Behavioral Objectives and How to Write Them

"Instruction is effective to the degree that it succeeds in changing students in desired directions and not in undesired directions."
Robert F. Mager

Definitions/Characteristics of Behavioral Objectives

"Intended change brought about in a learner." (Popham, et. al. 1969)

"A statement of what students ought to be able to do as a consequence of instruction." (Goodlad, in Popham et al., 1969)

"Explicit formulations of ways in which students are expected to be changed by the educative process." (Bloom, 1956)

"What the students should be able to do at the end of a learning period that they could not do beforehand." (Mager, 1962)

"An objective is a description of a performance you want learners to be able to exhibit before you consider them competent. An objective describes an intended result of instruction, rather than the process of instruction itself." (Mager, 1975)

"Properly constructed education objectives represent relatively specific statements about what students should be able to do following instruction." (Gallagher and Smith, 1989)

According to Guilbert (1984) in article entitled "How to Devise Educational Objectives" the qualities of specific learning objectives are:

  1. Relevant
  2. Unequivocal
  3. Feasible
  4. Logical
  5. Observable
  6. Measurable

Characteristics of effective objectives as described by Westberg and Jason (1993) in Collaborative Clinical Education.

  1. Consistent with overall goals of the school
  2. Clearly stated
  3. Realistic and doable
  4. Appropriate for learners' stages of development
  5. Appropriately comprehensive
  6. Worthy, complex outcomes
  7. Not treated as if they were etched in stone
  8. Not regarded as the only valuable outcomes


Alternative Names for Behavioral Objectives

Special note: In educational psychology we define learning as a "change in behavior." This is a little confusing but if a student could not answer a particular question on a pretest, then received instruction, and then answered the question correctly on a posttest, a change in behavior is illustrated and learning is considered to have occurred. Objectives specify the learning or expected behavior so hence the term behavioral objective. Other names used for behavioral objectives include:

  • Learning Objectives
  • Outcomes
  • Enabling Objectives
  • Terminal Objectives
  • Educational Objectives
  • Curriculum Objectives
  • Performance Objectives
  • Operational Objectives
  • Instructional Objectives
  • Intents
  • Aims
  • Competencies


History & Controversy Around Behavioral Objectives

Behavioral objectives became known to many educators through a book entitled Preparing Instructional Objectives, written by Robert F. Mager, that was published in 1962. It was during the 60's and early 70's that many public school teachers were required to write behavioral objectives as a critical component of their daily lesson plans. Many workshops for teachers were conducted and the Mager model for writing behavioral objectives was taught.

The Mager model recommended that objectives be specific and measurable, and specified three parts to an objective as follows:

  1. It should have a measurable verb (an action verb)
  2. It should include a specification of what is given the learner
  3. It should contain a specification of criteria for success or competency

The debate about the value of objectives relative to the planning and delivery of instruction has gone on for many years. Two articles that exemplified this debate were "Behavioral Objectives Yes" and "Behavioral Objectives No." There is research to support the effectiveness of objectives relative to increased learning and retention. Admittedly, there are also studies that show no significant differences. However, behavioral objectives are widely accepted as a necessary component of the instructional design process.


Purpose and Function of Behavioral Objectives

  • Guide for the teacher relative to the design of instruction
  • Guide for the teacher for evaluation/test design (e.g. written tests, OSCEs, etc)
  • Guide for the learner relative to learning focus
  • Guide for the learner relative to self assessment
  • Statements of objectives tell others what we value.
  • Causes careful thinking about what is to be accomplished through instruction.
  • Helps relationship between teacher and learner because with explicit objectives the instructor is viewed less in an adversarial role because students are not forced to guess what is to be learned.
  • Enhances possibility to create focused independent learning materials.
  • Makes teaching more directed and organized.
  • Communicates to colleagues what you are teaching thus enhancing collaboration and teamwork with colleagues.
  • Helps facilitate those situations in which we want students to demonstrate competency (The objectives can be specified in such as way as to specify competency.)
  • Aids in program evaluation
  • Forces teacher to think carefully about what is important
  • Helps avoid unnecessary repetitions in teaching
  • Helps bridge the gap between vague, but relevant, and important, institutional goals and actual instruction
  • Provides visibility and accountability of decisions made by teachers and learners.
  • Provides models for the creation of objectives by students
  • Helps students make decisions regarding prioritizing
  • Provides feedback to learners as objectives are accomplished.


