Some Characteristics of Behavioural Objectives
A behavioural objective indicates a desired state in the learner; what a student will be able to do after a prescribed lesson; a behaviour that can be perceived by the teacher’s unaided senses. When the learner can demonstrate that she has arrived at this state, she will then be deemed to have achieved the objective (e.g. the student teacher will select five behavioural objectives from a list of 15 miscellaneous aims and objectives). Thus the behavioural objective describes the desired outcome of a lesson in such a way that most people can agree that the lesson has been a success or a failure.
Other terms used to describe behavioural objectives include measurable objectives, learner objectives, instructional objectives, performance goals, intended learning outcomes and terminal objectives. All these terms emphasise the importance of, first, writing objectives that describe what a student should be able to do after he completes a learning experience; and second, describing the behaviour in such a way that it can be observed and measured.
So far, so good. But what are the characteristics of meaningful behavioural objectives? And how does one write them so as to maximize the probability of achieving them?
The most important characteristic concerns the need to identify the terminal behaviour of the learner that the teacher desires. Thus a behavioural objective is useful to the extent that it indicates what the learner must be able to do, or say, or perform when he is demonstrating his mastery of the objective. It must describe observable behaviour from which the teacher can infer particular mental skills. This observable behaviour or performance may be verbal or nonverbal. Thus the learner may be asked to respond to questions orally or in writing, to demonstrate his ability to perform a certain skill or to solve a practical problem.
A second characteristic follows from the first and arises from the need for specificity and precision in phrasing the behavioural objective. There are many words which we use in everyday life that meet our need to communicate with others well enough. But for behavioural objectives they are often too general and vague. Consider the following two columns of words:
to know to write
to understand to explain
to be aware of to demonstrate
to appreciate to evaluate
to be familiar with to list
to grasp to construct
The words and phrases in the left-hand column are too vague and imprecise to be of use in the formulation of behavioural objectives. They are ambiguous and open to various interpretations (they are, of course, perfectly legitimate as aims and non-behavioural objectives, where their very ambiguity can be an advantage). The terms in the right-hand column, however, are more precise, open to fewer interpretations and indicate what the learner will be doing when demonstrating that he has acquired information or skills that will contribute to, or lead to, knowing, understanding, appreciating or grasping. Objectives using such words, then, will have been given behavioural specification. Thus if a student can list events in Europe leading up to the First World War and can evaluate their significance, his teacher can infer that he has some understanding of the subject.
A note of caution needs to be sounded here. It must not be assumed that understand and list are one and the same simply because one substitutes for the other. As Hirst7 has pointed out, states of mind should never be confused with the evidence for them. That a child can list events in Europe leading up to the First World War merely indicates minimal student mastery of the facts which, together with the achievements of related objectives on other occasions, may lead to fuller understanding subsequently. The same caution applies to similar pairings.
As suggested in parenthesis above, the kinds of words listed in the left-hand column are perfectly acceptable in the wording of aims and non-behavioural objectives. The problem for the student teacher is one of knowing how to translate words and phrases of this kind into observable behaviours. Perhaps the best way is to take a simple example. It begins by stating an aim of moderate generality. From this is derived a non-behavioural objective in which the crucial phrase is to develop . . . awareness of. This is then translated into a behavioural objective, the phrase now being replaced by the word list (see diagram below).
The problem is thus one of replacing open-ended infinitives such as to appreciate, to understand, to develop an awareness of and so on, with appropriate ‘hard and clear’ action verbs such as to state, to write, to demonstrate, to identify, to distinguish, to construct, to select, to order, to make and to describe. Rowntree’s8 example illustrates the point: a student would be able to design an experiment, list the precautions to be taken, describe his results, evaluate conflicting interpretations, participate in out-of-class discussions, etc. Gerlach and Ely9 consider that all ‘action’ infinitives of this kind have their roots in five basic types of behaviour, namely, identifying, naming, describing, ordering and constructing.