There are many: Learning objectives presented to learners must (a) follow Mager’s recommendation to include three separate parts (e.g., performance, conditions, criteria), (b) can use words that are not salient in the learning material, (c) can be presented long before learners encounter the learning material, (d) must utilize action verbs (and cannot use the word “understand”), and (e) must always be presented to learners before they begin instruction.
Presenting learning objectives to learners at the beginning of a lesson has become de rigueur in both the education and training worlds. Unfortunately, there is much confusion about why this is done and how to do it effectively. Research on goal-setting has found general benefits, but such goal-setting effects have never been tested in regards to learning objectives.
The research that has been done on learning objectives has shown that presenting learners with learning objectives produces benefits because it helps learners focus attention on the targeted aspects of the learning material (Rothkopf & Billington, 1979). To be more specific, if a learning objective targets Concept X, then learners are more likely to pay attention to aspects of the learning material that are relevant to Concept X, and are less likely to pay attention to aspects of the learning material not relevant to Concept X.
Given that attention is what drives the benefits of learning objectives, several common practices can be called into question. For one thing, it doesn’t help learners to present them with a three-part learning objective — it simply distracts them from focusing on the main points. As Hamilton (1985, p. 78) wrote, “[An instructional] objective that generally identifies the information to be learned in the text will produce robust effects. Including other information (per Mager’s, 1962, definition) will not significantly help and it may hinder the effects of the objectives.”
Another common practice is writing learning objectives with very general wording (for example, “You will learn how to champion a change effort”). Unfortunately, research has shown that specifically-worded learning objectives produce effects while generally-worded learning objectives produce zero or weak effects (Rothkopf, & Kaplan, 1972; Britton, Glynn, Muth, & Penland, 1985). They words in the learning objective have to be salient and they have to be words that will be encountered in the learning material.
There is no need to use action verbs in learning objectives presented to learners. It is okay to use the word “understand” as well. The action verbs don’t help guide attention and the word “understand” doesn’t distract.
Learning objectives when viewed by learners are integrated into long-term memory. Just like all memory traces, they fade with time. Therefore, learning objectives presented to learners too far from the time when the targeted concepts are encountered are unlikely to trigger attentional processing. For example, Kaplan (1974) found that learning objectives interspersed throughout learning material was more effective than learning objectives presented at the beginning.
Finally, given that we know that learning objectives presented to learners create their advantages by helping learners pay extra attention to the targeted information in the learning materials, we must conclude that learning objectives are not needed. That is, we don’t have to present them to learners because we have other ways to guide learner attention to critical information.
Why has there been so much confusion? In the training-and-development field the biggest problem is that we have confused objective for learners and objectives for learning professionals. Where learning professionals need objectives that focus on behaviors, conditions, and criteria; learners gain a real advantage when the learning objectives help guide attention. Unfortunately, somewhere a long time ago we got the idea that our learning objectives should be used for both learners and learning professionals. To help disambiguate this, Thalheimer (2006) suggested calling learning objectives that were presented to learners “focusing objectives” because they helped learners focus on the targeted information.
Strength of Evidence Against
The strength of evidence against the use of Mager-like objectives is very strong, as evidenced in Hamilton’s research review. The strength of evidence for the importance of word specificity is also strong. The evidence for the importance of keeping the objectives close in time to the subsequent learning material is suggestive, but not many studies have covered this.
Debunking Resources — Text-Based Web Pages
Debunking Resources — Videos
Debunking Resources — Newspapers & Magazines
Debunking Resources — Peer-Reviewed Scientific Articles
- Britton, Glynn, Muth, & Penland (1985). Instructional objectives in text: Managing the reader’s attention. Journal of Reading Behavior, 17, 101-113.
- Hamilton, R. J. (1985). A framework for the evaluation of the effectiveness of adjunct questions and objectives. Review of Educational Research, 55, 47-85.
Kaplan, R. (1974). Effects of learning prose with part versus whole presentations of instructional objectives. Journal of Educational Psychology, 66, 448-456.
- Mager, R. (1962). Preparing Instructional Objectives. Palo Alto, CA: Fearon Publishers.
- Rothkopf, E. Z., & Billington, M. J. (1979). Goal-guided learning from text: Inferring a descriptive processing model from inspection times and eye movements. Journal of Educational Psychology, 71(3), 310-327.
Rothkopf, E. Z., & Kaplan, R. (1972). Exploration of the effect of density and specificity of instructional objectives on learning from text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 63, 295-302.