3 Domains for Behavioral Objectives

Cognitive Domain

  • Refers to intellectual learning and problem solving
  • Cognitive levels of learning include: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation
  • Example objective: The student will construct a treatment plan for a teenager newly diagnosed with IDDM. The treatment plan must contain the following: ..............

Affective Domain

  • Refers to the emotions and value system of a person
  • Affective levels of learning include: receiving, responding, valuing, organizing, and characterizing by a value
  • Example objective: The student will demonstrate a commitment to improving case presentation skills by regularly seeking feedback on presentations.

Psychomotor Domain

  • Refers to physical movement characteristics and motor skill capabilities that involve behaviors requiring certain levels of physical dexterity and coordination
  • These skills are developed through repetitive practice and measured in terms of speed, precision, distance, procedures, or execution techniques. Psychomotor levels include: perception, set, guided response, mechanism, complex overt response, adaptation, and origination.
  • Example objective: The student will calibrate instrument X before performing procedure Y.


Behavioral Objectives in Instructional Design

Tyler Model

  1. The objectives or statement of the knowledge, attitudes, and skills which students ought to have by the end of the course
  2. The instructional activities or learning experiences which teaching faculty provide to help students achieve those objectives
  3. The evaluation or testing activities which attempt to measure knowledge, attitudes, and skills


G for Goals
N for Need (Needs assessment)
O for Objectives
M for Methods
E for Evaluation

Kemp Model

The Kemp Model is circular as opposed to linear. Many teachers like this instructional design model because the circular design is closer to the way they actually go about the design of instruction. The Kemp Model gives them permission to be intuitive but it also has a structure that is systematic. For example, an instructor might write a set of learning objectives as the first step in the instructional design process, then develop content based on those objectives but in the process of developing/planning content he/she would revisit and modify the learning objectives. On the other hand, an instructor might prefer to work on the content as the first step in the instructional design process and then write the learning objectives. To develop the optimal instruction, all components of the Kemp Model should receive attention and ideally, most of the components should be visited more than once before instruction is delivered.

The Six Step Approach

Step 1: Problem Identification and General Needs Assessment
Step 2: Needs Assessment of Targeted Learners
Step 3: Goals and Objectives
Step 4: Educational Strategies
Step 5: Implementation
Step 6: Evaluation and Feedback


Quotes/Comments Regarding Objectives

"Identifying learning objectives sharpens the focus of learning for the students as they progress through their third year and it gives the clerkship directors distinct learning agendas. Further, it allows the clerkship directors to assess the overall achievement of the learning objectives they have identified as vital."
Lawrence S, Simpson D, Rehm J
Determination of Third-year Student Exposure to and Participation in Learning Objectives
Academic Medicine 1998 May;73(5):582-3

"Curriculum objectives can be designed to match the way physicians encounter problems and preserve a generalist's perspective in patient care, yet allow appropriate emphasis of core content."
Ainsworth, M
Establishment of Internal Medicine Clerkship Objectives to Train the Generalist Physician
Academic Medicine 1994 May, 69(5):424-5

"Medical teachers agree that the process of writing objectives leads to clarification of intuitively held teaching goals and thus leads to better teaching and testing decisions. To achieve this benefit, an instructor must invest considerable time, effort and creativity in the process. The path of least resistance in writing objectives often leads to goals which serve no useful function and may be harmful to the teaching-learning process.

The respondents agreed that the major potential problem is that the use of objectives can led one to focus teaching and evaluation activity on outcomes of a trivial nature. This can be the result if one does not put sufficient time and effort into the process of writing the objectives.

Changes in strategy with experience generally focus on using fewer, more inclusive objectives, less slavish adherence to the rules according to Mager (1962) and use of varying formats for clear objectives dealing with higher level thought processes.

