Module 07: Task Analysis / Subject Matter Analysis

Introduction Connect Apply Reflect Extend

The analysis phase of the ADDIE process culminates in the task analysis and (or) subject matter analysis of the instructional domain. The domain is the topic or subject of the instruction, defined by the goals identified in instructional goal analysis (Module 5).

The instructional goals are initially very broad. "Interns will be able to diagnose fractures," and "Students will be able to explain the economic, social, and political causes of the Spanish Civil War," are examples of broad educational or instructional goals. Task analysis or subject matter analysis break these broad goals down into specific component parts or tasks, that specify everything to be learned or done.


Module 07: Connect

In this module


It is important to note the use of the term 'task' in task analysis. We are approaching most performances--applying concepts, procedures, and principles--as a series of steps progressing toward the accomplishment of a goal: classifying cars as to whether the concept "luxury" applies to them; predicting the effects of reduced light in the process of photosynthesis; conducting a surgical procedure; or applying the principle or rule for "carrying" numbers when adding columns of figures. Each of these performances involves multiple steps, particularly for the novice. The only exception is factual knowledge which, by definition, consists of a single step--association.

Even the remember level of the content/performance matrix (Module 5) involves progression, since we are remembering, to some degree, how to apply concepts, procedures, and principles. The point here is that, even though people learn these different types of knowledge in different ways, we can represent them similarly for purposes of task analysis, since they all (except facts) can be represented by their component sub tasks arranged along a time line.

Which brings us to two important rules for conducting task analysis.

Rule 1: Identify tasks rather than topics

The first rule is, "Identify tasks rather than topics." Keep the task in task analysis. This follows from the way we conducted goal analysis by stating goals in terms of performances rather than non observable phrases like "know" and "understand."

Think of, say, a middle school biology teacher beginning to put together a unit on cells. The tendency is to outline the content in terms of topics:

I. Cell Parts
A. Nucleus
B. Cytoplasm
C. Cell wall

II. Cell Functions

A. Reproduction
B. Respiration

III. Types of Cells

A. Plant cells
B. Animal cells

IV. Etc.

This way of thinking about content focuses on the topical organization of the domain, not on the tasks you want students to be able to accomplish when they've finished your course. It short-circuits the design process, and possibly the learning process, by assuming that students should learn all about the parts of cells, then about their functions, and so on. In fact, students might learn better by centering the instruction around the tasks you want them to be able to perform, and learning the parts, functions, and types of cells as they need to know them in order to accomplish those tasks.

Let's imagine that the middle school biology teacher has already identified a goal (through instructional goal analysis) of, "Students will be able to predict what will happen when a cell is placed in a salt water solution, and explain why it happens." This is an apply process type of performance, since it involves understanding cause and effect relationships in a system and making predictions based on those relationships.

The teacher might analyze the task as follows (Figure 7.1):

Figure 7.1. Task analysis for applying principle of osmosis.

Notice how the teacher has written the instructional goal or performance at the top of the analysis, and broken the task down into what she considers to be the steps the students should take to accomplish the goal. Notice that each step contains a verb--"Identify," "Determine," "Compare," "Describe"--indicating an observable performance at each step along the way.

Rule 2: Identify performance tasks rather than teaching tasks

The second rule is, "Identify performance tasks rather than teaching tasks." Sometimes beginning instructional designers list the steps of teaching or learning instead of the actual performances or tasks. For instance, a novice instructional multimedia designer analyzing the tasks involved in teaching managers how to make decisions might be tempted to generate this faulty task analysis (Figure 7.2):

Figure 7.2. Faulty task analysis for applying decision-making principles.

What's wrong here? The designer has listed the steps of instruction, rather than the steps of the task itself. The task analysis should focus on the tasks the manager needs to master in order to choose the correct decision-making process. It should represent his or her real world performance, not the steps that will be taken to bring about that performance.  A revised task analysis might look like this (Figure 7.3):

Figure 7.3. Better task analysis for applying decision-making principles.

This is better, because it is based on the steps or tasks managers should go through as they choose an appropriate decision-making method in a given situation.

With these two rules in mind, let's look at some simple task analyses.

