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  Instruction > Instructional Design  > Criterion Referenced Instruction

Instructional Design

"Many instructional arrangements seem 'contrived,' but there is nothing wrong with that. It is the teacher's function to contrive conditions under which students learn. It has always been
the task of formal education to set up behavior which
would prove useful or enjoyable later in a student's life."

  B. F. Skinner

Criterion Referenced Instruction

Robert Mager has suggested that the following items are essential for a instruction to be measurable and consequently capable of being evaluated and systematically improved. This approach has been called “Criterion Referenced Instruction (CRI).”

  • Instructional objectives are derived from job performance and reflect the competencies (knowledge/skills) that need to be learned.
  • Learners study and practice only those skills not yet mastered to the level required by the objectives.
  • Learners are given opportunities to practice each objective and obtain feedback about the quality of their performance.
  • Learners should receive repeated practice in skills that are used often or are difficult to learn.
  • Learners are free to sequence their own instruction within the constraints imposed by the pre-requisites, and progress is controlled by their own competence (mastery of objectives).

All instructional objectives must be "SMART":

Specific: expressed clearly and singularly
Measurable: ideally in quantitative terms
Acceptable: to stakeholders
Realistic: in terms of achievement
Time-bound: a timeframe is stated

Mager powerfully impacted both education and training establishments with his insistence on clearly defined, measurable objectives. According to Mager, useful objectives contain the following elements: Audience, Behavior (performance), a Condition, and a Degree (criterion).

Audience  An effecitve objective needs to specify who is the actor (noun), such as: "The student will be able to...."

An objective always says what a learner is expected to be able to do. The objective sometimes describes the product or result of the doing.

When writing objectives, always ask yourself, what is the learner doing when demonstrating achievement of the objective?

A list of relevant verbs related to types of instruction are described in detail in the sections Types of Instruction and Bloom's Taxonomy (with key verbs, activities and products for each level). Verbs related to the Cognitive Domain are shown here.



An objective always describes the important conditions (if any) under which the performance is to occur.

Here are some examples:

    • Given a problem of the following type...
    • Given a list of...
    • Given any reference of the learner's choice...
    • Given a matrix of intercorrelations...
    • When provided with a standard set of tools...
    • Given a properly functioning...
    • Without the aid of references...
    • With the aid of references..
    • Without the aid of a calculator...
    • Without the aid of tools...

If you can specify the acceptable level of performance for each objective, you will have a standard against which to test your instruction . Therefore, you will have the means for determining whether your instruction is successful in achieving your instructional intent. Sometimes such a criterion is critical. Sometimes it is of little or no importance at all. But adding a degree to an objective is a way of communicating an important aspect of what it is you want your students to be able to do.

Examples of degrees:

    • Time limits
    • Accuracy
    • Quality

The common pitfalls in writing instructional objectives are the following:

False Performance  

The following statements have the appearance of objectives, but contain no performance (clearly specified observable behavior that can be measured).

    • Have a thorough understanding of chemistry.
    • Demonstrate comprehension of the essay form.
    • Be able to relate to others with empathy.
    • Be able to understand individual differences in patients.
False Givens

These are words or phrases that follow the word given in an objective but that describe something other than specific conditions the learner must have or be denied when demonstrating achievement of the objective.

Most typically, the words describe something about the instruction itself, however, they don't actually describe an instructional procedure in your objective. Here are some examples:

    • Given three days of instruction...
    • Given that the student has completed six laboratory experiments on...
    • Given that the student is in the category of gifted...
    • Given adequate practice in...


Teaching Points

Similar to a false given, this statement describes a teaching point, a practice exercise, or some other aspect of classroom activity. This description of activity, however,is not an objective.

The main function of an objective is to help course planners decide on instructional content and procedure. It can only do this if it specifies instructional outcome. This is the first logical step. Secondly, an instructor can then define content needs and select an appropriate teaching procedure. To begin with a presumption or assumption of teaching method before instructional outcome is defined will undermine success.

    • Be able to choose an art print or photo that illustrates a theme of your choice and explain how it illustrates that theme.
    • Be able to discuss in class the case histories handed out by the instructor.


Educational language is often contaminated with non-observable concepts and hyberbole that is meant to justify an instructor's role but has little to do with specifying the instructional outcome.

    • Manifest an increasing comprehensive understanding...
    • Demonstrate a thorough comprehension...
    • Relate and foster with multiple approaches...
    • Have a deep awareness and thorough humanizing grasp...
    • The student must be able to demonstrate an ability to develop self- confidence and self-respect..

Instructor Performance

An effective instructional objective describes student performance. It avoids saying anything about instructor performance. Both of these examples illustrate this common error.

    • The teacher will provide an atmosphere that will promote the development of self-esteem, confidence, and security in students.
    • Demonstrate to students the proper procedures for completing business form #21.


False Criteria

Students already know who they have to perform for, the first example provide no new information.

In the second example only giving half of the information is given. Eighty percent has no substance. It doesn't tell the student anything. Eighty percent of how many questions? What's in the questions? What exactly is it that they are performing here? The ability to get 80%?

The third example has no clarity about instructional outcome (measure of knowledge, skill or attitude based on observable behavior).

    • To the satisfaction of the instructor.
    • Must be able to make 80% on a multiple choice exam.
    • Must pass a final exam.


In the section on "Types of Instruction" a description is given of the domains of learning (Cognitive, Affective and Psychomotor) or "SKA" (knowledge, attitude and skill). The instructional taxonomy of Bloom (1956) is described in detail as well as the revision of Bloom suggested by Anderson and Krathwohl (2001).

The following example illustrates use of the Anderson & Krathwohl table as a tool to write a well-formed instructional objective — identifying both the knowledge content and the cognitive process to be engaged by the learner.


Anderson, L.W., & Krathwohl (Eds.). (2001). A Taxonomy for Learning,Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. New York: Longman.

Bloom, B.S. (Ed.). (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: Classification of Educational Goals. Handbook 1: Cognitive Domain. New York: Longman, Green & Co.

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. & Pipe, P. (1984). Goals Analysis (2nd Edition). Belmont, CA: Lake Publishing Co.

Mager, R. (1997). Making Instruction Work (2nd Ed.). Belmont, CA: Lake Publishing Co.

Mager, R. (1984). Measuring Instructional Results (3rd Edition). Belmont, CA: Lake Publishing Co.



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