By Rachel Freeman
The Gale Group




Everyone has had some experience setting personal goals. Perhaps the most common goal people set is the New Year’s resolution when an individual identifies a broad goal to lose weight, stop smoking, or exercise more frequently as part of a personally valued way to begin the new year. The first consideration in setting such a goal is determining that it is truly a valued accomplishment for the person who resolves to achieve it.

The next important consideration in setting a broad goal is making sure that it is stated clearly in specific behavioral terms. Using these behavioral terms is one way to operationally define the goal, that is, by statements about the observable behaviors that are essential parts of attaining it. Making clear statements about these component behaviors requires careful analysis of the sequence of smaller units of behaviors that, when put together, lead to attainment of the broader behavioral goal. These statements define the goal for purposes of knowing when it is achieved. They also help ensure that the person working toward the goal knows which behaviors to perform to increase the likeliness of success in achieving the broader behavioral goal.

Many people who set a New Year’s resolution fail at some point to keep working toward their goal. This outcome is often related to their earlier failure to break their broader goal down into a logical sequence of smaller achievable objectives, which can help them to keep working toward their broader goal because they experience success along the way. This approach to setting goals requires that individuals determine ways to evaluate both the achievement of their smaller successes and, ultimately, the accomplishment of their broader goal. Thus, a reason many people do not stick to New Year’s resolutions is that they do not develop ways to evaluate their progress over time. Reaching an effective goal is particularly important in education. Teachers use goal-setting strategies to ensure students are learning and experiencing academic success.

Teachers and students are more successful when the goals they set a) are realistic (achievable), b) are publicly stated rather than private internal commitments, c) include deadlines, and d) include feedback on progress over time (Martin & Pear, 1996). In fact, research on goal setting has shown that the most effective goals are those that are broken down into smaller, clearly defined and achievable steps or components that facilitate reinforcement of success on a regular basis and evaluation of progress (Bandura, 1969).

An effective way to break larger goals down into smaller units is to define and set behavioral objectives. Behavioral objectives are the smaller, observable, and measurable intermediate goals that build in a stepwise fashion toward the completion of the broader long-term goal that is often more complicated and comprehensive. Behavioral objectives that are stated in observable and measurable terms help goal setters understand whether the strategies they are using to achieve their goal are resulting in change or whether they need to modify their efforts to improve the likelihood of accomplishing the desired outcome.

Behavior change is not a new concern. Information about creating effective behavioral goals and objectives to facilitate behavior change has a very long history in areas such as industry, sports, human service organizations, and education (Mager, 1961; Sulzer-Azaroff & Mayer, 1977; Locke & Latham, 1985, 1990). Teachers use behavioral objectives to guide and improve classroom instruction for groups of students, manage classroom social behaviors, and support individual students in need of more intensive social and academic instruction and support (Alberto & Trout-man, 1999; Maag, 2004). Behavioral goals and objectives are included in Individual Education Plans (IEPs) for stu-dentsinneed of special education services. The development of educational goals and behavioral objectives was included as oneofthe mandatesof the Education for all Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (PL94-142) and continued thereafter to be considered an important element for facilitating behavior change resulting from the instructional process.

According to Alberto and Troutman (1999), each behavioral objective should identify the following elements:

person(s) for whom the objective is written (the learner),
behavior targeted for change,
conditions under which a behavior will be performed
criteria for determining when the acceptable performance of the behavior occurs.
The learner(s) can be an individual person or a group of individuals. For instance, a learner identified within a behavioral goal could be a student, a classroom, a group of individuals participating in specific track and field activities, or an entire basketball team. Once the learner is defined, the behavior targeted for change must be likely to be repeated over time and must be clearly defined operationally in behavioral terms so that whenever it is performed, it can be observed and measured across repeated occasions. An effective definition of the desired behavior ensures that an outside observer will be able to confirm that the target behavior has occurred.

Thus, it is important when defining the target behavior to avoid words and phrases such as “being disruptive,” “staying on task,” or “enjoying a story” that have not been operationally defined in behavioral terms. These words and phrases can mean different behaviors to different people. For instance, a substitute teacher may define “being disruptive” as a student tappingapencil on the desk loudly enough that it can be heard throughout the room. The student’s teacher, however, may only be recording “being disruptive” when the child begins yelling so loudly that it can be heard out in the hallway. Behavior definitions that are not stated clearly enough (operationally in specific behavioral terms), for everyone to interpret in the same way, can confuse both the learner and the individuals monitoring the learner’s performance. This confusion is likely to lead to further decrease in the likelihood that a goal will be achieved by the learner.

