Writing Inquiry-Oriented Student Performance Objectives

by Carl J. Wenning, Coordinator
ISU Physics Teacher Education Program

(last updated 3/24/2010, cjw)

Teacher candidates seem to have a very difficult time understanding how to properly prepare precise performance-based objectives for use in lesson planning and assessment. Objective assessments of what students know and are able to do are critical components of any competency-based educational program. Given the nature of the educational environment today, with all the emphasis on standards and assessing student performance, it behooves candidate teachers to begin professional work only after they have become familiar with writing and implementing precise educational objectives. I assume for the purpose of this short article that teacher candidates have already heard about behavioral objectives from other educational course work. While precise behavioral objectives traditionally have an observable behavior, conditions, and a minimum acceptable standard of performance (W. D. Pierce & M. A. Lorber, 1977, Objectives & Methods for Secondary Teaching), I insist only on the first element -- observable behavior. I leave it to the teacher candidate to set the other parameters as deemed necessary.

How NOT to Write Objectives

Over the past few years I have seen a plethora of poorly worded objectives. Consider the following from the fields of physics and education:

As long as the students have vision, they should be able to observe the interference phenomenon. By standing near a wave tank watching waves, they have satisfied the criterion of this objective.

Students can discuss superposition, but that doesn't mean that they know anything about it. Discussion does not usually lend itself to formal assessment unless we are looking at one-on-one oral examinations which I doubt the teacher has in mind. Students merely talking about how "stupid" they feel the superposition principle is would satisfy the criterion of this objective.

Is ability to understand is being assessed here? As long as the student has an IQ of, say, 90, the student will be able to understand. Is the teacher intending to judge IQ with this objective? Probably not. Understanding is hard to assess. What sort of observable performance is expected of the student?

What does one mean by "be familiar with"? Having sat in a class where this was discussed and having done nothing else would have allowed them to satisfy the criterion of this objective. Shouldn't the student demonstrate the ability, say, to list things that make people diverse?

Students could say that labs are worthless and of no value. So long as they can justify this claim (I'm not going to become a scientist.), is credit to be awarded points for their performance? By doing so, they would have satisfied the criterion of this objective.

While a student might know the difference, how is the teacher to tell without some sort of observable terminal behavior? Should the student be able to provide definitions or recognize them? What if the student knows, but is unwilling to explain the difference?

Writing Acceptable Performance-Based Objectives

To begin preparing appropriate performance-based objectives for students, teachers should create a brief list of things that students should know and be able to do at the end of instruction. All of these need to be translated into observable terminal behaviors that can then be used to formally assess student knowledge and skill. Below is a table showing a poorly worded objective adjacent to one that is much better written.

Poor Objectives: Better Objectives:
  • The student will know the Democratic Ideal upon which the ISU Teacher Education program is based.
  • The student will write an essay identifying and explaining each of the moral and intellectual virtues of the ISU Democratic Ideal.
  • The student will understand the distinction between distance and displacement.
  • The student will provide physical examples when asked to show the difference between displacement and distance.
  • The student knows how to solve algebraic physics problems.
  • The student will, when given formulas and quantities associated with variables, solve the mathematical relationship for the unknown(s).

Only better quality objectives are acceptable in this course; poorly written objectives are not. Remember, the best behavioral objectives will have observable behaviors, conditions, and minimum acceptable standards. I am satisfied with student performance objectives which consist only of observable performances.

It is marginally acceptable to use words like "understand" and "be able to" and "learn" in the behavioral objective so long as an observable terminal behavior is included. Nonetheless, such words are superfluous and do not really assist in clarifying what it is that the student must do to demonstrate the expected competency. Terms such as "identify" and "differentiate" are less ambiguous, but can be acceptable if the conditions under which such activities are to be performed are stated.

As you create your student performance objectives, don't forget to address the various levels within the cognitive domain. Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives - Cognitive Domain can help in this effort. Don't forget the six areas listed here from the lowest level of cognitive performance to the highest: knowledge (mere recall of information), comprehension (students are familiar with the meaning of the information to the extent of being able to make some use of it), application (the act of applying some abstraction to a new or unique concrete example), analysis (ability to break down an idea into its constituent elements or internal organizational principles, and to perceive relationships among those elements or principles within one "whole" or between several "wholes"), synthesis (creation of something new from previously existing elements or principles), and evaluation (formation of a judgment and the justification of that judgment by reference to facts, examples, or specific criteria).

Here are some lists of "action" words that can be used as you write student performance objectives based on Bloom's Taxonomy.