Performance Objectives in Instructional Design

Performance Objectives in Instructional Design

Using performance-based objectives in your training program design ensures a firm link with workplace performance.

Why Performance Objectives?

Athletes running on racing trackA critically important task in instructional design is writing learning outcomes in a way that makes clear the required performance of the learner following the training. Focusing on performance objectives directly ties the learning to the actual on-the-job behavior necessary for achieving the organization’s goals. Just as importantly, performance-based objectives clarify for the learner where they need to concentrate their learning efforts and makes it easy for assessors to test learners on what is really important.

Your first step is to identify the on-the-job behaviors required by learners once they return to work. The list of behaviors may be handed to you as part of the initial training needs analysis. The next step is to fill out the behavior statements with the performance conditions and standards applicable to the real-world workplace application of the learning by the training participants.

Robert F. Mager was the first to characterize the three components of an effective learning objective as Performance, Conditions and Criterion. Heinich, Molenda, Russell, and Smaldino modified Mager’s PCC method to form their ABCD model: (A)udience, (B)ehavior, (C)ondition and (D)egree. For the sake of simplicity and because of my emphasis on workplace behavior, I use my BPC method. With this approach, an effectively written learning outcome statement consists of three elements:

what the learner is required to do on the job
the standard to which the learner is expected to perform
the enablers and constraints to learner performance

Why should we not be satisfied with simply stating the required behavior? What’s wrong with the following learning objective?

At the conclusion of the course, the learner should be able to drive a car.

What instructional designers need to accommodate is that on-the-job behavior can be performed in a variety of ways and to varying degrees of exactitude. For example, the small town resident who only takes the car out on Sundays and the champion rally-car driver can both be said to be able to “drive a car”.

Performance Standards and Conditions

Performance standards are the standards to which learners are required to perform in the workplace. The standard you specify should mirror the standard expected on the job; no more and no less. In order to determine the appropriate standard for each stated learning outcome, consult subject matter experts, managers and supervisors.

Performance standards may include one or more of the following:

  • errors (rate, number, severity)
  • time (response, cycle, delivery, frequency)
  • quantity (absolute, proportion, rate)

Turning now to condition statements, these specify the environment that the learner performs within. They can also list the type and amount of available resources that will either inhibit or enable effective performance.

Conditions may include environmental variables, such as:

  • weather conditions
  • lighting
  • structure

Resource variables include such things as:

  • tools and equipment
  • finance
  • raw materials

My resource kit, Writing Learning Outcomes, examines in more detail the three components of an effectively written learning objective.

To determine the appropriate conditions, use the information sources mentioned above. Managers, subject matter experts, and so on, are in the best position to clarify normal work conditions inhibiting and enhancing on-the-job performance. Ensure your condition statements are realistic and reflect the actual workplace situation.

Performance Objectives Examples

Consider a Leadership Development program that includes the following stated learning objectives.

At the conclusion of the Leadership Development program, participants should be able to:

1. anticipate and resolve conflict amongst employees

2. consider and respond appropriately to the interests and feelings of employees

How can we turn these vague learning outcomes into clear and unambiguous performance standards? Our challenge is that the conflict resolution skills of a frontline manager completing this course do not need to be as developed as those of a professional counselor.

With this in mind, the performance standard we apply to the first learning outcome may be:

  • conflict and potential conflict situations are defused in accordance with the organization’s policies and procedures

Continuing on, the conditions under which we expect participants to be able to deal with conflict situations may be stated as:

  • working independently or as part of a work team
  • using all forms of communication (telephone, facsimile, email, letter, face-to-face)
  • disputants are any combination of employees, peers and customers

For the second stated learning objective about responding to the interests and feelings of employees, the performance standard could be:

  • responses are in accordance with the organization’s policies and procedures and access and equity principles
  • employee confidentiality is maintained

The conditions under which we expect the manager to perform may be:

  • concerns conveyed directly by the employee or by union representative, colleague or team leader
  • feelings conveyed through direct personal contact, impersonal written communications or indirect body language

Now review the learning objectives of your current or previous training program. Do they accord with the Behavior, Performance, Conditions approach? Work with your key stakeholders to revise them until they do.

My resource kit, Writing Learning Outcomes, illustrates more examples of performance objectives and provides a customizable template for you to organize and record your program’s objectives.

Recommended Reading:

  • Dick, W., Carey, L. and Carey, J.O. (2009). The Systematic Design of Instruction, 7th ed., New York, Longman
  • Heinrich, R., Molenda, M., Russell, J.D., Smaldino, S.E. (1996). Instructional Media and Technologies for Learning, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Merrill
  • Mager, Robert F. (1997). Preparing Instructional Objectives, 3rd ed., Atlanta, Georgia, The Center for Effective Performance, Inc.

For a step-by-step guide on writing performance objectives with lots of templates and examples, check out Leslie Allan’s learning outcomes resource book. As you complete each step in the guide, you will write the results for your particular training project in the workbook provided. When you have finished working through the workbook, you will have a complete set of documented learning objectives for your project.
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