Toolbox Menu > Learning and Instruction Menu > How do you define instructional goals?
How Do You Define Instructional Goals?

An instructional goal is a statement that describes, in general terms, what learners should be able to DO forever after experiencing a distinct unit of instruction (referred to in a broad sense as an “instructional intervention” and in a specific sense as a “lesson”).  An instructional goal is often a direct solution to an instructional need.  In order to define instructional goals, teachers must follow basic steps:


Step One:    Describe an instructional need

Step Two:    Determine whether or not an instructional goal is desired.

Step Three:  If #2 is “yes,” generate an initial goal draft statement describing behaviors representing “what should be”

Step Four:    Describe the parameters of the learning environment

Step Five:    Identify and describe a meaningful, purposeful learning context

Step Six:      Use the information from steps 3 – 5 to write a complete goal statement.


Step One:  Describe the learners’ instructional need.  An instructional need reflects the gap between what the learners may already know how to do and what you want them to be able to do (or what you want them to CHOOSE to do). 

what is -------> what should be

Note: Not all educational needs are instructional.  See Step Two below for information about needs that will not be addressed via goal-directed instruction.

Step Two:  Determine whether or not an instructional goal is desired.   

Decisions surrounding the development of goal-directed instruction are based on the nature of the instructional needs identified.  Teachers developing goal-directed instruction operate under the assumption that no matter how complicated a particular instructional need might seem, a goal can be stated which describes behavior(s) that can meet the need.  Once a goal is articulated, it is analyzed and broken down into its subordinate or constituent skills.  These subordinate skills are then classified and sequenced, and the most appropriate learning strategies and conditions for each type of skill are incorporated into the developing instruction. 

Non goal-directed design is not generally based on an immediate or easily identifiable instructional needs.  Non goal-directed instruction is often utilized when the teacher/designer believes that, for their purpose, the whole of learning cannot be articulated in a simple statement of behavioral change.  This notion follows the reasoning that, since learners will construct their own meaning to every event they experience within an instructional experience (and they each have unique previous experiences with which to interpret information and events within the learning environment), it is not necessary or even possible to deconstruct and describe the precise behavioral changes that should occur within each unique learner following their interactions with a unit of instruction.  Emphasis in non goal-directed design is placed on structuring “authentic” learning experiences in which learners have access to enough information within the experience to learn what they need to learn to succeed.  Provisions are made for individual support when needed (such as “scaffolding” techniques), and the use of collaborative groups are often implemented to ensure strong social support (and to add to the authentic nature of the experience). 

Teachers also choose to not utilize an instructional goal-directed model of design when there is no expectation that all learners will (or should) learn everything the teacher/designer wants them to learn.  Courses in college designed to “weed out” students by placing extreme demands on them and forcing them into a self-directed and self-discipline experience generally have no use for instructional models that are designed to support and enable all learners to learn what is expected.

Step Three:  Draft an initial goal statement.  This can be accomplished by describing what you hope the learners will be able to do differently as a result of the instructional experience you will be designing.  These behavioral changes MUST be something that is achievable through the instruction for the target population. 


Learners will write a five-paragraph essay with few grammatical errors.  [This is a GOOD initial draft of a goal because it does represent a change in behavior that is achievable through instruction.]

Learners will slam dunk a basketball on a standard basketball court.  [This is BAD initial draft of a goal because it places a limit on the learner’s ability to perform the skill.  The instruction won’t be able to effectively address the height prerequisite.  Unless of course the goal is to be used in an NBA training camp program!]

Step Four:  Describe the parameters of the learning environment.  In other words, list those things in the learning environment that might influence and affect the manner in which the learners will interact with the instruction.  The following list represents some of the more common parameters to be considered:

 - Complete in-class experience?

- Number of students? 

- Amount and type of available resources (including computers)?

- Distance learning environment factors (completely Web-based? Interactive television?

- Time constraints?

- Homogeneous or heterogeneous by achievement target population?

Step Five: Identify and describe a meaningful, purposeful learning context.

Determining and describing a meaningful, purposeful context in which the identified outcomes are acquired and/or applied can be accomplished in many different ways, for example:


  • Identify how the outcomes are used in the real world, then approximate as closely as possible a context in which the skills are actually used in the real world.

  • Establish a simulation or situation in which the learners "pretend" to be somebody else and/or somewhere else (consider the used of cased-based and/or problem-based approaches).

  • Develop open-ended projects in which many content and design decisions are left up to the individual learners, but strict evaluation criteria are established.

  • Consider the use of mediated contexts derived from the categories indicated in “How to Use Computers to Define Meaningful and Purposeful learning Contexts”


Goal:  Each student will write a descriptive paragraph free of grammatical errors.

Context:  Since writing descriptive paragraphs is often part of communicating with other people via letters, an excellent overall context for this outcome would be establishing e-mail correspondences between the students and people they care about. 

*Note:  Although a purposeful, meaningful context should be addressed in the goal statement, the subordinate skills to be learned or applied do not necessarily need to be completely dependent on the context.

Step Six: Use the information from Steps Three – Five to write a goal statement that addresses the instructional need, states results in terms of learner performance (the learners will....), describes or implies a purposeful, meaningful context, and includes relevant information about any limitations or expectations imposed by the parameters of the learning environment. 

The most difficult part of writing a good goal statement is clearly communicating the skills or performances you want the learners to be able to acquire though the instruction.  The best way to approach this part of the goal statement creation is to begin by generating a list of all the behaviors the learner should perform to demonstrate that they have achieved the goal within the context described.  Next, analyze the expanded list of behaviors and select those that best reflect achievement of the goal.

Here’s an example from an Educational Foundations faculty member:

Original goal

Students will understand how the major philosophical positions in the early 1900's contributed to the development of the public school system in the United States.

Revised Version

Students will describe how the major philosophical positions in the early 1900's contributed to the development of the public school system in the United States.

Final Goal

Making changes to improve the educational system in this country is a very, very difficult challenge for professional educators to confront.  Students will address this issue by identifying a specific problem facing their cooperating teacher, and they will write a report identifying and explaining the historic reasons why specific barriers currently exist that may be inhibiting their cooperating teacher from implementing procedures for solving the problem.  In their historic explanations, the students will describe the major characteristics of transcendentalism, existentialism, idealism, and realism, and explain how each of these philosophical positions contributed to the structure and organization of school districts, classrooms, and curricula since the early 1900's in the United States.

copyright © 2002 Greg Sherman