, don't include them.
And that's about it in a nutshell. If you keep in mind that the learning objective states something the learner should do after training, remember to include its three parts, when required--performance, conditions, and criteria--and maximize the communication power of the learning objective to your learner by keeping things clear, concise, and by removing ambiguity, you'll be headed in the right direction with your learning objectives and creating better training materials that lead to better performance results.
Of course, it couldn't hurt to buy the book. It's got a lot of helpful practice exercises and it's a fun read to boot.
And for even more about learning objectives, feel free to check out any of the articles below:
To learn even more about learning objectives at work, check out our recorded discussion with learning researcher & instructional designer Dr. Patti Shank on Writing Performance-Based Learning Objectives.