The Differentiator


The Differentiator sounds like a professional wrestler’s stage name. It’s a cool tool, though. When I took Instructional Design as part of my Instructional Technology master’s, one point that the instructor and my text both emphasized was that objectives needed to be clear and measurable. One of my favorite methods for constructing objectives was the ABCD method advocated by Smaldino, Lowther, and Russell in Instructional Technology and Media for Learning, which was my textbook for Instructional Media (my favorite text). The ABCD model for writing objectives considers 1) audience—the learners; 2) behavior—what you want your audience to know or be able to do; 3) conditions—under what conditions (environment and materials) the objective will be assessed; and 4) degree—what will constitute an acceptable performance or demonstration of learning. The key with the “behavior” or verb in the objective is that it must be measurable.

Mager criticizes use of verbs that are not measurable in Preparing Instructional Objectives, a suggested text for Instructional Design. For instance, how would you measure whether students “appreciate” something or even whether they “learn” it? Smaldino, Lowther, and Russell say “[v]ague terms such as know, understand, and appreciate do not communicate your aim clearly. Better words include define, categorize, and demonstrate, which denote observable performance” (p. 93). A table on p. 93 of Instructional Technology and Media for Learning entitled “The Helpful Hundred” includes a great list of verbs for writing objectives. Of course, these types of charts are available everywhere, and maybe you even have a good one that you use. What I liked about the Differentiator is that you can use verbs organized via Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy to build objectives. The list is somewhat limited, but it’s a good start. Most of the verbs are measurable, too (I’m not sure how you would measure whether students “value” something, but that’s the only verb that struck me as difficult to measure and unclear to students). Using this model, you might write an objective like “Using a computer with word processing software, ninth grade students will write an essay with a score of 4 on a 5-point rubric where 5 = exceeds expectations.” (A similar example can be found on p. 94 of Smaldino, Lowther, and Russell.)

Mager’s model for writing objectives includes three major parts: 1) performance—what you want students to be able to do; 2) conditions—tools students can use and circumstances under which the performance will take place; and 3) criterion—the description for criteria for an acceptable performance. Using this model, you might, for instance, write an objective that reads “Given a computer with word processing software, students will write an essay with a score of 4 on a 5-point rubric where 5 = exceeds expectations.” The conditions are the computer and word processing software. The performance is writing the essay. The criterion is that the essay is at least meets expectations, earning an overall score of four.

A poor example of an objective with a similar goal might be “Students will know how to write an essay.” Using either model I’ve described will help you determine whether or not students know how to write an essay; they will also allow you to determine the degree of success and under what conditions you expect that performance to take place.

The Differentiator can help you write objectives similar to both of these models. I do think the content part of process is somewhat confusing and maybe unnecessary. For instance, I used the Differentiator to write “Students will construct a model of the solar system.” The missing piece is the criteria for an acceptable performance, but you get the idea. At any rate, it’s fun to play with and see what happens. I think it has potential to help teachers write higher order objectives more easily and perhaps help teachers remember to ask deeper questions.

It might seem somewhat cold or clinical to think about teaching this way, but it has made me think about what I what students to know or be able to do with much more clarity, and it has also made me think about how I will know students have learned something.

Creative Commons License photo credit: D. Sharon Pruitt, Pink Sherbet Photography

2 thoughts on “The Differentiator”

  1. I am surprised that someone who is called The Differentiator would have such a hard time differentiating between thinking processes and observable, measurable behaviors.

    It seems to me that Mager begins with a few false premises:

    1. All learning should be measurable.

    2. Learning is an observable behavior rather than a cognitive process.

    3. There is no difference (in terms of writing objectives) for conceptual attainment versus skill development.

    To me, those are some pretty big premises to get past before I'll even consider her arguments. While I agree that "learn it" or "appreciate it" are not necessarily objectives, I wonder if her criteria would allow for "analyze" or "construct" or "develop," which could all be examples of cognitive processes rather than measurable behaviors.

    Bottom line: learning does not have to be measurable. As long as I believe there are important concepts to learn and that those concepts are not necessarily measurable, I will end up in an entirely different semantic environment from The Differentiator.

    1. The person who runs that site did not make those arguments. I did. Or rather Robert Mager did, and I put them together with those of Smaldino, Lowther, and Russell. Mager comes from a behaviorist background. The ideas I shared come from instructional design. There is a difference between learning, which might not be something you can observe and measure, and assessing that learning, which I would argue has to be measurable if you are using grades to quantify it. I don't want anyone else to be confused that I am somehow misrepresenting the views of the person who created the Differentiator. It's a tool to create objectives.

      Still, you might find this interesting if only because it's a clearer analysis than I appear to have provided.

      I have found learning about creating objectives in this fashion to be helpful in creating assessments, especially for teaching technology, which is the area in which I first encountered him. I would argue that you can measure something developed, analyzed, or constructed given a set of criteria you were looking for in the end product.

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