Criterion Referenced Instruction

What is Criterion Referenced instruction? Robert Mager's theory is based on using objectives to drive instruction (Cox, 2003). Objectives give a base for design. If the designer does not establish what they want their learners to know, then there is no way of knowing if the instruction accomplished your goals. The objectives need to be specific and allow for evaluation of what needs to be learned.

How this theory can be used and who would use it? This theory is best suited for students who are able to work through self-paced instruction. The students can include professionals or technicians in a field. This type of theory would work well in a business where employees are required to master a skill. The professionals can work through a self-paced experience and be tested in the end to see if they have properly learned the necessary information. Ideally, a business owner or large company could purchase a Criterion Referenced Instruction workshop to have all employees complete as a means to assess performance and education.

Strengths and Weaknesses of this theory:

A strength of this program is its emphasis on goal setting and outlining of goals within the instruction. Mager emphasizes the importance of setting objectives so that they are measurable and attainable for learners. Each module or program should have a goal and the objectives that lead to the mastering of the goal must not be subjective and an instructor can easily be determine if they are being met.

Comparisons to other models/theories:

Mager's theory has much influence from people such as Gagne, Knowles, and Rogers. CRI reflects the works of these other theories. It is similar to Knowles theory of Andragogy because it is directed towards adults. Knowles believes that adults are responsible for their own decisions and that the instruction is self-directed by the learner. Rodgers theory of Experiential Learning also focuses on the adult as the learner and has influences from Knowles' theory. It involves activites started in a self-paced manner and evaluated by the learner.

Summary of Criterion-Referenced Instruction (from
Summary of Criterion-Referenced Instruction (from

Visual of how objectives should be written (from )
Visual of how objectives should be written (from )

  1. Instructional objectives are derived from job performance and reflect the competencies (knowledge/skills) that need to be learned.
  2. Students study and practice only those skills not yet mastered to the level required by the objectives.
  3. Students are given opportunities to practice each objective and obtain feedback about the quality of their performance.
  4. Students should receive repeated practice in skills that are used often or are difficult to learn.
  5. Students are free to sequence their own instruction within the constraints imposed by the pre-requisites and progress is controlled by their own competence (mastery of objectives).

Objectives must be "SMART":
  • Specific: expressed clearly and singularly

  • Measurable: ideally in quantitative terms

  • Acceptable: to stakeholders

  • Realistic: in terms of achievement

  • Time-bound: a time frame is stated

  • Mager's clearly defined, measurable objectives contain these elements: Audience, Behavior (performance), a Condition, and a Degree (criterion).

Above Chart ©2003 Cognitive Design Solutions, Inc. Retrived from:

Cox, S. (2003). Criterion-Referenced Instruction (Robert F. Mager). Journal of Educational Computing, Design, and Telecommunications.vol 3. (1). Retrieved from
Hergenhahn. (1988). Theories of Learning in Educational Psychology. Retrieved August 23, 2011 from
Kearsley, G. (August 9, 2011). The Theory Into Practice Database. Retrieved from
Knowles, M. (n.d.) Andragogy. Retrieved August 25, 2011 from
Mager, R. (1975). Preparing Instructional Objectives (2nd Edition). Belmont, CA: Lake Publishing Co.
Mager, R. & Pipe, P. (1984). Analyzing Performance Problems, or You Really Oughta Wanna (2nd Edition). Belmont, CA: Lake Publishing Co.
Mager, R. (1988). Making Instruction Work. Belmont, CA: Lake Publishing Co.
Otto, R. (August 9, 2011). Criterion Referenced Instruction. Retrieved from /Instruction/CriterionReferenced.htm.
Rodgers, C. (n.d.) Experiential Learning. Retrieved August 25, 2011 from