Conducting a task analysis

As we've seen, task analysis involves breaking down the instructional goal, stated as a performance, into the tasks that lead to the goal. It also involves breaking those tasks down into sub tasks.

For instance, suppose our client's goal is to teach bicycle repair technicians how to diagnose power train problems. The initial task analysis might look something like Figure 7.4:

Figure 7.4. Partial task analysis for diagnosing bicycle power train problems.

There are several things going on in this task analysis. First, notice that steps are represented by numbered boxes with verbs in them, like "Determine," "Ride," and "Stop." These are the steps in the diagnostic process. Notice that step 1, "Determine whether problem is actually in power train," consists of several sub steps (1.1-1.3). These are placed in their own row underneath step 1.

Of course, these sub steps can be broken down into yet smaller sub steps, and so on indefinitely. This raises the question, "How far should I go in breaking down the tasks?" You've reached the limit when further analysis is no longer useful for the learners, based on what you know about them from your audience analysis (see Module 6). For example, step 1.1, "Ride bike at about 10 mph," could be broken down into sub tasks such as balancing and pedaling, but you can generally assume that would-be bicycle repair technicians already know how to ride a bike.

When you do add a row of sub tasks, use the "legal" numbering system, that is, add a decimal and number place for each row of sub steps (1, 1.1, 1.1.1, etc.). Later you will match instructional objectives with each of the tasks and sub tasks you identified during task analysis.

Notice also that the steps are connected with directional arrows indicating the sequence in which learners will perform the steps in order to accomplish the goal. When a step has sub steps, the performer must complete the sub steps as part of the present step before going on to the next task.

You may also include decision points in a task analyses. For example,

Figure 7.5. Sample task analysis for diagnosing bicycle power train problems.

In this case, if the noise stops when you stop pedaling, you probably have a power train problem, and you want to go on to the next step, determining the location of the noise. But if the noise doesn't stop when you stop pedaling, you should look in some other system such as the wheels or brakes.

This system, called the "hierarchical" system of task analysis, works pretty well for analyzing tasks involving concepts, processes, procedures, and principles. The only modification necessary to make it work for facts is to leave out the directional arrows. That's because facts aren't tasks, per se, so we don't need to sequence them, beyond listing specific facts that need to be learned within broader topics. This really is topical analysis, not task analysis, as such, but we'll still call it task analysis just to maintain consistency.

Figure 7.6 is an example of a task analysis hierarchy for remembering facts.

Figure 7.6. Hierarchical task analysis for remembering factual knowledge.

Finally, you can combine these different types of task analysis for any given goal. For example, let us suppose that you decide that your bicycle technicians need to learn the names of the parts of the power train before they can diagnose problems, your task analysis might look, in part, like Figure 7.7:

Figure 7.7. Portion of task analysis for diagnosing bicycle power train problems.

Entry performances

Sometimes you will identify subtasks that are vital to the task you are teaching, but are not within the scope of the present instruction. For instance, the subtasks might be covered in another, previous unit of instruction, or they might be skills or knowledge you expect learners to possess when they enter your course. These are called entry performances. Identifying entry performances helps you articulate the goals of your instruction with that of other instructional products or programs, and helps you set entry requirements for learners.

You can diagram entry performances just as you would any sub tasks, but place them "below the line," as in Figure 7.8.

Figure 7.8. Portion of task analysis for bicycle wheel removal, with entry performances indicated.

Use a dashed line with the label "Entry performances" to separate them from the tasks and sub tasks you plan to include in the instruction itself.

Subject Matter Sources

Sometimes, you yourself are the subject matter expert (SME) in the domain for which you are designing instruction. More often than not, however, you must gather expert knowledge from other sources. There are several places to start.

First, you might want to talk informally with a SME just to get the "big picture" of the domain and some leads on good reference material and other SMEs. For example, if you're putting together a workshop on leadership, talk to a human resources development person or an instructor in a business school. They can give you an idea of current trends in the field and point you to good resources to read or talk with. Whoever is sponsoring your initiative may have a specific system in mind, such as, "I want a really topnotch TQM leadership program in this company."

