Instructional Goals

Identifying an Instructional Goal

from Dick and Carey, Systematic Design of Instruction


Instruction is the solution to a problem.  The instructional design process begins with the identification of one or more problems.  The problem of identification process is typically referred to as needs assessment.  Kaufman and English (1979) describe a very complete process for incorporating points-of-view of students, parents, and community members as well as educators in the identification of problems that should be resolved. 

This technique focuses on the “what is” and “what should be” in the particular situation.  In other words, a need is expressed as the gap between the way we would like things to be and the way they presently are.  For example, the application of the needs assessment process within a large corporation might indicate a requirement to service the various microcomputer and word processing systems.  A quick check indicates that at present there are no persons in the company with these skills.  Therefore, a goal might be to obtain the services of the required number of microcomputer technicians.  The technicians would meet the need by filling the gap between what is and what should be, and thus solve the problem of servicing the computers.  What remains to be decided is whether the company should train these personnel, or obtain their services elsewhere.

As another example, we might want to have 95 percent of the students in our school district pass the functional literacy examination.  However, our records indicate that only 81 percent are passing the test. There is a gap of 14 percent “between what is” and “what should be”.  Therefore, a goal might be to increase the percentage of students passing the functional literacy examination by 14 percent, to a level of 95 percent passing. 

It should be noted that these goals focus on what learners will be able to do.  While it may not be clear exactly what the skills are that make a person “functionally literate”,  or a “microcomputer technician”, we would have some idea of how we would proceed to derive more specific skills that would, in toto, represent these goals. Notice also that the goals describe the outcomes of instruction, and not the process of instruction.  A need statement should not refer to “a need to use computers in our instruction,” or “a need for more third grade teachers”.  These are part of the process of achieving some goal, but do not represent good instructional design goal statements.  The use of computers in a business and more teachers in a school are a means to an end and should not become ends in and of themselves.

Typically, the goals used by an instructional designer have been derived from some type of needs assessment,  either formal or informal, and have been further refined by either a job or curriculum analysis. 

Now consider the goal of raising the functional literacy scores.  One set of information that should be obtained is the description of skills that are tested.  With this list it is possible to determine where each skill is presently taught in the curriculum.  Some skills may not be taught at all.  Others may only be taught at the elementary level, and probably have been forgotten.  It could be decided that it in order to get 14 percent more of the students to pass the examination, eight new courses must be established to serve the needs of potentially low performing students.

The goals for the new course would probably be in the areas of mathematics and language.  These will be further broken down into topic areas, units, and ultimately into lessons.  The process of identifying the topics to be included often seems to involve making sure that as much content as possible is covered, rather than determining exactly what it is that learners need to know.  These can be two somewhat different things.  In our example, the existence of the functional literacy examination helps define the topic areas to be covered in the course.  However, a copy of such an examination is often not present and therefore, other means must be used for establishing what is to be included in the course.  Experience has shown that it is almost inevitable that an attempt is made to cover the most content in the shortest period of time.  The end result is a set of goals that the designer will use as the starting point for the design process.

In summary, instructional goals are ideally derived through a process of needs assessment that establishes rather broad indications of the problem that must be solved.  Then an analysis of that goal is undertaken, either in the context of the curriculum proposal or a job analysis.  As a result, more refined specific statements emerge and focus on what learners will be able to do when they complete their instruction.

Clarifying Instructional Goals

Mager (1972) describes one procedure that the designer can use when a fuzzy is encountered.  A fuzzy is generally some abstract statement about an internal state of the learner like “appreciating,” “having an awareness of,” “sensing,” etc.  These kinds of terms often appear in the goals, but the designer doesn’t know what they mean because there is no indication of what the person would be doing if they achieved this goal.  Designers assume that at the successful completion of their instruction, a student should be able to demonstrate that they have achieved the goal. But if the goal is so fuzzy that it is not apparent what performance would represent successful achievement, then a goal analysis must be undertaken.

To analyze a fuzzy goal, first write down the goal.  Then write down the things the person would do to demonstrate that he or she had achieved that goal.  Don’t be too critical at first; just write everything down that occurs to you.  Next, sort through the statements for those which best represent what is meant by your fuzzy goal.  These should be indications of what learners would be doing when they achieve your goal.  Now incorporate each of these indicators (there may be one or quite a few) into a statement that tells how well, or to what extent, the learner will do “it”.  As a last step, examine the goal statements and ask yourself if learners achieved or demonstrated each of the performances, would you agree that they had achieved your goal? If the answer is yes, then you have de-fuzzied the goal; you have developed one or more goal statements that collectively represent the achievement of an important, yet fuzzy, goal.