Teachers in the basic sciences have incorporated a three level taxonomy of objectives into their work. In this taxonomy, first order objectives concern the ability to reproduce material in essentially the same form as it was learned. Second order objectives reflect understanding of an organized body of concepts and principles. This level of understanding is documented by determining whether students can recognize previously unseen examples of a concept or principle and whether they can describe other system changes which will result from a specified change in the system. Third order objectives require students to apply theories, concepts and principles to solve previously unencountered problems.

Teachers agree that objectives in traditional form as defined by Mager (1962) are generally not sufficient to provide the desired level of guidance when focusing on higher level thought processes. One individual noted that as objectives are pushed up the taxonomy, they tend to become so abstract that they lose their value for guiding student learning. Several people reported that they now provide concrete written examples of what is expected as a means of dealing with this problem. One group member stated that he writes test questions for objectives as a means of testing their clarity. If a quality test question cannot be prepared, the objective needs to be changed."

Williams RG and Osborne CE
Medical Teachers' Perspectives on Development and Use of Objectives
Medical Education 1982 16: 68-71


Examples of Behavioral Objectives


The learner will be able to: orally present a new patient's case


The learner will be able to: orally present a new patient's case in a logical manner, chronologically developing the present illness, summarizing the pertinent positive and negative findings as well as the differential diagnosis and plans for further testing and treatment.


The learner will be able to: prepare appropriate new patient workups


The learner will be able to: prepare legible, comprehensive, and focused new patient workups that include the following features:

  • Present illness organized chronologically, without repetition, omission, or extraneous information.
  • A comprehensive physical examination with detail pertinent to the patient's problem.
  • A succinct and, where appropriate, unified list of all problems identified in the history and physical examination.
  • A differential diagnosis for each problem (appropriate to level of training)
  • A diagnosis/treatment plan for each problem (appropriate to level of training)


The learner will be able to: retrieve medical information using the computer.


The learner will be able to: Retrieve information, demonstrating the ability to

  • Perform database searches using logical (Boolean) operators, in a manner that reflects understanding of medical language, terminology, and the relationship among medical terms and concepts;
  • Refine search strategies to improve relevance and completeness of retrieved items;
  • Use of standard bibliographic application to download citations from a search and organize them into a personal database; and
  • Identify and acquire full-text electronic documents available from the www.


The learner will be able to: properly examine a stool specimen for the presence of ova and parasites.


The learner will be able to: take stool specimens infected with 1 of 10 possible ova and parasites and correctly identify them.

Even More Specific

The student will be able to: take stool specimens infected with 1 of 10 possible parasites, process it according to standard procedures, and identify under a microscope examples of ova and of parasites (Parasites must be identified by scientific name.)


Tips on Writing

Most books that provide instruction on the writing of behavioral objectives state that an objective needs to have three components as follows:

  1. A measurable verb (also known as performance)
  2. The important conditions (if any) under which the performance is to occur and
  3. The criterion of acceptable performance

It is important to say that many objectives are written in a manner in which the important conditions and criterion are implicit. If they really are implicit the argument can be made that they may not be necessary. For example, an objective might be stated as follows.

The student will be able to name the five stages of mitosis.

There would be no point in stating the objective as follows just to meet the requirements of it having a criterion.

The student will correctly (criterion) name the five stages of mitosis within 30 seconds (criterion).

On the other hand, there may be objectives that need to have the conditions and/or criterion specified. For example, a teacher might begin the process of writing an objective with a general statement such as:

The learner will be able to prepare appropriate new patient workups.

He/she then might decide that this objective is too vague or general to be instructional to the student and to also let others who teach the student know what is expected. Therefore, in an effort to improve the objective the teacher might add criteria as exemplified below.

The learner will be able to prepare legible, comprehensive, and focused new patient workups that include the following features:

  • Present illness organized chronologically, without repetition, omission, or extraneous information.
  • A comprehensive physical examination with detail pertinent to the patient's problem.
  • A succinct and, where appropriate, unified list of all problems identified in the history and physical examination.
  • A differential diagnosis for each problem (appropriate to level of training)
  • A diagnosis/treatment plan for each problem (appropriate to level of training)

One could argue that the teacher could add some time frame criterion such as - 1 hour - but such a time frame might be meaningless and not necessary. Please note that in this objective the condition is not stated and may be unnecessary.