Next, do your homework. Read some of the material, even if you don't understand all the technical terms and issues. Get a feel for the scope of the domain, what's important, what's new, and the language these folks speak. Engineers have their own language, as do physicians, as do sanitation workers and busboys. Make your own outline or concept map of the domain to use when you talk with SMEs.

Now, armed with your outline or concept map and your knowledge of key terms, go back to one or more SMEs and review your understanding with them. Get them to help you fill in the details, correct misunderstandings, and set priorities within the domain. You can use the hierarchical task analysis itself as point of discussion. As you construct the diagram, ask them to inspect your work and give you feedback.


Eliciting task analysis from SMEs is tricky, for the very reason that they are experts. Experts usually don't remember how it is they came to know or do something in the first place. For instance, an experienced physician might take one look at a patient and accurately diagnose their condition. The doctor recognizes a pattern (runny nose, cough, skin color, tongue coating, etc.) instantaneously, just as the chess master identifies patterns or pieces on a chess board, or just as you might identify a friend with a glance at their face.

The doctor and the chess master may have as much trouble explaining exactly how they go about recognizing a particular pattern as you would have trying to explain to a stranger how to recognize your friend.

"Well, he's dark--dark hair, brown eyes, I think--he usually wears blue jeans and some kind of plaid shirt. He's about normal height, maybe just a little on the tall side. Nose turns up and sideways a little, like this…"

Transforming experts' schemas of complex systems into step-by-step, task-oriented processes for novice learners requires patience and persistence, from both you and your SME! Imagine a conversation between you and a word processing SME:

You can see that this conversation is going to go on for a long time before you get a clear picture of how novices can understand styles and go about using them effectively in their word processing documents.

One way to systematize eliciting subject matter knowledge from a SME is to use a series of probe questions. For each step in the task analysis, ask questions such as:

To elicit earlier steps

"What do you do before this step?"

"How did you get to this point?"

To elicit later steps (including goals)

"What do you do next?"

"Why are you doing that?"

To elicit sub tasks and/or entry performances

"Can you break that step down for me?"

"What does that mean?"

"What makes that happen?"

"What do you have to do to prepare for this?"

You may need to construct your own probe questions, of course, depending on the context and the subject domain. Just think of questions you might ask to get at the order of operations and what the sub tasks and entry performances should be. Think of the hierarchical task analysis diagram with blank boxes to the left and right and underneath the current box, and generate a question for the SME to help you fill in those boxes.

What happened to subject matter analysis?

As we mentioned earlier, the goal of the task analysis is to break down the content, which we will attempt to teach, with a performance perspective in mind (remember Rule 1?). Admittedly, this is sometimes very difficult, especially in an early stage of the analysis process when it is difficult to simply understand the content. In such a situation it is helpful to take an intermediate step by doing a subject matter analysis (or content analysis) first. In a subject matter analysis, you're basically trying to understand the content by accessing a variety of sources to build your personal knowledge.

You might also start with a subject matter analysis when the content itself is intangible or the performance is invisible. For example, when the goal is to teach students the concept of "perestroika" it might be hard for you to immediately jump to the performances or tasks you'll expect to see achieved. You might want to first clarify the several aspects of this important movement that President Gorbachev initiated in the former Soviet Union in the late 1980s before you are able to break down this concept in the several performance steps. Conducting a subject matter analysis first would be the appropriate approach here.

As it is often times the case, outside the academic world the concepts of task analysis and subject matter analysis tend to blend into each other. In fact, in more advanced courses in this program, we will employ a technique that is called 'cognitive task analysis,' a method to visualize content using the best features of both task analysis and subject matter analysis.

Module 07: Apply

How will task analysis and subject matter analysis impact your work in EDTEC 540?  As you review results of your performance analysis and look to developing your job aid, consider the following questions:

We encourage you to develop a plan for accessing and understanding the content your job aid will require. Know who you will contact; look for extant sources of expertise.

Module 07: Reflect

Within a week or so of submitting your PA Assignment, you will be receiving my feedback. While you will not have a formal reflection to complete fir this Module, please take the necessary time to complete the following when you receive it:

There is no discussion board posting necessary this week.