The first example is based upon a common problem identified by classroom teachers in elementary, middle, and high school.  Parents complain to teachers and administrators that their children are unable to write clearly.  Teachers recognize that although their students can communicate orally and can perform reasonably well on grammar tests, their students cannot write effective compositions, either long or short.  Administrators complain that graduates of the district cannot score well on composition tests often required to enter college.

During a middle school faculty meeting called to discuss the composition problem, teachers decided to conduct a needs assessment study.  Each teacher assigned a short essay for his or her students, to be written on a common topic.  A newly formed evaluation team of teachers reviewed the themes to identify possible common problems.  They reported that, generally, students use one type of sentence, namely declarative, simple sentences, to communicate their thoughts rather than varying their sentence structure by purpose or complexity.  Additionally, punctuation other than periods  and commas were absent from the students’ work, and commas were rare. 

The evaluation team reported their findings to the faculty.  To solve the problem, a new, semester long, written composition class was planned.  The instructional goal for the new class was stated by the evaluation team:  

To offer a new course in written composition in which no less than one theme each week is assigned, written, graded, and returned to students for refinement. 

A new task force of teachers was selected to develop the course based upon the stated instructional goals and a one semester time-frame. 

The task force team began by analyzing the stated instructional goal.  What problems do you believe they encountered with it? Remember that the list of criteria for a good instructional goal includes the following:

·     That it contains a clear, general statement of learner outcomes
·         That it describes what the learner will achieve
That it is related to an identified problem and needs assessment
That it can be achieved through instruction rather than otherwise

The first problem they encountered was that the goal must describe what the administration and teachers rather than the learners would accomplish.  The administrators would create a special new course in written composition, and the teachers would assign, grade, and return one theme each week.  Students were required to write and refine one composition weekly.  Second, the goal did not focus on what learners were expected to achieve through their writing effort.  They were simply to write and refine.  Third, the goal was based upon a real problem and the needs assessment that would provide necessary information to help the task force refine the instructional goal.  Last, they decided to reserve judgment on whether the goal could be achieved through instruction until they had it revised and clarified it. 

After reviewing the needs assessment report of the evaluation team, the task force identified several intentions of the language arts faculty which they believed could be useful in refining the goal.  First, they wanted students to practice written composition by writing and revising one theme weekly.  Second, they wanted students to learn to use a variety of sentence types classified by purpose.  Third, they wanted students to vary their sentences by complexity.  And last, they wanted students to use a variety of punctuation appropriate for the sentence purpose and complexity. 

Using these intentions gleaned from the evaluation team report, can you write an instructional goal for the new course? Write one on a piece fresh sheet of paper and compare it with the following example.  Your goal may not be stated exactly like ours, but you can judge whether the intentions are the same. 

Students will write one short composition each week and focus their writing skills on the following: (1) a variety of sentence types based upon sentence purpose, (2) a variety of sentence structures that vary in complexity, and (3) a variety of punctuation matching sentence type and complexity. 

The task force returned their revised goal to the faculty to determine whether their revisions in the statement more clearly reflected the intentions for the course related to the expected learner outcomes.  The faculty approved the revisions as they were written and agreed that the refined goal reflected the following:

  1. A clear, general statement of learner outcomes

  2.  A description of what the learner will achieve

  3.  A logical agreement between the identified problem of weak written composition and particular shortcomings identified through the needs assessment process

  4.  A problem that could best be addressed through instruction rather than otherwise

At this point, the instructional goal is clear enough to provide guidance for the task force charged with developing the new course.  Other criteria the teachers should consider before progressing are the following:

  1. The expertise of those charged with developing the course

  2. The stability of the content over a period of time

  3. The time required to develop the instruction and teach the skills

  4.   Whether the goal describes two or more related or separate kinds of behavior

  5.  The availability of students to test the instruction

The first criterion was met because the teachers on this special task  force were all language arts specialists.  The second criterion was also met since criteria for well-written compositions were not expected to change during the foreseeable future.  The third criterion, time required to develop instruction and teach the skills, posed a problem.  It was a sizable instructional goal covering a course rather than a smaller unit of instruction.  The goal as stated would require many hours of instruction during a semester of study.  The course goal would have to be broken down into modules for units of a manageable size in order to accomplish the task.  This discovery was related to the fourth criterion, a complex goal that described two or more kinds of behavior.  The fifth criterion was met since there were many students available in the school who could be used to test the instructional material. 

