Course: Postgraduate Certificate - Tertiary Level Teaching
Module: Specifying the Outcomes of Student Learning
Page: 5 - The Magerian approach to writing behavioural objectives and learning outcome

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The Magerian approach to writing behavioural objectives and learning outcomes

The case for writing very-tightly-constructed behavioural objectives or learning outcomes as an integral part of course, curriculum and lesson design has been strongly influenced by the leading proponent of such objectives - the American educational psychologist Robert F. Mager. His definitive work on the subject, 'Preparing Instructional Objectives', triggered a 'bandwagon' movement during the late 1960's and early 1970's, a movement that led to the widespread adoption of a rigorous, objectives-based approach to the design of courses and teaching materials. Although Mager's stringent 'rules' for formulating objectives are not so strictly adhered to nowadays, his influence still remains strong in many areas of education and training - particularly in respect of competence-based and other vocationally-oriented courses, as we will see later.

According to Mager and his followers, a behavioural objective (learning outcome) should be written in clear, unambiguous terms that any teacher or student can understand without the need for explanation, and should include the following three basic elements.

(i) It should state what the student should be able to do at the end of the learning experience (ie should specify the required (terminal (or end) behaviour).

(ii) It should state the conditions or constraints under which this behaviour is to be exhibited.

(iii) It should give a clear indication of the minimum standard of performance that is considered acceptable.

Two examples of learning outcomes that have been written in this fashion are given below, and, in each case, all three of the elements that are required by Magerian 'purists' have been identified.

(a) 'The student should be able to weigh an object (element 1) of less than 100 grams using a single-pan balance (element 2) and obtain the correct answer to four decimal places at least 9 times out of 10 (element 3)'.

(b) 'The recruit must be able to fire five shots from a standard-issue rifle (element 1) in twenty seconds at a standard circular target 50 metres away (element 2) scoring at least 4 bullseyes (element 3)'.

Formulating learning outcomes in clear, unambiguous behavioural terms can be deceptively difficult, requiring a considerable amount of skill and practice. Clearly, if Mager's criteria were rigidly adhered to, drawing up a full list of learning outcomes for a teaching or training course would be an onerous and time-consuming task. The resulting list would probably be highly cumbersome and off-putting, and assessment would probably be unworkable in practice. For these reasons, there was a move away from the strict Magerian approach during the late 1970's and early 1980's. As a result, it became customary to define only the required end behaviour when writing outcomes, with the specification of the conditions under which the behaviour had to be achieved and the minimum standard of performance generally being omitted. This is still generally the case when writing learning outcomes for the great majority of degree-level courses where academics wish to retain flexibility. There has been, however, a strong return to the Magerian approach when writing competence descriptors for sub-degree-level and vocational courses, as we shall see later.


Exercise

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When you have completed exercise 1, continue with this module.


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