Writing Behavioral Objectives


Writing Behavioral Objectives

Objectives have been used for decades in nursing education to set the stage for what is expected of students and to guide faculty in planning teaching and assessment. However, nursing education is evolving and the timeworn practices of how objectives were written must evolve as well. In this chapter, I provide a global view of how objectives came to be, the domains and levels involved, and offer a new view of how to write broad, measurable objectives that aligns with the call to transform nursing education (Benner, Sutphen, Leonard, & Day, 1984/2010).


Most academic courses have a course description that precedes the objectives in the course syllabus. Written from the student perspective, the course description provides a broad overview of what students will learn from the course. It is typically content-focused and published in the school catalogue, where all courses, the credit hours, and teaching faculty are listed. Course descriptions are usually written by the program administrators, with help or review from members of the curriculum committee. Objectives for the course are written based on the course description, are often written by the curriculum committee, and focus on what students will learn from the course. Although you may not take part in writing objectives, you may be required to approve them at a faculty council meeting. To stay on point when teaching, it is imperative that you have a solid understanding of the purpose and value of course objectives, how they will guide what and how you teach, and how assessments are derived from them.


Constructivism was first introduced in psychology circles in the late 1960s. However, for the first half of the 20th century, behaviorism was the ruling educational theory, espousing that learning was “the acquisition and strengthening of responses” (Wilson & Myers, 2000, p. 60). A change in performance or behavior was the desired outcome of instruction for the behaviorists, and little emphasis was placed on cognitive processes. It was during this time that the cognitive and affective taxonomies were written, which served to introduce more of a learner-centered, active approach to education.

Although behavioral objectives written to direct teaching and learning have had their critics, they do serve several purposes, the main one being that of communication (Mager, 1997). Objectives provide clarity for faculty in planning the teaching strategies and assessment methods for courses and offer direction for students as to what and how they should learn to be successful (Gronlund, 1995). Objectives also ensure that courses in a specific program do not overlap in content, but build upon one another to promote learning and meet programmatic outcomes.

Bloom’s (1956) initial intent when developing the cognitive taxonomy was to provide a framework for writing broad objectives that described observable performance to determine whether behavior (thinking, reasoning, and doing) had changed as a result of instruction. His other purpose was to link these outcomes statements to assessment questions that would be available to all faculty who were teaching the same content—an early conceptualization of a question bank (Anderson, 2003).

So why revisit this topic? After almost 50 years, well-written objectives continue to guide teaching and learning in higher education. However, the complexities of nursing practice require a change in how objectives are written to support performance that demonstrates the integration of complex skills.

In this chapter, the focus is on how to write broad behavioral objectives to support learning in a constructivist, learner-centered online environment to guide teaching and learning that are in step with today’s innovations in education and answer the call for radical transformation in nursing education (Benner et al., 1984/2010).


In spite of negative press over the decades, the revision of Bloom’s original taxonomy (Krathwohl, 2002) and the introduction of other authors’ 69conceptualizations on writing objectives (Greeno, 1976; Gronlund, 1995), Bloom’s original taxonomy has prevailed. The terminology used to describe objectives has changed over the years from educational to instructional, then to behavioral or performance (Sosniak, 1994), accompanied by refinements in how they were written. Some authors distinguish among educational, instructional, and behavioral or learning objectives (Bastable & Alt, 2014). Of interest is that Bloom did not refer to his objectives as behavioral. In fact, early on he did not label them at all.

Objectives focus on the desired learning outcomes or intended behavior changes, termed performance. Thus, the objectives are written in behavioral terms to describe what the student will do. The type of assessments and the teaching strategies to use are also indicated by the domain and level of verb chosen for the objective, but even so, they are not focused on what the teacher will do (Bloom, 1956; Gronlund, 1995). This is an important distinction. As objectives are written in behavioral terms that specify desired changes in behavior or performance in terms of thinking, feeling, and doing that will occur as the result of instruction, the term behavioral objectives has been used throughout this chapter.


Writing objectives in the appropriate format is challenging, in part, because of the lack of a clear understanding of what the term taxonomy means. A taxonomy is a hierarchical classification system that is structured from simple to complex and general to abstract (Gronlund, 1995; Krathwohl, 2002). In other words, the hierarchical structure requires that preliminary levels be mastered before learning at higher levels can occur. For example, in the cognitive domain, the levels are knowledge, comprehension, application, synthesis, analysis, and evaluation indicating increasingly complex skills. In order to apply a concept, one must have knowledge of it and understand it (Gronlund, 1995).

