Contemporary Educational Psychology/Chapter 9: Instructional Planning/Formulating Learning Objectives

Given the somewhat general nature of curriculum frameworks and guides, how do you choose and formulate actual learning objectives? Basically there are two approaches: either start by selecting content or topics that what you want students to know (the cognitive approach) or start with what you want students to do (the behavioral approach). In effect the cognitive approach moves from the general to the specific, and the behavioral approach does the opposite. Each approach has advocates, as well as inherent strengths and problems. In practice teachers often combine or alternate between them in order to give students some of the advantages of each.

From General to Specific: Selecting Content TopicsEdit

The cognitive approach assumes that teachers normally have a number of long-term, general goals for students, and it begins with those goals. It also assumes that each student work toward long-term, general goals along different pathways and using different styles of learning. Because of these assumptions, it is necessary to name indicators, which are examples of specific behaviors by which students might show success at reaching a general learning goal. But it is neither desirable nor possible for a list of indicators to be complete—only for it to be representative (Gronlund, 2004).[1] Consider this example from teaching middle-school biology. For this subject you might have a general goal like the following, with accompanying indicators:

The student will understand the nature and purpose of photosynthesis.
1) Explains the purpose of photosynthesis and steps in the process
2) Diagrams steps in the chemical process
3) Describes how plant photosynthesis affects the animal world
4) Writes a plan for how to test leaves for presence of photosynthesis
5) Makes an oral presentation explaining the experiment in #4.

Using a strictly cognitive approach to planning, therefore, a teacher’s job has two parts. First she must identify, find, or choose a manageable number of general goals—perhaps just a half dozen or so. (Sometimes these can be taken or adapted from a curriculum framework document such as discussed earlier.) Then the teacher must think of a handful of specific examples or behavioral indicators for each goal—just a half dozen or so of these as well. The behavioral indicators clarify the meaning of the general goal, but are not meant to be the only way that students might show success at learning. Then, at last, thoughtful planning for individual lessons or activities can begin. This approach works especially well for learning goals that are relatively long-term—goals that take many lessons, days, or weeks to reach. During such long periods of teaching, it is impossible to specify the exact, detailed behaviors that every student can or should display to prove that he or she has reached a general goal. It is possible, however, to specify general directions toward which all students should focus their learning, and to explain the nature of the goals with a sample of well-chosen indicators or examples (Popham, 2002).[2]

The cognitive, general-to-specific approach is reasonable on the face of it, and in fact probably describes how many teachers think about their instructional planning. But critics have argued that indicators used as examples may not in fact clarify the general goal enough; students therefore end up unexpectedly—as Casey Stengel said at the start of this chapter—“someplace else.” Given the general goal of understanding photosynthesis described above, for example, how are we to know whether the five indicators that are listed really allow a teacher to grasp the full meaning of the goal? Put differently, how else might a student show understanding of photosynthesis, and how is a teacher to know if that student’s achievement is s a legitimate display of understanding? To some educators, grasping the meaning of goals from indicators is not as obvious as it should be, and in any case is prone to misunderstanding. The solution, they say, is not to start planning with general goals, but with specific behaviors that identify students’ success.

From Specific to General: Behavioral ObjectivesEdit

Compared to the cognitive approach, the behavioral approach to instructional planning reverses the steps in planning. Instead of starting with general goal statements accompanied by indicator examples, it starts with the identification of specific behaviors—concrete actions or words—that students should perform or display as a result of instruction (Mager, 2005).[3] Collectively, the specific behaviors may describe a more general educational goal, but unlike the indicators used in the cognitive approach, they are not a mere sampling of the possible specific outcomes. Instead they represent all the intended specific outcomes. Consider this sampling of behavioral objectives:

Objectives: Learning to use in-line roller blade skates (beginning level)
1. Student ties boots on correctly.
2. Student puts on safety gear correctly, including helmet, knee and elbow pads.
3. Student skates 50 feet on level ground without falling.
4. Student stops on demand within a ten-foot distance, without falling.

The objectives listed are not merely a representative sample of how students can demonstrate success with roller-blading. Instead they are behaviors that every student should acquire in order to meet the goal of using roller blades as a beginner. There simply are no other ways to display learning of this goal; getting 100% on a written test about roller blading, for example, would not qualify as success with this goal, though it might show success at some other goal, such as verbal knowledge about roller blading. Even adding other skating behaviors (like “Student skates backwards” or “Student skates in circles”) might not qualify as success with this particular goal, because it could reasonably argued that the additional skating behaviors are about skating at an advanced level, not a beginning level.

In the most commonly used version of this approach, originated by Robert Mager (2005),[4] a good behavioral objective should have three features. First, it should specify a behavior that can in fact be observed. In practice this usually means identifying something that a student does or says, not something a student thinks or feels. Compare the following examples; one names a behavior to be performed, but the other names a thinking process that cannot, in principle, be seen:

Behavioral Objective:
The student will make a list of animal species that live in the water but breathe air, and a separate list of species that live in the water but do not require air to breathe.
Not Behavioral Objective:
The student will understand the differences between fish and mammals that live in the water.

