Test time is not a happy time for many of us. Even though I have been out of school for a long time I still have nightmares about taking tests. It usually involves me showing up for an exam and realizing that I am entirely unprepared. So don’t get me wrong—I understand the anxiety my students experience in the days before an exam. In fact, once one of my freshman students approached me looking very distressed. “Dr. Kohn,” he said. “I am not going to be able to take the final exam next week. What excuses do you accept?”

Most of us have a tortured relationship with tests and this may taint the way we think about testing within the corporate environment. But in this month’s column, I’d like to ask you to keep an open mind and consider the many ways that you can use assessment, especially online assessment, to dramatically improve your organization.

Evaluate mastery

The most common use of assessments is to measure a learner’s mastery of material. For example, in a psychology class, we might ask a student 25 questions about a chapter to try to estimate how well they have comprehended all of it. Get a lot right, we assume you understand the whole chapter and you earn an “A.”

Another kind of test is designed to make a prediction about the future. For example, standardized tests, such as the SAT and GRE, are designed to predict who is most likely to be academically successful. In turn, colleges seek students with high scores presumably because they are most likely to thrive at their university.

Both kinds of tests are potentially useful in corporate settings. For example, we might provide rewards to employees who retain the most information or give a raise to those whose test scores predict high potential.

Boost memory

Assessment is also valuable because of its ability to actually increase the amount of information retained in memory. The pioneering work of Henry Roediger, for example, shows that taking tests forces the brain to “effortfully retrieve knowledge.” In turn, this retrieval effort seems to cue the brain that the retrieved information is important, hence the brain retains it.

Booster quizzing has immediate value in a corporate setting. On average, people forget 70% of what they learn in a day. However, when you provide strategically timed testing, you can dramatically reshape the forgetting curve.

Assess program effectiveness

Assessment is also a great way to do an internal review of your training program. For example, you can compare the efficacy of trainers by assessing test scores of students in different classes. In his Ph.D. dissertation, the late Donald Kirkpatrick explained that you can use assessment to evaluate your training program at four levels:


How learners feel about the training


An increase in the learner’s knowledge or skill


Changes in the learner’s job behavior as a result of the training


Increases in corporate profits as a result of the training

Skill-gap assessment

Most organizations broadcast training, delivering the same message to everyone no matter what they may need. A strategic assessment, however, can help you identify skill gaps both before and after training. Let’s say you are about to offer a course on consensus leadership. A pre-training assessment can identify who might need remedial information prior to the training and who might not need the training at all.

Following training, assessments can identify ongoing skill gaps. For example, if George scores poorly on your post-assessment evaluation, you know you need to give him more training. If everyone performs poorly on your post-assessment evaluation, you have learned something even more important: you need a more effective training program.

Harvest best practices

Short answer assessments combined with discussion forums open up additional possibilities. For example, imagine asking your sales team the following assessment question: “What is your best technique for upselling people on a washing machine?” In the course of answering this question, the employee will have an opportunity to review their approach, which reinforces it cognitively. Furthermore, if you use a social forum to share these answers with everyone, you are transforming the learner into an additional teacher. Finally, if you give the learners the means to upvote some of their peers’ answers, your learners will vet one another’s’ answers and later you can conveniently harvest their best ideas.

Assessment is an essential tool in training

As we have seen, you can use assessments in a variety of ways to benefit your organization. Yes, writing an effective assessment will be difficult and time consuming. But once done, it will provide you with insights into your business that will allow you to make more strategic and effective training decisions.

Digging deeper

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