This requirement does not, however, dictate that knowledge must be taught directly, requiring students to memorize isolated facts so they can be applied later. Keep in mind that most students taking an online nursing course are RNs returning to school who have all completed one of the basic nursing programs whose content is dictated by the accreditation process and therefore is quite homogeneous. Foundational facts and concepts can be taught indirectly within an authentic constructivist context through case studies, for example. This type of teaching method requires students to recall what they already know about the topic, identify where their understanding 70ends, and learn from there. This topic is discussed in greater detail in Chapters 6 through 8. At this juncture, it is important to understand what the term taxonomy means in educational contexts and to understand its inherent hierarchal nature.

Bloom’s taxonomies include a numbering convention typical of a taxonomy. The domains or classes, as Bloom (1956) called them, are numbered with whole numbers and two decimal points. Subclasses are identified by changes in the first or second decimal. Box 4.1 provides an example of the classes of the cognitive domain showing expanded subclasses of the comprehension level. Consequently, objectives and subobjectives can be numbered as well, although this is rarely done. This numbering is mentioned here to give the reader the full picture of the organization of the taxonomy and an understanding of the numbering convention should it be encountered at some point.

Bloom’s (1956) original taxonomy focused on the cognitive domain with that of the affective taxonomy following about 10 years later (Krathwohl, Bloom, & Masia, 1964). Bloom did not develop a taxonomy for the psychomotor domain, mainly because he felt that the learning outcomes of the core courses at the University of Chicago, where he was teaching at the time, did not lend themselves to this type of learning. He did, however, recognize that psychomotor learning required a different set of learning outcomes. Several versions of a taxonomy for the psychomotor domain were later developed (Dave, 1970; Harrow, 1972; Simpson, 1966), with Simpson’s work gaining the most widespread use.

To Bloom and his colleagues (Krathwohl et al., 1964), the purpose of learning was to change students’ behavior in terms of their ability to “act, think, and feel” (Bloom, 1956, p. 12). The purpose of the taxonomies was to classify levels of learning in three domains (cognitive, psychomotor, and affective) for the purpose of communication on several levels (Anderson, 2003). The names and brief definitions of these domains are:


BOX 4.1

1.00 Knowledge

2.00 Comprehension

    2.10 Translation

    2.20 Interpretation

    2.30 Extrapolation

3.00 Application

4.00 Analysis

5.00 Synthesis

6.00 Evaluation


     711.  Cognitive: thinking

     2.  Psychomotor: acting or doing

     3.  Affective: emotions, values, and attitudes

Objectives written in each of these domains served to provide a common language that formed the basis for designing assessments and instruction (Gronlund, 1995), as well as communicating expectations of learning and assessment to students, which Felder and Brent (1997) dubbed “an advance warning system” (p. 179).


The Lower Levels of the Cognitive Domain

The cognitive domain “includes those objectives that deal with recall or recognition of knowledge and the development of intellectual abilities and skills” (Bloom, 1956, p. 7). This domain consists of six levels that are arranged in a hierarchy from concrete to abstract. The levels are knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation, in that order. Each higher level subsumes mastery of the lower levels. The first three levels, considered to be lower cognitive functions, as described in Bloom’s (1956) original taxonomy, are listed in Box 4.2.

Transfer of Learning and the Cognitive Domain

At this juncture, it is important to revisit the concept of transfer and understand how it fits into the levels of the taxonomy, as well as reiterate the structure of a taxonomy. Remember that a taxonomy is a hierarchy from concrete to abstract that requires mastery of the lower levels prior to moving on to higher learning outcomes. In other words, one cannot apply a concept, principle, and so forth without first knowing about it (knowledge level) and understanding (comprehension level) how to use it. Mastery of the comprehension level, as first described by Bloom (1956), meant that the student could use knowledge gained in the same or similar situation in which it was taught, indicating understanding. In this instance, Bloom was referring to near transfer (Merriam & Leahy, 2005). Far transfer occurs at the application level, when students apply what was learned to new and novel situations. The concept of transfer has been discussed in detail in Chapter 1.


72BOX 4.2

1.  Knowledge—Bloom (1956) defined knowledge as “those behaviors and test situations which emphasize the remembering, either by recognition or recall, of ideas, material, or phenomena” (p. 62).

