Take a Learner Assessment-First Approach to Program Design

Learner assessment is a challenge for almost everyone, not only your association. Nearly 85% of learning professionals want to improve or substantially change the way their organizations measure and evaluate learning, according to a 2018 survey report on learning evaluation by Will Thalheimer for the eLearning Guild.

Thalheimer pointed out the biggest problem with the current state of learner evaluations (assessments): “Evaluation should not just be tacked on at the end; it should be baked into our design and development process from the beginning. Before we even create a list of learning objectives, we should create a list of evaluation objectives.”

Many organizations design the program first, and then tackle assessment, but instructional design experts recommend doing the opposite: taking an assessment-first approach to program design.

How learner assessments make a difference back at the workplace

Individuals who participate in learning programs expect results. Sure, the learning journey itself is a valuable experience. But why spend time and money on a course if it has no positive impact on their work performance?

Employers who pay for programs also expect to see a return on their investment. For example, a restaurant group pays for a sous chef to take an online food safety course. The sous chef scores high on the final exam and receives her certificate. Yet, a month later, she’s in charge when the health inspector gives the restaurant a failing score due to unsafe practices and code violations.

What happened? The final exam tested the sous chef’s ability to recall memorized information but it didn’t assess her mastery of new competencies. The trainer developed a lesson plan first and then pulled the final exam questions out of the course material—a common practice. During the course, students never had the opportunity to practice applying new knowledge. The final exam didn’t challenge the student to apply her supposed new competencies.

Her employer expected to see results: a higher health inspection score, less food waste, no customer complaint calls, and a sous chef who is capable of running a safe kitchen and training others to do the same.

Churning out certificates isn’t enough. You want to be known for programs that really teach people what they are certified to do. Good assessments are a strategic asset in a competitive learning marketplace. They’ll help your organization gain a reputation for providing instruction that helps people build competencies—testable and certifiable competencies.

learner assessment

Begin with the end in mind.

First, define the results (competencies) you want learners to achieve by the end of the program—the learning outcomes.

Then, decide how you will measure those results. What type of assessments will show whether the learner has mastered those competencies?

Finally, design a program that will help learners achieve those results. Put together the content and activities that help them master those competencies so they can put their new knowledge and skills in practice back at the workplace. Exam grades should reflect performance abilities.

Why are assessments so difficult?

Outcomes, assessments, program design—the order makes sense. So, why do so few organizations get it right?

One obvious reason: it’s difficult to design effective assessments. Nearly everyone struggles with assessments, which is why so many fall back on multiple-choice questions that measure recall, like what a regulation says or doesn’t say, instead of measuring competency.

Or, you can blame ADDIE, the instructional design model. L&D consultant Jane Bozarth said instructional designers equate learner assessment with course evaluation, the E in ADDIE, and, therefore, consider assessment last instead of first. Assessment is about the learner, evaluation is about the program.

Some organizations are afraid of the truth. Maybe they’re not that confident in the effectiveness of their program because they didn’t have the budget to spend on a good instructional designer. People are passing the course, that’s enough for them.

The program relies heavily on a final exam—a summative assessment. Not enough focus is given to assessments during the course—formative assessments. Learners benefit from assessments throughout the course. Formative assessments give them a chance to practice applying new knowledge.

Assessment items are poorly written. After the course is designed, the instructional designer goes back through to pull out test items, often relying on information that is easily turned into multiple-choice questions. The learner’s knowledge and recall are tested, but not their ability to apply their new knowledge and skills in a work context.

learner assessment

Choosing the right learner assessment method

Experts suggest using Bloom’s taxonomy to match an assessment method to the level of learning being assessed. This chart provides a list of action verbs and appropriate assessment methods for each learning level.

When designing multiple choice questions, think about what a learner must do to provide the correct response and prove their mastery of the competency. Ask about decisions the learner should make or steps they should take back in the workplace. Ask them to:

•    Diagnose a situation.
•    Identify and describe a potential risk.
•    Solve a problem.
•    Compare and contrast solutions.
•    Choose the correct response to a situation they could encounter at work.

Good assessments force a learner to put their new knowledge to work and prove they know what to do with it. Six months after the course ends, learners who have passed a good assessment should still be applying their new competencies and proving to their employers the value of investing in professional development.

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