The single criterion that posed a problem was the size of the instructional goal.  The task force decided to perform further goal analysis to identify the required learner behavior in smaller units appropriate for modules of instruction.  They would then write each as an instructional goal for a unit and determine the best order for sequencing the units.

Suppose you were a member of the task force and were asked to brainstorm with the group to identify categories of learner behaviors implied by the instructional goal.  You would begin by reviewing the instructional goal to identify clusters of behaviors that could be combined into manageable unit goals.

There appear to be four natural breaks in the implied skills.  So you could write each as a separate instructional  goal.

  1. In written composition, students will use a variety of sentences based upon the purpose for the sentence.

  2. In written composition, students will vary the complexity of the sentence structure.

  3.  In written composition, students will use a variety of punctuation marks to match the purpose and mood of the sentence.

  4. In written composition, students will use a variety of punctuation marks to combine simple sentences, clauses, and phrases into compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences.  

The task force then considered sequence.  Should they write instruction for goal one or goal two first? They decided to select goal one first because it appeared to them to be less complex in content and skills than goal two and because students did not need to master the skills in goal two before they could learn the skills implied in goal one.  Therefore, the committee would it began their instructional project with the first instructional goal. 

This scenario has demonstrated that selecting an instructional goal for a module of instruction includes a series of decisions and refinement.  It cannot be stressed too much that careful planning and analysis at the instructional goal stage of development may save hours of work later. 

 Before we continue, remember the six steps in making a fuzzy goal more clear are the following:  

1.       Write the goal on paper.

2.       Brainstorm to identify the behavior students would demonstrate to reflect their achievement of the goal. 

3.       Sort through the stated behaviors and select those that best represent the goal.

4.       Select indicators of the behavior.

5.       Incorporate each indicator into a statement that describes what the students will do. 

6.       Evaluate the resulting statement for its clarity and relationship to the original fuzzy notion.


Instructional goals are clear statements of behaviors that learners are to demonstrate as a result of instruction. They are typically derived through a needs assessment process and are intended to address problems that can be resolved most efficiently through instruction. They provide the foundation for all subsequent instructional design activities.

Instructional goals are selected and refined through a rational process that requires answering questions about a particular problem and need, about the clarity of the goal statement, and about the availability of resources to design and develop the instruction. 

Questions you should answer about the problem and need include whether: 

1. The need is clearly described and verified.

2. The need is foreseeable in the future as well as presently. 

3. The most effective solution to the problem is instruction. 

4. There is logical agreement between the solution to the problem and the proposed instructional goals. 

5. The instructional goals are acceptable to administrators and managers. 

Questions you should answer related to the clarity of the instructional goal include whether: 

1. The behaviors reflect clearly demonstrable, measurable behaviors. 

2. The topic area is clearly delineated. 

3. The content is relatively stable over time. 

Questions to be answered related to resources include whether: 

1. You have the expertise in the instructional goal area. 

2. The time and resources required to complete the project are available to you. 

3. A group of learners is available during the development process for you to evaluate and refine your instruction. 

Frequently the instructional goal will be a very general statement of behaviors and content that must be clarified  before the preceding questions can be answered. The procedure recommended for clarifying instructional goals includes: 

l. Write down the instructional goal. 

2. List of all the behaviors the learners should perform to demonstrate they have achieved the goal. 

3. Analyze the expanded list of behaviors and select those that best reflect achievement of the goal. 

4. Incorporate the selected behaviors into a statement(s) that describe what the learners will demonstrate. 

5. Examine the revised goal statement and judge whether learners who demonstrate the behaviors would be considered to have accomplished the initial broad goal.

An appropriate, feasible, and clearly stated instructional goal should be the product of these activities.

Using this clarified statement of learner outcomes, you are ready to conduct a goal analysis.

Instructional Goals Objectives Alignment Content Analysis Essential Questions Assessments