Robert Mager published the second edition of his book Preparing Instructional Objectives in 1975 (first edition1962). It was an attempt to bring some rigour to the often woolly world of education and training by making learning professionals start with clear goals. It essentially says, start with the end point and work backwards. Additionally, his Criterion Referenced Instruction (CRI), an extension of Gagne’s method of instruction, is a method for the design and delivery of training. His aim was to produce a more rigorous and precise approach to the design of learning experiences based on competences and assessment that relate to defined learning or performance objectives.
Learning objectives should be designed to determine the outcomes of learning. A good learning objective has to have three primary components of an objective:
1. Conditions. An objective always states the important conditions (if any) under which the performance is to occur. This could include tools, assistance or assumptions.
2. Performance. An objective always says what a learner is specifically expected to be able to do and may also describe the product or the result of the doing.
3. Criterion. Wherever possible, an objective describes the criterion of acceptable performance by describing how well the learner must perform in order to be considered acceptable.
Mager held that an important part of writing good objectives was to use ‘doing words’. These are words which describe a performance (e.g., identify, select, recall) acts which can be observed and measured. Words to avoid are fuzzy terms that describe abstract states of being (e.g. know, learn, appreciate, be aware) which are difficult to observe or measure. Mager's model is still used as a guide to good objective writing.
Criterion Referenced Instruction
His Criterion Referenced Instruction (CRI) framework is a set of methods for the design and delivery of training programs. It relies on a detailed task analysis, the identification of performance objectives, then assessment against those objectives and a modular course structure that represents the performance objectives.
Criterion Referenced Instruction (CRI) was based on five principles:
1. Competences - Instructional objectives derived from job performance should reflect the competencies (knowledge and skills) that need to be learned.
2. Scope - Learners study and practice only those skills not yet mastered to the level required by the objectives.
3. Practice - Learners must practice each skill and get feedback about the quality of their performance.
4. Reinforcement - Learners need repeated practice in key skills that are to be used often or are difficult to learn.
5. Autonomy - Learners have some freedom to choose the order in which to complete modules and progress self-paced based on their mastery of the objectives.
The advantage of this approach is that is prevents the teacher, trainer or lecturer from falling into the trap of delivering just abstract knowledge, regurgitated in written answers and essays. It pushes learners into in mastery of defined knowledge and the practice of real skills. Note that these skills may be academic e.g. analyses, critical thinking, communication and so on.
Performance objectives can be tricky to define and miss some of the subtler aspects of the learning experience. It can lead to an over-emphasis on objectives and assessments that turn many learning events into dull and demotivating experiences for learners. The approach may also miss key issues around motivation, engagement and attention. For example, many learning experiences, be they classes, lectures, manuals or e-learning courses are plagued by dull learning objectives presented as the first event, (At the end of this course you will….) thereby dulling down the experience and failing to initially engage and increase attention.
CRI promoted the idea of self-paced learning using a variety of media. It heavily influenced the objective-led, modular, self-paced, assessed design model that has become common in e-learning. Some have argued that it has led to the dominance of the ADDIE model. Opponents of this model prefer a more complex, iterative or rapid development models. However, for learning talks where the outcomes are clear, the model still has some worth.
On the positive side, Mager, like Gagne, introduced rigour into the process of instructional design. In his case, these were; learning objectives, competences and assessments. It brought discipline to training and design by pushing professionals to match learning to performance. However, behaviourism still underpinned the approach. Learners were, in effect, seen as subject to be conditioned to meet behavioural objectives and behaviourism tends to encourage behaviour at the expense of other important cognitive functions such as motivation, attention, context and so on.
Mager, R. (1962). Preparing Instructional Objectives Palo Alto, Calif.: Fearon Publishers
Mager, R. (1975). Preparing Instructional Objectives (2nd Edition). Belmont, CA: Lake Publishing Co.
Mager, R. & Pipe, P. (1984). Analyzing Performance Problems, or You Really Oughta Wanna (2nd Edition). Belmont, CA: Lake Publishing Co.
Mager, R. (1988). Making Instruction Work. Belmont, CA: Lake Publishing Co.
Hi Donald - although Mager is best known for his work on objectives and CRI, I think his most important contribution is the performance analysis flow that he developed with Peter Pipe. This flow suggested training as a last resort - only to be used when other fixes (more resources, practice, feedback, etc) proved to be irrelevant. As you know, too often L&D folks offer training as the solution to every problem, when, in many cases, it's simply a waste of money and time.
I'm concerned that when you criticize Mager's work on objectives, IDs will subsequently ignore the focus he put on other on-the-job variables that affect performance.
I expected that students would be bored and insulted when I was asked to attach "at the end of this unit you will be able to ..." statements to an economics textbook I was writing. In the event, they loved it - after years of mush, to be clearly told what are the central points on which to concentrate.
In live training the 'performer' can do this successfully. In web-based learning it's the kiss of death. Imagine hitting the easyjet site and getting an objective up front. You'd be off in a shot. What learning needs is immediate engagement to raise arousal and attention (the necessary psychological conditions for learning). This is not done using trainerspeak "At the end of this course you will...." Let me put this another way - suppose I, as a learner, said, "Hold on, that's not what I expected, I'm off.." This never happens because far too much training is simply batching people through courses. They already know what the course involves, or they wouldn't be there, so why tell them again.
A list of objectives may be dull but it does set student expectations. In education students don't necessarily know what are the key points in a lecture/presentation/e-learning and my get lost or focus on minor detail. Easyjet is an ecommerce not an elearning site so I don't see its relevance. Could you cite some research against the use of learning obejctives
Learning objectives are not bad in themselves. Indeed they are a powerful way of keeping an instructional designer or teacher focused when designing learning experiences. the problem comes when they are presented as 'trainerspeak' to the learner. "At the end of this X you will have learnt Y". If you do have to do this get rid of this style of language, build the purpose into your title or, in my opinion start with a problem or event that raises expectations, attention and arousal. To deliberately and repeatedly present, as the first event, something DULL is perverse. Even Gagne, who loved learning objectives, advised against this. Plenty of ways to skin the cat without being boring.
I'm an instructional designer on an L&D team. I appreciate Mager's focus on objectives *mostly* because it forces the people who come to L&D with their problems to figure out, first, whether it is a problem training can address.
We cannot fix bad products, bad processes, or bad employees.
Once the objectives are clearly defined, then of course one should add expertise, real-world use, and space for adult learners to share experiences. There, objectives also help reign in scope-creep, and without that, the L&D team gets burdened with everything that sales, marketing, operations, and HR doesn't want to deal with.
Most of the time, at least within my experience, training programs are magically defined as "x hours" with a budget of "$x" without first figuring out what the goals are. I still have to fight for clear objectives, every time.
Are they overdone? No. They're misused. I'm unconvinced objectives need to be announced at the start of every class. They should be in the catalog, to help learners pick the right course, but they shouldn't be the lead topic -- fully agreed, that would be a boring introduction to anything.
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