The second feature of a good behavioral objective is that it describes conditions of performance of the behavior. What are the special circumstances to be provided when the student performs the objective? Consider these two examples:

Special Condition of Performance Is Specified:
Given a list of 50 species, the student will circle those that live in water but breathe air, and underline those that live in water but do not breathe air.
A Special Condition of Performance Is Not Specified:
After three days of instruction, the student will identify species that live in water but breathe air, as well as species that live in water but do not breathe air.

The first objective names a special condition of performance—that the student will be given a particular kind of list to work from—which is not part of the instruction itself. The second objective appears to name a condition—“three days of instruction.” But the condition is really simply what the teacher will do (she will instruct), not something specific to students’ performance.

The third feature of a good behavioral objective is that it specifies a minimum level or degree of acceptable performance. Consider these two example:

Specifies Minimum Level:
Given a list of 50 species, the student will circle all of those that live in water but breathe air, and underline all of those that live in water but do not breathe air. The student will do so within fifteen minutes.
Does Not Specify Minimum Level:
The student will circle names of species that live in water but breathe air, and underline those that live in water but do not breathe air.

The first objective specifies a level of performance—100% accuracy within 15 minutes. The second objective leaves this information out (and incidentally it also omits the condition of performance mentioned on the left).

Behavioral objectives have obvious advantages because of their clarity and precision. They seem especially well suited for learning that by nature can be spelled out explicitly and fully, such as when a student is learning to drive a car, to use safety equipment in a science laboratory, or install and run a particular computer program. Most of these goals, as it happens, also tend to have relatively short learning cycles, meaning that they can be learned as a result of just one lesson or activity, or of just a short series of them at most. Such goals tend not to include the larger, more abstract goals of education. In practice, both kinds of goals—both the general and the specific—form a large part of education at all grade levels.

Finding the Best in Both ApproachesEdit

When it comes to teaching and learning the large or major goals, then, behavioral objectives can seem unwieldy. How, a teacher might ask, can you spell out all of the behaviors involved in a general goal like becoming a good citizen? And how could you name in advance the numerous conditions under which good citizenship might be displayed, or the minimum acceptable level of good citizenship expected in each condition? Specifying these features seems impractical at best, and at times even undesirable ethically or philosophically. (Would we really want any students to become “minimum citizens”?) Because of these considerations, many teachers find it sensible to a compromise between the cognitive and behavioral approaches. Here are some features that are often part of a compromise:

  1. When planning, think about BOTH long-term, general goals AND short-term, immediate objectives. A thorough, balanced look at most school curricula shows that they are concerned with the general as well as the specific. In teaching elementary math, for example, you may want students to learn general problem solving strategies (a general goal), but you may also want them to learn specific math facts (a specific objective). In teaching Shakespeare’s plays in high school, you may want students to be able to compare the plays critically (a general goal), but doing so may require that they learn details about the characters and plots of the major plays (a specific objective). Since general goals usually take longer to reach than specific objectives, instructional planning has to include both time frames.
  2. Plan for what students do, not what the teacher does. This idea may seem obvious, but it is easy to overlook it when devising lesson plans. Consider that example again about teaching Shakespeare. If you want students to learn the details about Shakespeare’s plays, it is tempting to plan objectives like “Summarize the plot of each play to students, or “Write and hand out to students an outline of the plays.” Unfortunately these objectives describe only what the teacher does, and makes the assumption (often unwarranted) that students will remember what the teacher says or puts in writing for them. A better version of the same objective should focus on the actions of students, not of teachers—for example, “Students will write a summary, from memory, of each of the major plays of Shakespeare.” This version focuses on what students do instead of what the teacher does. (Of course you may still have to devise activities that help students to reach the objective, such as providing guided practice in writing summaries of plays.)
  3. To insure diversity of goals and objectives when planning, consider organizing goals and objectives by using a systematic classification scheme of educational objectives. At the beginning of this section we stated that there is a need, when devising goals and objectives, for both the specific and the general. Actually a more accurate statement is that there is a need for goals and objectives that refer to a variety of cognitive processes and that have varying degrees of specificity or generality. One widely used classification scheme that does so, for example, is one proposed fifty years ago by Benjamin Bloom (1956)[5] and revised recently by his associates (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001).[6]

(back to Chapter 9...)


  1. Gronlund, N. (2004). Writing instructional objectives for teaching and assessment, 6th edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
  2. Popham, J. (2002). What every teacher should know about educational assessment. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
  3. Mager, R. (2005). Preparing instructional objectives, 3rd edition. Atlanta, GA: Center for Effective Performance.
  4. Mager, R. (2005). Preparing instructional objectives, 3rd edition. Atlanta, GA: Center for Effective Performance.
  5. Bloom, B. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives. New York: David McKay Publishers.
  6. Anderson, L. & Krathwohl, D. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing. New York: Longman.