2.  Comprehension—Bloom (1965) defined comprehension as “those objectives, behaviors, or responses which represent an understanding of the literal message contained in a communication” (p. 89). The act of understanding involves three steps: translation, interpretation, and extrapolation. Translation is the first step in meaning-making as learners translate what they have learned into their own words. Interpretation involves “dealing with a communication as a configuration of ideas whose comprehension may require a reordering of the ideas into a new configuration in the mind of the individual” (p. 90). From this reconfiguration may arise new “inferences, generalizations, or summarizations” (p. 90) in order to make sense to the individual. Extrapolation is demonstrated when the individual makes “inferences in relation to implications, consequences, corollaries, and effects which are in accordance with the conditions described in the communication” (p. 90). This signifies understanding.

3.  Application—The application level involves using acquired knowledge and understanding in new and novel situations. This is the definition of far transfer (Chapter 1), which is the goal of education (Anderson & Sosniak, 1994; Mayer, 1998; Merriam & Leahy, 2005). When given a new problem to solve, this level stipulates the ability to “apply the appropriate abstraction without having to be prompted as to which abstraction is correct or without having to be shown how to use it in that situation” (p. 120).


From a slightly different perspective, consider his conceptualization of near transfer (comprehension level) and far transfer (application level) in view of the assumptions of adult learning theory. One of these assumptions is that adults are intrinsically motivated to learn in preparation for new roles and responsibilities, which is, in turn, related to their need for immediate application of what was learned (Forrest & Peterson, 2006). Students taking online courses are most likely RNs who are continuing their education because they have a specific goal in mind. If that involves a role change (nurse practitioner, educator, researcher, or administrator), they are most likely familiar with the role functions and the additional knowledge they must acquire to function in that role. And they are motivated to acquire it. Most students are self-directed in their approach and do not expect to be spoon-fed. Teaching content within context will engage 73students, allow them to think like a nurse practitioner, administrator, researcher, or educator, and help them transfer what they are learning to their new role in order to function in the real world (Benner et al., 1984/2010; Tanner, 2006). This approach will avoid the need for faculty to teach everything students need to learn for the role they aspire to. Transferring what is learned to similar or new situations will naturally occur if the context in which learning occurs is similar to real life (authentic) and has meaning to the learner in that he or she can readily see its application.

In addition, adult students bring a wealth of experience to the learning environment, and no two students have the same experiences. The same can be said for acquired knowledge, even though the knowledge transmitted in basic nursing programs is standardized. As what is learned depends on what is already known (Lalley, & Gentile, 2009; Reynolds, Sinatra, & Jetton, 1996) and that is based on the combination of knowledge and experience, the assumption can be made that because students’ baseline knowledge differs, they will learn at different levels and transfer new knowledge in unique ways.

The Higher Levels of the Cognitive Domain

Returning to the definitions of levels in the cognitive domain in the original taxonomy, Bloom (1956) defined analysis, synthesis, and evaluation as requiring higher cognitive skill and they subsequently became known as higher order levels of the taxonomy. Controversy exists as to whether the application level should be included in that group (Marken & Morrison, 2013). As application requires the ability to transfer and the goal of education is for students to transfer what they have learned to their future role (Anderson & Sosniak, 1994; Mayer, 1998), I believe that the application level should be the lowest level at which objectives should be written to achieve desired learning outcomes. When students apply what they know, they combine knowledge and skill, and subsequently use it creatively through transfer. This approach is consistent with the goals of transforming nursing education (Benner et al., 1984/2010) by “integrating all three professional apprenticeships, the knowledge base, skilled know-how, and clinical reasoning and ethical comportment, in all teaching and learning settings” (p. 80). Consequently, I believe this level should be included in the higher order group, considering the complex skill of transfer required for application.

The previously listed higher order levels of the cognitive domain include analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Their definitions appear in Box 4.3. Based on these definitions, it is apparent how each level builds upon the previous level to arrive at what Bloom has termed “intellectual abilities and skills” (Benner et al., 1984/2010, p. 38) and Wiggins and McTighe (2005) refer 74to as “understanding,” a much broader conceptualization than the second level in Bloom’s taxonomy.


BOX 4.3

1.  Analysis “emphasizes the breakdown of the material into its constituent parts and detection of the relationships of the parts and of the way they are organized” (Bloom, 1956, p. 194).

2.  Synthesis is defined as “the putting together of elements and parts so as to form a whole” (Bloom, 1956, p. 162). Synthesis often combines knowledge and experience to create something new. Mastery of this level requires a certain level of creativity.

3.  Evaluation is defined as “the making of judgments about the value, for some purpose, of ideas, works, solutions, methods, materials, etc. It involves the use of criteria as well as standards for appraising the extent to which particulars are accurate, effective, economical, or satisfying” (Bloom, 1965, p. 185).



