Assessment Primer: Writing Instructional Objectives

(Based on Preparing Instructional Objectives by Mager 1962 and Preparing Instructional Objectives: A critical tool in the development of effective instruction by Mager 1997)

An objective

  • Is an intent communicated by a statement describing a proposed change in a learner
  • Is a statement of what the learner is to be like when he/she has successfully completed a learning experience

An instructional objective describes an intended outcome.  A usefully stated objective is stated in behavioral, or performance, terms that describe what the learner will be doing when demonstrating his/her achievement of the objective.  An instructional objective must

  • Describe what the learner will be doing when demonstrating that he/she has reached the objective; i.e.,

What should the learner be able to do? (Performance)

  • Describe the important conditions under which the learner will demonstrate his/her competence; i.e.,

Under what conditions do you want the learner to be able to do it? (Conditions)

  • Indicate how the learner will be evaluated, or what constitutes acceptable performance; i.e.,

How well must it be done? (Criterion)

Course objective:

  • What a successful learner is able to do at the end of the course
  • Is a description of a product, of what the learner is supposed to be like as a result of the process

The statement of objectives of a program must denote measurable attributes observable in the graduate of the program; otherwise it is impossible to determine whether or not the program is meeting the objectives.  Tests or examinations are the milestones along the road of learning and are supposed to tell the teacher and the student the degree to which both have been successful in their achievement of the course objectives.

An advantage of clearly defined objectives is that the student is provided the means to evaluate his/her own progress at any place along the route of instruction; thus, the student knows which activities on his/her part are relevant to his/her success.  A meaningfully stated objective is one that succeeds in communicating to the reader the writer’s instructional intent and one that excludes the greatest number of possible alternatives to your goal.

BAD” words
(open to many interpretations)

GOOD” words
(open to fewer interpretations)


The idea is to describe what the learner will be doing when demonstrating that he/she “understands” or “appreciates”.

Steps to write objectives that will describe the desired behavior of the learner:

  1. Identify the terminal behavior or performance by name; i.e., specify the kind of behavior that will be accepted as evidence that the learner has achieved the objective.
  2. Define the desired behavior further by describing the important conditions under which the behavior will be expected to occur.
  3. Specify the criteria of acceptable performance by describing how well the learner must perform to be considered acceptable.

Step [1] Identifying the terminal behavior

Scheme to fulfill Step [1]:
Write a statement describing one of your educational intents and then modify it until it answers the question: “What is the learner doing when he/she is demonstrating that he/she has achieved the objective?”
A useful objective identifies the kind of performance that will be accepted as evidence that the learner has achieved the objective.  An objective always states what a learner is expected to be able to do and/or produce to be considered competent.  Two examples:
Be able to ride a unicycle.         => the performance stated is ride
Be able to write a letter.   => the performance stated is writing, the product is a letter
Performances may be visible, like writing, repairing, or painting; or invisible, like adding, solving, or identifying.  If a statement does not include a visible performance, it isn’t yet an objective.
Overt (visible) performance
To identify the kind of performance associated with the objective, you need to answer the question:  What will the learner be DOING when demonstrating achievement of the objective?
Given all available engineering data regarding a proposed product, be able to write a product profile.  The profile must describe and define all of the commercial characteristics of the product appropriate to its introduction to the market, including descriptions of at least three major product uses.
=> performance = “write a product profile
Covert (invisible) performance
Some performances are not visible to the naked eye, such as solving, discriminating, and identifying.
Statements such as
Be able to solve …
Be able to discriminate …
Be able to identify …
are inadequate because they don’t describe a visible performance.  Whenever the main intent of the objective is covert, you need to add an indicator behavior to reveal how the covert performance can be directly detected.  An indicator behavior is one that tells you whether a covert performance is happening to your satisfaction.
Consider the covert performance ‘Be able to discriminate counterfeit money’.  An indicator behavior would be for this performance could be to ‘sort the money into two piles’, counterfeit and genuine.  Thus, a suitable objective could be “Be able to discriminate (sort) counterfeit money.”


