Are Robert Mager’s Performance-based Learning Objectives Passé in Today’s World of Learning?


Why are performance-based learning objectives important in training? This blog talks of Robert Mager’s work in the area of learning objectives and the questions that can be answered by setting learning objectives in eLearning courses.

Are Robert Mager's Performance-based Learning Objectives Passé in Today's World of Learning?

When I first read Dr. Robert Mager’s seminal book (more a booklet), “Setting Instructional Objectives”, I had my first ‘aha’ experience in the field of training and learning. At that time, I have just changed my career track from Sales to University Teaching and Corporate Training. I did not have a formal background in Learning and Performance Management and his principles guided me through my new career like a beacon of light to explore and learn further.

The book itself is a gem, so succinctly yet so humorously written that I finished my first reading in one sitting! It is one book that practices what it preaches. Its instructional objectives are so well set and so well achieved in me that I never read the book again for clarification. But I read it many times (and continue to read it) for the sheer pleasure of reading such a masterpiece.

His almost simplistic aphorism about setting quantifiable and measurable learning outcomes is so simple yet so powerfully logical. If used along with the other two principles of conditions (under which the performance has to be done) and criteria of acceptable performance, it becomes a cornerstone for all instructional interventions, be it classroom or eLearning.


For me, Robert’s principles always helped me answer critical questions while designing training programs or developing storyboards for eLearning courses.

  • What will be content for the subject?
  • What will be the duration of learning?
  • What will be the instructional strategy (how best can a particular topic be presented)?
  • What will be the type of assessments?

I would like to hear from my fellow learning professionals what they think of Mager’s principles and to what extent are they used in today’s world of rapid eLearning.

Thank you very much for reading my blog.

RK Prasad


Blended Learning: A Guide to Boost Employee Performance

Recent Comments

  • http://Gary%20A.%20Williams

    8/06/2009 at 1:46 pm

    Mager is absolutely correct. In application, the approach I take is to discover how the organization monitors, measures and controls performance. The performance management aspects of work should match the criterion-referenced performance objective of any training designed to support the worker performing their job tasks. The fact that most work has vague performance standards (and undefined conditions) creates performance misalignment. Mager’s approach will work beyond training design for setting the objectives for work performance. Mager is very compatible with Lean for People.

  • http://Gary%20A.%20Williams

    8/06/2009 at 1:53 pm

    I hope you realize that the objectives presented as examples on this page do not actually meet Mager’s standards. I suppose you only wished to illustrate the specific aspect of Performance, Condition, and Criteria. However, it would have been more illustrative if you had used “extracts” of fully formed objectives. As written, I would reject these objectives.

  • 8/07/2009 at 1:18 am

    Thanks Gary for your comments. It will be of great help to me if you can elaborate how these objectives fall short of Mager’s standards.

  • http://Gary%20A.%20Williams

    8/07/2009 at 8:31 am

    “Distinguish between . . .”–performance only, no condition, no criteria for success defined.
    “Correct common . . .”–performance and condition, no criteria for success stated.
    “Describe at least . . .”–performance and criteria, no condition.
    Additionally, if the intent is to check learning as a Kirkpatrick level 2, then then the objective should effectively describe the means of testing. “Distinguish” and “Describe” may work if the testing is to identify from a list and write an answer on an open-ended assessment, respectively. “Correct common” is closer to something that may be on-the-job performance…possibly a standard reference manual (e.g. Strunk) is the criteria for the work as well as the objective. If the objective is targeting a Kirkpatrick Level 3 outcome, then “correct common” appears to work. I’m not sure that “distinguishing between positive and negative reinforcement” is what you want as an outcome on the job per se. More like “Given an employee has exceeded their production quota during the measurement period, demonstrate the use of postive reinforcement in such a way that the team’s production overall makes measurable improves.” Obviously this very exact in terms of performance objective and most instructional designers do not and will not go to this length to figure out what they want to accomplish with learning. (Which is why most soft skill training does not accomplish much that is measurable.)

  • http://Gary%20A.%20Williams

    8/07/2009 at 8:33 am

    Apologize for typo “Given an employee has exceeded . . .makes measurable improvement.” (not “measurable improves.”)

  • 8/08/2009 at 4:34 am

    Thanks Gary for your valuable comments. It was a knowledgeable insight on the topic.

  • 9/05/2009 at 3:32 pm

    This site rocks!

  • 9/06/2009 at 11:34 pm

    This site rocks!

  • 9/09/2009 at 12:59 pm

    Excellent site, keep up the good work

  • 1/11/2010 at 11:28 am

    While I cannot speak to Robert Mager’s instructional design concepts, I recently discovered his vintage 1972 classic on “Goal Analysis” and found it very appropriate for today’s business world. I wrote my review here which you might be interested in reading:

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