The psychomotor domain is the skills domain in the narrow sense of the word, in that this domain provides a means of identifying outcomes that involve fine, manual, and gross motor movements (Reilly & Oermann, 1985). Fine motor movement involves precise movement, whereas gross motor activity has to do with large muscles or movement using the entire body. The concept of manual movement is heard about less often, yet is meaningful for nursing, and is defined as “manipulative tasks that are repetitive and often involve ‘eye–arm’ action (e.g., physical assessment or suctioning)” (Reilly & Oermann, as cited in Oermann, 1990, p. 202). Although the desired outcomes of these objectives and therefore assessment of these objectives focus on muscle movement, cognitive and affective activities are also involved with psychomotor activities, more so when a new skill is being learned (Oermann, 1990).

The accompanying cognitive and affective activity required to learn a skill differs from that of performing the skill, a distinction that should be kept in mind when teaching. Faculty often question students as to why they are doing something while they are performing. This interrupts the motor portion of skill performance, switching the student to the cognitive brain function to respond to the question. The skill performance of doing is interrupted by the cognitive activities of remembering and recalling, causing both performances to suffer (Bastable & Alt, 2014).

75Keep in mind that when writing an objective in the psychomotor domain, the desired outcome must focus on fine, manual, or gross motor movements and not the cognitive activity required to learn the skill. Multiple-choice questions (MCQs) can be developed to assess the knowledge behind the skill to differentiate the students’ understanding of the why that supports performance from rote memorization of the order or sequence of necessary steps. Transfer of learning can occur only if the knowing that, or the knowledge behind the skill, is associated with knowing how, or the performance of the skill. For example, when teaching sterile technique for Foley catheter insertion, students must learn the theory of asepsis, which is then applied during performance of the skill. When teaching sterile dressing change, faculty should not need to repeat the theory of asepsis. Students should be able to transfer that understanding and accurately apply it to a sterile dressing change, a new and novel situation.

Levels of the Psychomotor Domain

Simpson (1966) identified seven levels in the psychomotor domain that demonstrate increasing fluidity and automaticity of skill performance, accomplished by repeated practice of the skill (Oermann, 1990). The same numbering convention used in the cognitive domain can be applied to this domain. The seven levels are shown in Box 4.4.


BOX 4.4

  Perception: The first level involves becoming aware of the need to act through choosing the appropriate action. This first level includes three processes:

    images  Becoming aware via one of the senses (auditory, visual, tactile, taste, smell, or kinesthetic) that action is required

    images  Determining (from deciding to intuitive knowing depending upon experience) which cues to respond to

    images  Recognizing and selecting the appropriate task

These activities are really cognitive. Key concepts are cue recognition and choice of action.

  Set: This level involves the mental, physical, and emotional readiness to perform an action. Mental readiness refers to the recognition and 76understanding of the task to be performed. Physical readiness requires focusing the necessary senses on the act to be performed, whereas emotional readiness includes having a favorable attitude and willingness to perform. This level includes cognitive and affective activities. The key concept is readiness to perform.

  Guided response: This level reflects performing under the guidance of a more knowledgeable individual, such as an instructor. This level has two subcategories:

    images  Observation of faculty’s performance with subsequent imitation by the learner (return demonstration) and/or observance and adoption of faculty’s behavior by the student.

    images  Trial and error plays a role in this level, which signifies the beginning of actual motor performance. Time for trial and error should be provided, as it is an important learning strategy when guided by faculty and the underlying theory of the task. Feedback, both intrinsic (student’s ongoing self-evaluation) and extrinsic (augmented by faculty), is important at this level. The key concept is guided (not independent) performance that occurs in the process of learning.

  Mechanism: Confidence in and habituation of the performance distinguish this level from others. The learner has reached a certain level of comfort performing the skill and has developed a set pattern that can be relied on for future performance. Key concepts include confidence, habituation, and patterning.

  Complex overt response: This level is characterized by resolution of uncertainty about performance, which is now completed smoothly, efficiently, and automatically. The skill level can be considered high when this level has been reached. Key words that define performance are smooth and automatic.

  Adaption: This level reflects students’ ability to adapt their performance to the unique characteristics of the setting and situation, which for nursing might include the physical environment and individual patient needs. Key concepts are adaptation of performance and responding to cues.

  Origination: This level reflects students’ ability to create new patterns of performance, adhering to the underlying concepts and theories that guide performance. At this level, new approaches are taken to solve a problem and/or effective shortcuts are taken. Key concepts are new patterns of performance and creativity.