Stated in behavioral terms Stated in performance terms
“To develop an appreciation for music” “The learner correctly answers 95 multiple-choice questions on the history of music”
“To be able to solve quadratic equations”
“To be able to repair a radio” “To be able to write a summary of the factors leading to the depression of 1929”
“To know how an amplifier works”
“To know the rules of football”

Step [2] further defining the terminal behavior

Scheme to fulfill step [2]:
Given an objective and a set of test items or situations, accept or reject each test item on the basis of whether the objective defines (includes) the behavior asked for.  If you must accept all kinds of test items as appropriate, the objective needs to be more specific.  If the objective allows you to accept those items you intend to use and allows you to reject those items you do not consider relevant or appropriate, the objective is stated clearly enough to be useful.
To state an objective that will successfully communicate your educational intent, you will sometimes have to define terminal behavior further by stating the conditions you will impose upon the learner when he/she is demonstrating his/her mastery of the objective.  As a simple example:
(a) “To be able to solve problems in algebra.”
vs. (b) “Given a linear-algebraic equation with one unknown, the learner must be able to solve for the unknown without the aid of references, tables, or calculating devices.”
In (b) we clearly see a more well-defined statement of the conditions under which solving an algebraic equation will occur.
You should be detailed enough to be sure the target behavior would be recognized by another competent person, and detailed enough so that other possible behaviors would not be mistaken for the desired behavior.  You should describe enough conditions for the objective to imply clearly the kind of test items appropriate for sampling the behavior you are interested in developing.
“Given a list of 35 chemical elements, be able to recall and write the valences of at least 30.”
Given a list‘  – Tells us something about the conditions under which the learner will be recalling the valences of elements.
at least 30‘ – Tells us something about what kind of behavior will be considered ‘passing’; 30 out of 35 is the minimum acceptable skill.
Given a product and prospective customer, be able to describe the key features of the product.”
The performance is to occur in the presence of a product and a customer; these are the conditions that will influence the nature of the performance, and so they are stated in the objective.
To avoid surprises when working with objectives, we state the main intent of the objective and describe the main condition under which the performance is to occur.  For example, “Be able to hammer a nail …” is different from “Given a brick, be able to hammer a nail …”.
Miscommunications can be avoided by adding relevant conditions to the objective by simply describing the conditions that have a significant impact on the performance – in other words, describe the givens and/or limitations within which the performance is expected to occur.  Some simple examples:
With only a screwdriver …
Without the aid of references …
Given a standard set of tools and the TS manual …

Guiding questions:

  • What will the learner be expected to use when performing (e.g., tools, forms, etc.)?
  • What will the learner not be allowed to use while performing (e.g., checklists or other aids)?
  • What will be the real-world conditions under which the performance will be expected to occur (e.g., on top of a flagpole, under water, in front of a large audience, in a cockpit, etc.)?
  • Are there any skills that you are specifically not trying to develop? Does the objective exclude such skills?

Some simple examples:

(i) Objective: “When asked a question in French, the student must be able to demonstrate his/her understanding of the question by replying, in French, with an appropriate sentence.”
Inappropriate test situations:
“Translate the following French sentences.”
“Translate the following French questions.”
Appropriate test situation:
“Reply, in French, to the following questions
(ii) Objective: “To be able to solve a simple linear equation.”
: Inappropriate test situation
“If seven hammers cost seven dollars, how much does one hammer cost?”
Appropriate test situation:
“Solve for x in the following 2 + 4x = 12
Key point: If you expect the student to learn how to solve word problems, then teach him/her how to solve word problems. Do not expect him/her to learn to solve word problems by teaching him/her how to solve equations. The only appropriate way to test to see whether they have learned to solve equations (as stated in the objective) is to ask them to solve equations
(iii) Objective: “Given a DC motor of ten horsepower or less that contains a single malfunction, and given a standard kit of tools and references, the learner must be able to repair the motor within a period of 45 minutes.
Test question: “Given a motor with trouble in it, locate the trouble.”
Appropriate (Yes or No)?:
No! The objective asked for repairing behavior rather than locating behavior.  ‘Repair the motor’ means to make it work.  Making it work is the desired behavior.  The test item sampled only a portion of the behavior called for by the objective

