There are many questions you may ask as you design training for your employees: Is it engaging? Does it cover all the learning objectives? Is it accessible? But the most important question is one that actually doesn’t get asked often enough: Is it effective?
Donald Kirkpatrick, former president of the American Society for Training & Development (which is now called the Association for Talent Development, or ATD), completed his dissertation some sixty years ago on evaluating course effectiveness. He then spent the next few decades refining his research, publishing the four-level model that is cited frequently today.
The four levels of evaluation
According to Kirkpatrick, assessing the effectiveness of a course falls into four distinct levels:
What does it measure? This level measures what your learners thought about the training—whether they found it useful, entertaining, boring, or a waste of time.
How can you assess it? Qualitative “smile sheets” are often used for this phase. They give learners an immediate opportunity to respond to the training experience. Questions like, “Which topics were most useful to you?” and “Which of the sections were clear and easy to follow?” can help course designers figure out which parts of the training need to be tweaked for the next cohort.
What does it measure? While the reaction level tells you about the learner experience, here you are measuring how much they actually learned from the content.
How can you assess it? A good old-fashioned quiz works well here—though this can be delivered in many different forms. Scored multiple-choice quizzes (online or on paper), in-person interviews, or demonstrations of skill mastery can all be effective. For example, if your training covered the basic steps necessary to manage a client record in PeopleSoft, an assessment might be to monitor each learner as they perform a series of tasks in a software simulation (or even while logged in to a real account).
What does it measure? This level measures whether employees are effectively integrating their newly learned skills into their daily job performance.
How can you assess it? Evaluating outcomes on the behavior level takes patience and time. While learner engagement and skill mastery can be assessed fairly quickly after the training has taken place, determining whether or not the employee is actively applying these new skills to his or her daily routine is a process that takes 3 – 6 months.
Because employees often need additional support in order to effectively apply new skills (such as active motivation to change and feedback on new behaviors), personal interviews may be the best way of assessing progress. Regular meetings with new employees (individually or as a cohort) can offer a space to both reveal gaps in training knowledge and offer support to continue improving.
What does it measure? Well—everything. The results level is in many ways the most satisfying part of any assessment, because it allows you to pull together all of the data collected over the training period and look at it as a whole.
How can you assess it? If you’ve done your work in the first three levels, this one should be easy. Remember you’re looking to capture a holistic picture of the training’s effectiveness—meaning not just the impact on the employees themselves, but on the overall organization. Did the training deliver its initial purpose for the company? Were business outcomes (perhaps financial or efficiency-related) improved as a result?
What if my training was not effective?
While the hope is that thorough training assessment will reveal positive outcomes—a chance to high-five your designers and trainers—that will not always be the case. Sometimes training simply doesn’t work, and you find that money and resources are wasted, employees are confused, and there is an overall loss of engagement and morale.
But if you have done each of Kirkpatrick’s four levels of assessment well, the solution will be immediately clear. You’ll be able to see the stumbling blocks that arose along the way—perhaps the initial training modules were worded in a confusing way (which you’ll discover from the reactions phase), or employees weren’t grasping the concepts presented (learning phase), or no one was motivated to apply the results to their work (behavior phase).
Doing the assessment, in the end, isn’t about aiming to create a map of self-congratulatory results—it’s about looking honestly at what methods are most effective, and being willing to change the process if the assessment reveals it’s necessary.