Please note that if you think of the purpose of the objective as a statement that serves the purpose of guiding planning, guiding teaching, guiding learning, and guiding evaluation the need to state or not to state the condition and the criterion will probably be clear to you.




Link to the Nutrition Curriculum Guide for Training Physicians prepared by the Curriculum Committee of the Nutrition Academic Award Program. Shows good examples of learning objectives written in the categories of attitudes, skills, and knowledge (ASK). The objectives are also specific to be for medical students or for residents. view at

Books and Articles

Ainsworth, M
Establishment of Internal Medicine Clerkship Objectives to Train the Generalist Physician
Academic Medicine 1994 May, 69(5):424-5

Bloom BS (ed)
Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals, handbook 1: Cognitive Domain
New York: McKay, 1956

Education medical Students: Assessing Change in Medical Education - The Road to Implementation (ACME-TRI report).
Academic Medicine 1993. 68(6 supplement)

Gallagher, RE and Smith, DU
Formulation of Teaching/Learning Objectives Useful for the Development and Assessment of Lessons, Courses, and Programs
Journal of Cancer Education 1989, 4(4):231-234

Gronlund, N
Stating Objectives for Classroom Instruction
New York: Macmillan, 1978

Gronlund, N
Measurement and Evaluation in Teaching
New York: Macmillan, 1985

Guilbert JJ
How to Devise Educational Objectives
Medical Education, 1984 May, 18(3):134-41

Harrow AJ
A Taxonomy of the Psychomotor Domain: A Guide for Developing Behavioral Objectives
New York: McKay, 1972

Kern DE, Thomas PA, Howard DM and Bass EB
Curriculum Development for Medical Education: A Six Step Approach
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998

Krathwohl DR , Bloom BS and Masia BB
Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals, Handbook 2: Affective Domain
New York: McKay, 1964

Lawrence S, Simpson D, and Rehm J
Determination of third-year student exposure to and participation in learning objectives
Academic Medicine 1998 May;73(5):582-3

Liaison committee on Medical Education
Functions and Structure of a Medical School: Standards for Accreditation of Medical Education Programs Leading to the MD Degree
Washington, DC, and Chicago, IL: The Association of American Medical Colleges and the American Medical Association, 1994

Mast TA, Evans GP, Williams RG, and Silber DL
Medical Student Use of Objectives in Basic Science and Clinical Instruction
Journal of Medical Education 1980 Sep;55(9):765-72

Mager, R
Preparing Instructional Objectives
Palo Alto, CA: Fearon Publishers, 1962

Mager, R
Preparing Instructional Objectives: Second Edition
Belmont, CA: Fearon-Pitman Publishers, Inc., 1975

Mast, TA
Curricular Objectives1980
Southern Illinois School of Medicine, 1980

Medical School Writing Objectives Group
Learning Objectives for Medical Student Education - Guidelines for Medical Schools: Report I of the Medical School Objectives Project
Academic Medicine 1999 Jan;74(1):13-18

McGuire C
A process approach to the construction and analysis of medical examinations
Journal of Medical Education 1963 38:556-563

Miller GE
Teaching and Learning in Medical School
Medical Education 1978, 12:120

Muller S (chairman)
Physicians for the Twenty-First Century: Report of the Project Panel on the General Professional Education of the Physician and College Preparation for Medicine
Journal of Medical Education 1984, Nov;59(11Pt.2)

Popham, J and Baker, E
Systematic Instruction
Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1970

Popham WJ
Probing the Validity of Arguments Against Behavioral Goals
Cited in Kibler RJ, Barker LL, and Miles DT
Behavioral Objectives and Instruction
Boston: Allyn and Bacon, Inc., 1970, pp 115-124

Rappleye WC (director)
Medical Education: Final Report of the Commission on Medical Education
New York: Association of American Medical Colleges, 1932

Westberg J and Jason H
Collaborative Clinical Education
New York: Springer Publishing Company, 1993