Think in a different way about the age-old question, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” Which comes first, the assessment (the test) or the course? Do you have to have the course before you know what to assess or test? Or must you first define what you hope to accomplish—and how to best assess that accomplishment—before you can build the course that gets you there?
I favor the latter. We ought not to proceed in any learning development project until we know what defines success and how we will measure it (the assessment). Actually, the assessment may be more important than any training course or curriculum that supports it. Here’s why.
Results trump activity
Clients and customers look for results, not activity. Unfortunately, we often get requests for training (“I want a course.”) without much concern for what it is to accomplish. We should push back, asking, “First, what do you want to accomplish and how will you know you’ve done it?” If the client or customer can’t answer this question, any training activity we come up with will be a risky venture.
Assessment clarity clarifies learning strategy
Jane Bozarth talked about this in April. Sometimes, clients or customers don’t know what type of learning solution they want, or even what they should teach. But asking them first what results they require helps them to focus. From this statement of results, an assessment plan can evolve that literally prescribes the most appropriate learning strategy to pursue. If you want to get your client or customer on board—begin with the end in mind.
Assessment is what really matters to the people who really matter
If your focus is predominately on courseware, registrations, and hours of training, etc., be careful. We certainly have to manage our operations well, but senior managers, customers, and clients—the people who pay us—are not too interested in this (or at least they shouldn’t be). What they want is results. “What can my people do now that they couldn’t do before?” they will ask. “How are our learning efforts affecting the performance of my business?” We constantly ask for a “seat at the table;” answering these questions is our ticket in.
Measuring competence is more valuable than tallying completions
What would you rather say is the result of your efforts in, for example, sales training: a) “A thousand people completed our entry-level sales course this year”; or b) “We were able to certify the sales performance of three hundred front-line sales professionals this year?” Of course, the answer is b, even if the numbers are less. But too often, we assume that taking training is the same as performance certification. This is dangerous. The first is a measure of attendance; the second is a measure of competence. Showing up means very little if you don’t learn much. This gets into the touchy areas of mandated training and whether course completions alone are legally defensible if someone challenges an individual’s or organization’s actions. (This is worth discussing at length, but not here.)
Certification is a big deal
Let’s talk more about certification. Increasingly, organizations are realizing that controlling the means to demonstrate competence may be more important than controlling the means that prepare people for such demonstrations.
The American Bar Association and the American Medical Association issue standards that influence Bar and MCAT exams, but they don’t directly offer preparatory services, leaving that to individual law and medical schools. The Educational Testing Service doesn’t run a single school; but it owns the SAT exam, and that, as any high school student will tell you, is plenty. Many universities may freely offer their courses online, but you pay big time for their certification—the degree. The Motor Vehicle Department doesn’t care how you learned to drive, but you’d better pass their road test. Even in our field, both ASTD and ISPI offer certification, and while they do offer some optional preparatory programs, they accept that people can achieve certification whether or not they had formal training by anyone.
What does this all mean for us?
If we believe, as we should, that certifying what people can do, rather than just reporting on the courses they have taken, should become the mainstay of evaluating the worthiness of any training or learning function, it then becomes essential to own and enhance the assessment process as a matter of strategy—and perhaps survival. To effectively certify competence is a huge advantage, not just for your training or learning function, but also for your entire organization.
Technical and instructional expertise may abound, but many training or learning functions have a dearth of knowledge in evaluation and certification. We talk about evaluation all the time, but do we consistently do a good job at it? Probably not—and this is a big problem. Writing a few multiple-choice questions at the end of a training module is not nearly enough. Evaluation and assessment is more important than ever, and it’s not so easy to do. In the end, it is both sophisticated science as well as art. Build your capabilities here.
Not convinced? Think about it from your learners’ perspective. Would they rather say, “I took a bunch of courses,” or “I am certified?” We don’t diminish the value of training by elevating assessment, but if we don’t assess well, how will we know if training was worthwhile in the first place?