Step [3] stating the criterion

Scheme to fulfill step [3]:
Ask the following questions of statements used to assess performance:
(a)  Does the statement describe what the learner will be doing when he/she is demonstrating that he/she has reached the objectives?
(b) Does the statement describe the important conditions (givens or restrictions) under which the learner will be expected to demonstrate his/her competence?
(c) Does the statement indicate how the learner will be evaluated? Does it describe at least the lower limit of acceptable performance?
You can increase the ability of an objective to communicate what it is you want the learner to be able to do by telling the learner how well you want him/her to be able to do it.  If you can specify at least the minimum acceptable performance for each objective, you will have a performance standard against which to test your instructional programs; you will have a means for determining whether your programs are successful in achieving your instructional intent.  Indicate in your statement of objectives what the acceptable performance will be, by adding words that describe the criterion of success.
Some examples of ways in which minimum acceptable performance can be specified:
(i) time limit
Ex.: “The student must be able to correctly solve at least seven simple linear equations within a period of thirty minutes.”
(ii) minimum number of correct responses that will be accepted
or number of principles that must be applied
or number or principles that must be identified
or number of words that must be spelled correctly
Ex: “Given a human skeleton, the student must be able to correctly identify by labeling at least 40 of the following bones (list of bones inserted here).”
(iii) indicate the percentage or proportion
Ex.: “The student must be able to spell correctly at least 80% of the words called out to him/her during an examination period.”
(iv) define the important characteristics of performance accuracy
Ex.: “… and to be considered correct, problem solutions must be accurate to the nearest whole number.”



An objective describes the criteria of acceptable performance; that is, it says how well someone would have to perform to be considered competent.  For example,
“Given a computer with word-processing software, be able to write a letter”
could have a criteria of “all words are spelled correctly, there are no grammatical or punctuation errors, and the addressee is not demeaned or insulted”.  Thus, you complete your objective by adding information that describes the criterion for success keeping in mind that if it isn’t measurable, it isn’t an objective.

Questions to answer leading to a useful objective:

  • What is the main intent of the objective?
  • What does the learner have to do to demonstrate achievement of the objective?
  • What will the learner have to do it with or to? And what, if anything, will the learner have to do it without?
  • How will we know when the performance is good enough to be considered acceptable?


  • A statement of instructional objectives is a collection of words or symbols describing one of your educational intents.
  • An objective will communicate your intent to the degree you have described what the learner will be doing when demonstrating his/her achievement and how you will know when he/she is doing it.
  • To describe terminal behavior (what the learner will be doing)
    • Identify and name the overall behavior act.
    • Define the important conditions under which the behavior is to occur (givens or restrictions).
    • Define the criterion of acceptable performance.
  • To prepare an objective
    • Write a statement that describes the main intent or performance expected of the student.
    • If the performance happens to be covert, add an indicator behavior through which the main intent can be detected.
    • Describe relevant or important conditions under which the performance is expected to occur.  Add as much description as is needed to communicate the intent to others.
  • Revise as needed to create a useful objective, i.e., continue to modify a draft until these questions are answered:
    • What do I want students to be able to do?
    • What are the important conditions or constraints under which I want them to perform?
    • How well must students perform for me to be satisfied?
  • Write a separate statement for each objective; the more statements you have, the better chance you have of making clear your intent.


Samples of Professional Association Learning Goals/Objectives/Outcomes

American Psychological Association Learning Goals for Psychology
American Sociological Association Learning Goals for Sociology
ABET, Inc. Learning Goals/Outcomes for Engineering

Samples of Program Learning Objectives From Other Institutions

University of Colorado at Boulder
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
San Diego State University