Criteria for objectives–also, values and attitudes

This entry is part 8 of 21 in the series Ten Steps to Complex Learning (the book).

Note: this is a continuation of the previous post in this series,
because I can’t seem to summarize and comment on one of the
Ten Steps to Complex Learning in a single post.)

Repeat after me: it's iterative.Step 3 is “set performance objectives.”  As the introduction and first section of this chapter emphasize, this is an iterative process, not a linear one.  The real-life tasks in which you perform the complex skill help to determine the overall learning goals and the specific tasks that will help achieve them.

In turn, these help refine understanding of the complex skill and the constituent skills that it embodies.

After analyzing (or “decomposing”) the skills, you create performance objectives.  I’ve discussed Van Merriënboer and Kirscher’s actions and the tools and conditions that apply to the objectives.  It’s a bit tough to talk about standards as they describe them.

Keeping to the standards

The Ten Steps sees standards as having three elements: criteria, values, and attitudes.  Criteria means what you think: minimum requirements for things like accuracy, speed, quality, and so forth.

Values indicate that the constituent skill conforms to some set of rules or regulations.  Two examples vM&K offer: “without violating traffic rules” and “taking the ICAO safety regulations into account.”

My feelings are mixed.  I can see the value of this as shorthand (“wiring for this remodeling must meet the National Electrical Code”).  Is there a little game of gotcha on the side?  Or are we acknowledging that in complex learning, there are areas of performance that matter, even if we’re not going to provide instruction related to them?

I really can’t say; this just feels a bit like a junk drawer in the conceptual cabinet of the Ten Steps.

Feelings about attitudes

If values are the junk drawer of instructional design, attitudes are like scribbling “Get organized!” on a to-do list.  The Ten Steps doesn’t define “attitudes,” but says they’re “subordinate to, but fully integrated with” constituent skills.

Apparently we’ll know them when we see them.  However, they won’t be things like “have a client-centered attitude.”  vM&K say this is a non-example: a research librarian doesn’t need to have such an attitude outside of work, nor does he need to have it when doing tasks that don’t involve clients.

So, whatever an attitude is, it’s not an enduring part of your personality.  I actually think there is such a thing as attitude; I just don’t think  you can influence it directly very well.  The Ten Steps seems to agree:

It is only necessary to specify the attitude in the performance objective for these relevant constituent skills. If possible, all observable behaviors that indicate or demonstrate the attitude should be formulated or specified in a way that they are observable!  The standard “with a smile on your face” is more concrete, and thus more observable, than “friendly;” “regularly performing checks” is more concrete…than “punctual…”

“With a smile on your face?”

This is an unsatisfactory nod toward a complex issue.  Think of medical professionals interacting with patients (so-called bedside manner).  Can it be that helping a surgeon demonstrate interest in the person and not just the condition–“Dr. Manoogian, your gall bladder’s in room 5”–might require this close a focus?

Classifying Objectives

Three dimensions apply to the objectives you develop (remember, these are objectives for the constituent skills that make up the overall complex skill):

  • Teach, or not?
  • Non-recurrent, or recurrent?
  • Make automatic, or not?

The easy part is sorting out the objectives you’re not going to include in your training–either because the typical performer already has these skills, or because the objectives are covered elsewhere.  Those that remain fall into four groups.

Non-recurrent skills, you’ll recall, are applied differently to different problem situations.  They involve schema-based problem solving and reasoning.  They require supporting information like cognitive maps during the training, which is the topic for Step 4.

Recurrent skills are those you apply the same way to different problem situations.  They’re the rule-based skills.  In training, these require procedurall information.

vM&K state that any prerequisite skills for a recurrent skill are by definition recurrent.  “A recurrent constituent skill,” they says, ” can never have non-recurrent aspects!”  Since they say with with both italics and the second exclamation point in two pages, they must mean it.

The same skill, they go on, could be non-recurrent in one training program, but recurrent in another.  Repair of military aircraft in peacetime might be a non-recurrent skill, because there’s time for diagnosis.  In wartime, one of the criteria is to repair or replace as quickly as possible, which could mean that repair becomes a more procedure-driven and thus recurrent task.

Some recurrent skills require a high level of automaticity.  This involves the part-task practice discussed in Step 10.  Some jobs don’t require this type of automaticity (for example, the recurrent patent-examiner task).  Factors that suggest automaticity include:

  • Enabling other skills higher in the hierarchy. Musicians practice scales, even after achieving a high level of skill, in order to automate basic skills and enable more fluid performance of higher skill.
  • Simultaneous performance with many other skills. Process operators in manufacturing and air-traffic controllers are two types of jobs where the individual reads displays automatically as she analyzes and responds to dynamic sistuations.
  • High risk in terms of cost, damage to equipment, or danger to life. Pilots and flight attendants practice emergency procedures.

Ten Steps makes a point that not all routine skills need automation.  There’s a cost/benefit consideration — you don’t memorize all the addition possibilities of two numbers from 0 to 999; you do (eventually) automate the skill needed to keep a car moving in a straight line.


“Rare situations” exist, according to vM&K, when you’d choose to automate a non-recurrent skill.  They use “double classified” for what seems to be combinations of recurrent and non-recurrent skills, like their example of shutting down a power plant in an emergency.

The shutdown can occur in many ways, depending on circumstances (non-recurrent), but must follow specific procedures (recurrent).  This is an expensive decision and often requires high-fidelity simulation.  In addition, the authors say that learners should be explicitly told that they’ll switch from automated mode to problem-solving mode at times.

The things you left out

Remember that “category” of objectives that you won’t be teaching?

If learners have already mastered a particular constituent skill in an isolated manner, this is no guarantee that they can carry it out in the context of whole-task performance.  Performing a particular constituent skill in isolation is completely different from performing it in the context of a whole task, and automaticity of a constituent skill that has been developed through extensive part-task practice is often not preserved in the context of whole-task performance.

Which is to say that when Bruno gets a perfect score on the loan-application system, it doesn’t necessarily mean he can use it while interviewing a live loan applicant at the bank branch.

Objectives and assessment

It’s pretty obvious that clear, observable objectives relating to clusters of constituent skills that make up the complex skill have many benefits.  You can develop tools to help learners do self-assessment.  You can provide support for a peer, who can help identify areas of improvement (and whose own performance can benefit from helping the other person).

In assessment, values and attitudes are usually measured narratively, or through qualitative scales (very poor, poor, acceptable, good, excellent).

vM&K acknowledge the potential burden of a highly-detailed assessment, which is virtually a necessity for complex sills.  They recommend self-assessment and peer assessment.  They also suggest a development portfolio, a collection of assessments for all learning tasks.

This details what the learner’s done and how well he’s doen.  He can choose his next learning tasks based on this information.

In the next post, we’ll (finally) move from the learning task component to the supportive information component.  The corresponding steps are designing supporting information (Step 4), analyzing cognitive strategies (Step 5), and analyzing mental models (Step 6).

In this series...<< Previous post Next post >>