The definition of the behavior should also identify elements of the teaching/learning context that are important for determining the conditions in which a behavior is to occur. The circumstances, requests, materials, and instructions that are identified in the behavioral objective as important elements in the context in which a behavior should be performed must be sufficiently detailed to allow a teaching/learning context to be provided repeatedly. The specific environmental cues that are present when a behavior is expected to occur must be described in enough detail to ensure there will be clear and consensual understanding of exactly what such cues include. Frequently the statement of an objective begins with condition statements, such as the following:

Given a map of the United States …
Given independent study time …
After reading this a paragraph about …
The final information necessary in an effective behavioral objective must be statements of the criteria for acceptable performance of the targeted behavior. This statement must define the minimal performance necessary to consider a behavioral response correct and sets a standard for evaluation purposes. There are a number of ways in which to evaluate a response: accuracy (number of items correct), frequency of occurrence (number of behaviors performed), duration (behavior occurring within a time period), or latency (time taken until a response occurs). Another consideration in determining criteria for successful accomplishment of behavioral objectives involves how many times a learner must meet a criterion before the behavior is considered learned. Information about the criteria for evaluating a correct response will guide the ways in which learner performance of the behavioral objective will be measured.

Alberto and Troutman (1999) suggest writing each element of a behavioral objective as a guideline or format, as the following example illustrates:

Goal: Cindy writes effective behavioral goals and objectives for all students needing additional academic support in her math class.
Learner: Cindy
Condition: Cindy identifies a student who is not succeeding on a math assignment in her class.
Behavior: Cindy will write a behavioral goal for that student, breaking the goal down into behavioral objectives that facilitate or assist the student in being successful.
Criteria: Cindy will write a behavioral goal that includes two or more behavioral objectives for two general education students who receive a D or lower on three consecutive assignments in her class with 100% accuracy for three months.
Over time, the criteria for successful accomplishment of each behavioral objective are raised until the learner is able to accomplish the long-term goal that has been identified. Cindy may begin by writing behavioral goals and objectives for only two students in her class who are receiving a D on three assignments. Each subsequent behavioral objective will include criteria that increase in complexity until Cindy is providing support to all of her students who need individualized behavioral goals and objectives and Cindy can show that student performance is increasing using evaluation data for each student.

Behavioral objectives must be written in such a way that the aim is for the individual learner to remain positively motivated to continue working on the long-term goal by experiencing success on the smaller-scope behavioral objectives. If a behavioral objective is too broad, complex, and difficult, a learner may stop trying to perform the behavior. Behavioral objectives are intended to provide feedback for successful performance over time, and this progress can reinforce the learner with positive feedback. The learner’s motivation also may decrease if behavioral objectives are too easy. The person working on a behavioral objective that is easily accomplished can become bored with the learning opportunity. Or it may take a long time to achieve the stated goal because there are too many objectives that must be met, which makes the goal seem unobtainable to the learner.

Individuals designing behavioral objectives must balance the number of objectives within each long-term goal as well as the level of difficulty involved in each behavioral objective to help ensure the learner will continue working on a long-term goal. Developing effective behavioral objectives can be challenging. Individuals who write behavioral objectives must monitor progress closely and make modifications as needed over time to help ensure that motivation on the part of the learner remains high, the criteria identified for judging success are effective for evaluating progress, and progress toward the overall goal is being made in a timely manner.

See also:Direct Instruction, Mastery Learning

Alberto, P. A., & Troutman, A. C. (1999). Applied behavior analysis for teachers. New Jersey: Merrill.

Bandura, A. (1969). Principles of behavior modification. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

Locke E. A., & Latham, G. P. (1985). The application of goal setting to sports. Journal of Sport Psychology, 49, 205–222.

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (1990). A theory of goal setting and task performance. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Maag, J. W. (2004). Behavior management: From theoretical implications to practical applications. Belmont, CA: Thomson Learning.

Mager, R. F. (1961). Preparing objectives for programmed instruction. San Francisco, CA: Fearon.

Martin, G., & Pear, J. (1996). Behavior modification: What it is and how to do it. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Sulzer-Azaroff, B., & Mayer, G. R. (1977). Applying behavior-analysis procedures with children and youth. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.