77Harrow (1972), somewhat critical of this model, pointed out that behavioral changes in the first two levels, perception and set, are not readily apparent or visible to faculty, and therefore cannot be assessed directly through observation of the performance. In addition, these two levels do not include any motor activity. The first level (perception) indicates cognitive behavior, as one perceives the need to act. The second level (set) reflects cognitive and affective behavior, as one prepares to act on mental, physical, and emotional levels.

The take-away is that objectives should not be written for the first two levels as they do not indicate psychomotor behavior, and they would be very difficult to assess other than by self-report, which is really a cognitive activity. Faculty can assume these first two levels have been met if the student is observed performing at a higher level—that of guided response or above. For example, if the student is observed correctly performing the appropriate procedure, the assumption can be made that both the perception (identifying the need to act) and set (choosing the correct performance) levels have been mastered. Thus, if an objective is written for the psychomotor domain, the lowest level of performance that can be observed is the guided response level. The first two levels of the domain can be assessed using MCQs or by questioning the student before or after the student performs the skill.


Krathwohl et al. (1964) developed a taxonomy of the affective domain as a means of stating learning outcomes related to “a feeling tone, an emotion, or a degree of acceptance or rejection . . . interests, attitudes, appreciations, values, and emotional sets or biases” (p. 7). The organizing concept for this hierarchy is the concept of internalization, which ranges from attending to an emotion, feeling, value, and so forth to becoming a part of one’s character or assimilated into the self. Although the affective domain is very important for nursing, this type of objective is a challenge to write and difficult to assess, mainly because the behavioral changes that occur as a result of meeting these objectives are generally internal changes and are not observable (Martin & Reigeluth, 1999).

Although the cognitive and affective taxonomies were written as two separate hierarchies out of necessity, thinking and feeling are closely related in the human brain (Sylvester, 1995; Zul, 2002). For example, learning about a topic in greater depth will often result in students developing an attitude, value, or interest in that content. This is knowledge and understanding (cognitive activities) influencing beliefs or values (affective activities). Conversely, a young man’s belief that men will not be as successful in 78nursing as females because exhibiting caring behavior is not manly may prevent him from entering the profession. This is an example of a belief influencing cognition.

Keep in mind that both the cognitive and affective taxonomies were written in the 1950s and 1960s before science understood how the brain learns. Research in this area within the past 25 years has brought new insights into the relationship of the thinking brain to the feeling brain. According to Sylvester (1995) and Zul (2002), emotions are involved with the individual attending to one stimulus over another in today’s stimuli-laden environment, thus driving what is learned and remembered. This interrelationship is important to remember when planning learning activities.

Levels of the Affective Domain

The affective domain consists of five levels (Krathwohl et al., 1964). As in the other domains, each level can be numbered in a taxonomic fashion (1.00, 2.00, etc.). Descriptions of the five levels are listed in Box 4.5. Krathwohl et al. (1964) contended that reaching the final level is not the goal of higher education. Thus, faculty should avoid writing objectives to that level.

Although cognitive, psychomotor, and affective mental activities do not occur in isolation, but are in effect interrelated, when writing objectives it is necessary to first gain clarity on the desired learning outcome before choosing the domain and level for an objective. Also, when writing objectives it is important to keep in mind that:

       All objectives must be assessed

       From the verb chosen, objectives should indicate the domain and level of learning desired

       Objectives must contain only one learning outcome, thus one verb

       Verbs must be measurable


When choosing a verb from the various levels of the three domains, it is best to focus first on the intended learning outcome to indicate the domain or the type of learning required. Ask yourself, does the intended outcome involve primarily thinking (cognitive); muscle movement (psychomotor); or feelings, values, or attitudes (affective)? Then consider the level of learning desired and choose the appropriate verb from that level. Keep in mind that the objective, thus the verb chosen, must reflect a performance, or 79something the student will do or demonstrate (Mager, 1997). Exhibits 4.1 to 4.3 list the recommended verbs in the various domains that were compiled by a sort of Delphi technique based on the early work of the original writers or interpreters of the various taxonomies (Bastable & Alt, 2014; Bloom, 1956; Gronlund, 1995; Krathwohl et al., 1964; Oermann & Gaberson, 2014) and my extensive experience writing objectives. Exhibit 4.1 lists recommended verbs from the cognitive domain. Exhibit 4.2 lists the recommended verbs from the psychomotor domain. Exhibit 4.3 lists the recommended verbs from the affective domain.

Jul 29, 2018 | Posted by in NURSING | Comments Off on Writing Behavioral Objectives

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