Sunday, March 01, 2020

Mager – Learning objectives… Condtiions, Performance, Criterion…

Robert Mager in Life in the Pinball Machine: Careening from There to Here describes his life as being bounced from one thing to another. But he is most famous for 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

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 that 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.


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 online 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 online 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.


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.F., (2003). Life in the Pinball Machine: Careening from There to Here: Observations from an Accidental Life in Learning and Human Performance. CEP Press.
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. 

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