Module 07: Extend

Overview of this section

People in action

During the goal analysis, Roberto and his team found that much of the needed performance was due not to a lack of knowledge, but that environmental, incentive, and motivational factors inhibited action. They did document that managers were to rate the performance of the employee on each of the six categories in the 5-point evaluation rubric. During the audience analysis, it was found that managers did not understand the rubric, and did not know how to document employee actions.

Checking existing files, Roberto found that the rubrics had been created by a Dr. Allen, who now served as vice president in the financial affairs office. Using the ERIC system, Roberto was able to identify, locate, and read journal articles on creating rubrics. He then scheduled a meeting with Dr. Allen. Together they generated the following chart which depicted some of the steps for which the managers would be responsible. By breaking the task down into component parts, Roberto now has a better concept of what will be needed if an instructional unit is created.

Figure 7.9. Implementing a Performance Evaluation

Main points of Module 07

Background and purpose of a task analysis / subject matter analysis

  1. The task analysis/subject matter analysis are the final components in the analysis phase.
  2. The purpose of the task analysis is to generate a list of specific tasks which the learner will need to be able to do.
  3. Tasks analyses are applicable for detailing how to apply concepts, processes, procedures, and principles. Facts do not undergo tasks analyses because facts are associations, and do not require a series of steps.
  4. You start with a subject matter analysis as an intermediate step when the content is initially very complex or the performance is mostly invisible/intangible.

Steps in a task analysis

  1. Two rules should be followed when completing a task analysis; identify the task (not the topic), and identify performance tasks required to be completed (rather than teaching tasks of the instructor).
  2. Focusing the task analysis on tasks, rather than topics, helps ensure that students will integrate both surface information (facts) as well as deeper understanding, such as how to remember or apply concepts, processes, procedures, and principles.
  3. All tasks generated during a task analysis should include action verbs stating what the learner will do, not what the instructor will do.

Conducting a task analysis

  1. The initial goal from the goal analysis is divided into tasks, and tasks are divided into sub tasks.
  2. A convention for labeling a task analysis is to show major tasks in a horizontal row labeled with whole numbers and arrows showing the sequence of tasks to be learned. Sub tasks are placed on a horizontal row under the major task components, using whole numbers, decimal points, and the legal numbering system to show the relationship of the components.
  3. Each sub task will later be described with an instructional objective.
  4. When a task has sub tasks, the sub tasks should be completed before progressing to the next major task.
  5. Decision points in a task analysis identify the possible sequence of events in two or more directions, depending on the results of a specific task or sub task.
  6. Because facts are not tasks, they do not need directional arrows when identified during a task analysis.

Entry performances

  1. Entry performances are tasks not taught in a current sequence because they were taught previously or are assumed to be known by the learners.
  2. Entry performances are often included in a task analysis to articulate the goals of instruction or to help set entry requirements for the learners.
  3. A task analysis depicts entry performances below a dashed, horizontal line.

Soliciting information

  1. Subject matter experts (SMEs) are often solicited to obtain information during the task analysis.
  2. Before talking with a SME, read up on the topic and generate an outline or concept map of your knowledge using the language of the domain.
  3. Ask the SME for help as you fill in the details, correct misunderstandings, and set priorities within the domain.
  4. Because SMEs may not be able to articulate how they know a subject, be prepared with a list of questions to probe their knowledge.
  5. Probe questions may be used with SMEs to identify earlier steps, later steps, and sub tasks of a task the learners are to do. 

Next step

We've explored the performance analysis and training needs assessment, instructional goal analysis, audience analysis, and the subject matter / task analysis. By attending to each of these steps, you should have a good handle on the problem or opportunity, the audience, and the content. Although the analysis phase takes time to do correctly, it saves more time than it takes because it lays the groundwork for the next major phase of the ADDIE process. It's now time to start the design phase of the intervention.

For more information

Dick, W., & Carey, L. (1996). The systematic design of instruction, fourth edition. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, Inc.

Gordon, S. (1994). Systematic training program design: Maximizing effectiveness and minimizing liability. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Introduction Connect Apply Reflect Extend

Page authors: Bob Hoffman & Donn Ritchie Last updated: Marshall, October 15, 2005

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