Book Review: Preparing Instructional Objectives: A Critical Tool in the Development of Effective Instruction by Robert Mager

Obviously I am taking my new year resolution to read all my reference books in my well-stocked library at home and write a review on each of them seriously.

One of the most critical skills for an instructional developer to have is to write effective instructional objectives.  I don’t know about you, but I’ve lost count the many times I have seen facilitator guides, power point slides and other learning material with fuzzy instructional objectives.  If I see the verb, “to understand” one more time, I’m going to jump up and down in frustration.

But here’s the thing.  To anyone else, outside of the instructional design and development world, writing an instructional objectives is “meh” (with shoulder shrug).  They don’t realise the importance of having a measurable objective that outlines the performance, conditions and criteria a learner must perform.  So when their instructional design team jump up and down when they look over the learning material and hone in on the objectives, they wonder just what our problem is.  It’s just an objective, they must think.

It’s much more than that and Mager outlines this right from the second chapter.  Why care about objectives?  He says, ” instruction is only successful to the degree that it succeeds in changing students in desired ways, rather than in undesired ways.  If instruction doesn’t change anyone in desired ways, it isn’t any good, regardless of how elegant the lectures are or how complicated the hardware used to present it is.  If instruction is to accomplish desired outcomes, it is imperative that those designing the instruction, as well as the ones doing the instruction, have a clear picuture of those desired outcomes.”

If that doesn’t explain it in simple terms, I don’t know what will.  But here’s the rub.  I have known trainers and other instructional developers who use wishy washy course objectives when writing their courses and I believe this may be because people outside our field simply don’t understand their importance. When I provide my materials for review to the client, they skip over the objectives and hone in on the content.   In fact, I get my clients to sign off and approve the course objectives before I even start developing any content just to ensure that I have my understanding of the subject material correct and they are indeed, what their learners must demonstrate.

The book is a criticial reference item that should be in any instructional developer’s library.  It is well written and explains fully the qualities of useful objectives.  What I really liked about this book was that it was written in such a way where the reader could engage with the material.  Remember those stories you read as a kid where you could ‘choose your own adventure’ dependent on how you answered a question?  Well, this book is written the same way except the author asks a question about the topic and then the reader tests their understanding by referring to the page mentioned to read further.

The back cover says that this was the best selling book ever written on the subject and this is not surprising to me as it is a great hands on resource that enabled me to learn more about objectives than I have since I started my career in the field over 20 years ago.  It is with a tinge of sadness that as experts in our field, we still haven’t been able to influence our clients, sponsors and stakeholders to value instructional objectives or to explain their importance when it comes to demonstrating peformance that means some impact to business results.  Maybe this is the argument that Learning and Development professionals are too wrapped up in their own world of people and learning; and less on the business realities but this may be a topic of another blog post down the track.

I know that any Mager book I will read this year or through the rest of my working life will be critical reference books – the ‘bibles’ of our industry and as such, important additions to any library.  For me, I will be guarding this book with my life.

About Helen Blunden

My unique super power is that I see learning experiences in everything I do. #alwayslearning
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