Where are you going? The importance of objectives

As I mentioned last month, I’m currently redesigning the undergraduate behavior analysis class that I teach. One big part of the redesign process is deciding exactly what I want students to get out of the new version of the course. That is, at the end of the course what should students know and what should they be able to do?

These are big questions. And, the answers to these questions will become the goals and objectives for the course.

Clear, well thought-out objectives are really important, whether you’re training a dog, a penguin, a college student, a kindergartener, a new employee, or even yourself.

However, I find that many animal trainers don’t spend very much time thinking about and formulating objectives. This seems like the “boring” part, and the trainer is too eager to get out there and start training. I am sometimes certainly guilty of this, too!

Chalkboard with this quote: Just because you think you've taught something, doesn't mean that the learner has actually learned it.

What are objectives?

Objectives help answer the question “Where are you going?”

You can think of the objective as the final destination address that you would put into Google maps. An objective tells you precisely where you should end up when training is all said and done.

An objective tells you precisely where you should end up when training is all said and done. Click To Tweet

Sulzer-Azaroff and Mayer (1977) define a behavioral objectives as:

“A precisely specified goal, stated so that three essential elements are made clear; the desired response, with all its essential properties, or behavioral dimensions; the situation in which the response is to occur, including setting, materials, personnel, and so on; and the criteria for determining when the objective has been accomplished (based on Mager, 1962).”

So, something such as “I want to teach my dog to come” would be way too vague!

Here are some things to consider when writing objectives:

What exactly do you want the person (or animal to do)? What will it look like? Does “come” just mean that the dog has to come close enough for you to grab his collar, or should the dog come to the formal obedience front position and then sit? I have friends who hike with their dogs, and “come” just means come back into the general vicinity where I can see you.

None of these are right or wrong. They all may be correct for certain individuals or contexts. But, I often see frustration and confusion because the trainer has envisioned one version of a behavior, and the owner has a completely different picture in mind.

When and where should the behavior occur? There are lots of factors to consider here that could drastically change the final performance and the amount of training you need to do. For example, calling your dog to you in the park, when she’s just discovered the scent trail of a small critter is quite different from calling her in the living room. And should the “come” cue work for anyone, or is it okay if it just works for you?

What level of performance is acceptable? What criteria will you use to decide if the animal (or human) has mastered the behavior? Does your dog need to come every single time, or is it okay if he comes 96% of the time? What if he comes, but at an ambling pace, and he stops to smell a few things along the way?

Sometimes, tying to figure what counts as correct can seem really difficult at first. In these cases, it can be helpful to imagine a whole bunch of different versions of the behavior. Then, start to sort them. Which of these variations would you consider to be exceptional performance? Which would be acceptable performance? Which would indicate that more training was still needed?

Three reasons why you should take the time to write detailed objectives

I recently finished reading Julie Vargas’ 1972 book, Writing Worthwhile Behavioral Objectives. Toward the beginning of the book, she describes three reasons why it is beneficial to take the time to write objectives and to make sure that they are written well.

Objectives perform the following three functions:

Objectives communicate expectations to the student (and others). Have you ever taken a test, and it was completely different from the material the teacher covered in class? This can be incredibly frustrating. In this case, the teacher had a certain set of expectations, but failed to communicate these expectations to you.

A student should have a clear understanding of what the teacher plans to teach. This helps the student study and practice the right material, and can lead to better communication between the student and teacher. It also helps the student evaluate in the first place if it is even a good idea to take a certain class. In school settings, it is also often important for parents, administrators, and others to have a clear idea of the objectives for a class.

In some situations, such as during animal training lessons, the student/client can be part of the process of picking and developing the objectives. This helps assure that the trainer and client are in agreement regarding the training goals and understand what behavior(s) they will be working toward.

Objectives give a standard for measuring progress. If you don’t have a clear idea of where you are going, how will you know if you’ve actually gotten there?

Precise objectives help the teacher know what a student should be able to do at the end of a class or a course – what exact behaviors or skills should now be part of the student’s repertoire. This knowledge can be used to design appropriate assessments to determine if the student has actually achieved what the teacher was trying teach.

Measurable objectives can help the teacher determine when certain students are ready to move on and when others need extra assistance. Good objectives and good assessments can also help the teacher improve his/her teaching materials, based on an analysis of student errors.

Objectives help a teacher design optimal learning experiences. Imagine you want to be a better swimmer. What does this mean? Do you want to improve the mechanics of your strokes, so you will be able to swim faster during swim competitions? Or, do you want to improve your endurance, so you can swim all the way across the lake when you visit your family’s lakeside cabin?

A swim coach would likely pick different exercises and drills to help these two individuals. That’s why it’s so important to have a clear idea of exactly where you want to go before you start teaching or training.

Knowing what the behavior will need to look like, when and where it will need to be performed, and to what precision, or criteria, it will need to be performed will influence how you go about teaching the behavior and will influence which types of practice and activities will be most meaningful for the learner.

So, where are you going?

I’m in the midst of rewriting the objectives for the undergraduate class I teach. It’s been a big challenge, but it has also been a lot of fun.

What behaviors are you currently teaching to others or learning for yourself?

Take some time this week and think about what you are trying to achieve. At the end of teaching, what behaviors should the learner be able to do, when should the behavior occur and in what sorts of environments, and to what level of standard should the behavior be performed?

These aren’t always easy questions. However, it can be very beneficial to take the time to consider precisely where you want to go.

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  • Diane Garrod

    I am huge on objectives, Mary! Nicely written piece on objectives, behavioral objectives. I do not do any private without objectives and most with a complete functional assessment. Objectives also incorporate experience with “like” cases and can be invaluable in keeping client and trainer on track, as well as to re-evaluate should something go wrong. Clear objectives for the client means follow through and trainer will soon be able to see whether that is occurring or not. Excellent piece and I hope all trainers read it!!

    • Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment, Diane. Great points! I agree that objectives can be very helpful for keeping everyone on track.

  • Donna Hill

    I too am a fan of objectives and use them in my online service dog classes! I even offer a checklist so they can visually see where they are in accomplishing the objectives for each behavior. I used them in my previous career as a nature interpreter for all ages as well.

    • Thanks for sharing, Donna. I’m sure your checklist is very helpful for your students, as there can certainly be lots of different behaviors to work on when training a service dog. I’m sure it helps keep the students organized and gives them an easy way to track their progress.

  • Ange Gresford

    Thanks for that. I do tend to wing it a bit with a training session, but lately I have been doing a mental plan for each session. I will now start writing a plan as then I can reference it next time to see improvement or lack it.

    • Ange, I’m with you – I sometimes tend to wing it a bit myself, especially with my personal pets. But writing things down can be a very good habit to get into. Let me know how it goes!