This is NOT a post about Bob Mager. It is something else entirely.

In probably the best video I will ever create, I made the case that learning professionals and learners should NOT receive the same set of learning objectives.

The rationale is this: Because objectives are designed to guide behavior, how could one statement possibly guide the behaviors of two separate audiences? Sometimes maybe! But not always!

Arguments for the Infallibility of an Instructional-Design Hero

Recently, I’ve heard it argued that Bob Mager, in his classic text, “Preparing Instructional Objectives,” urged us to create instructional objectives only for us as learning professionals, that he never intended that instructional objectives be presented to learners. This is a testable assertion, which is great! We can agree that Mager gave us some good advice on how to craft objectives for ourselves as learning professionals. But did Mager also, perhaps, suggest that objectives could be presented to learners?

Here are several word-for-word quotes from Mager’s book:

Page 16: Heading: “Goal Posts for Students

Page 16: “Clearly defined objectives also can be used to provide students with the means to organize their own time and efforts toward accomplishment of those objectives.

Page 17: “With clear objectives, it is possible to organize the instruction itself so that instructors and students alike can focus their efforts on bridging the gap…

Page 19: Chapter Summary. “Objectives are useful for providing: … Tools for guiding student efforts…

Page 43: “Objectives in the hands of students prevent the students from having to guess at how they might best organize their time and effort.

So Mager clearly started the confusion! But Mager wrote at a time before research on cognition enabled greater insight.

Forget Mager’s contribution. The big problem is that the most common practice seems to still be efforts to create a set of learning objectives to use for both learners and learning practitioners.


I was even scolded for not knowing the difference between an instructional objective (for learning professionals) and a learning objective (for learners). Of course, these revisionist definitions are not true and are not helpful. They are fake news, concocted perhaps by a person who thinks or was taught that our instructional-design heroes are perfect and their work is sacrosanct. The truth is that these terms have been used interchangeably. For example, in a research study by my mentor and academic advisor, Ernie Rothkopf, he and his research partner used the term instructional objectives to refer to objectives presented to learners.

Rothkopf, E. Z., & Kaplan, R. (1972). An exploration of the effect of density and specificity of instructional objectives on learning from text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 6, 295-302.

My Main Points

  • We need at least two types of objectives (although I’ve argued for more)—one to guide the design, development, and evaluation of learning; one to guide learners as they are learning. I’ve called these “focusing objectives,” because the research shows that they guide attention toward objective-relevant content.
  • When we make arguments, we ought to at least skim the sources to see if we know what we’re talking about.
  • We ought to stop with hero worship. All of us do some good things and some bad things. Even the best of us.
  • Hero worship in the learning field is particularly problematic because learning is so complex and we all still have so much to learn. All of us attempting to make recommendations are likely to be wrong some of the time.
  • It is ironic that our schools of instructional design teach graduate students to memorize facts and hold up heroes as infallible immortals—when instead they ought to be educating these future citizens how progress gets made over long periods of time by a large collective of people. They also ought to be teaching students to understand at a deeper level, not just a knowledge level. But truly, we can’t blame the schools of instructional design. After all, they started with canonically-correct instructional objectives (focused on low-level knowledge because they are easier to create).

Finally, let me say that in the video I praise Bob Mager’s work on learning objectives for us learning professionals. This post is not about Mager.


My Year In Review 2018—Engineering the Future of Learning Evaluation

In 2018, I shattered my collarbone and lay wasting for several months, but still, I think I had one of my best years in terms of the contributions I was able to make. This will certainly sound like hubris, and surely it is, but I can’t help but think that 2018 may go down as one of the most important years in learning evaluation’s long history. At the end of this post, I will get to my failures and regrets, but first I’d like to share just how consequential this year was in my thinking and work in learning evaluation.

It started in January when I published a decisive piece of investigative journalism showing that Donald Kirkpatrick was NOT the originator of the four-level model; that another man, Raymond Katzell, has deserved that honor all along. In February, I published a new evaluation model, LTEM (The Learning-Transfer Evaluation Model)—intended to replace the weak and harmful Kirkpatrick-Katzell Four-Level Model. Already, doctoral students are studying LTEM and organizations around the world are using LTEM to build more effective learning-evaluation strategies.

Publishing these two groundbreaking efforts would have made a great year, but because I still have so much to learn about evaluation, I was very active in exploring our practices—looking for their strengths and weaknesses. I led two research efforts (one with the eLearning Guild and one with my own organization, Work-Learning Research). The Guild research surveyed people like you and your learning-professional colleagues on their general evaluation practices. The Work-Learning Research effort focused specifically on our experiences as practitioners in surveying our learners for their feedback.

Also in 2018, I compiled and published a list of 54 common mistakes that get made in learning evaluation. I wrote an article on how to think about our business stakeholders in learning evaluation. I wrote a post on one of the biggest lies in learning evaluation—how we fool ourselves into thinking that learner feedback gives us definitive data on learning transfer and organizational results. It does not! I created a replacement for the problematic Net Promoter Score. I shared my updated smile-sheet questions, improving those originally put forth in my award winning book, Performance-Focused Smile Sheets. You can access all these publications below.

In my 2018 keynotes, conference sessions, and workshops, I recounted our decades-long frustrations in learning evaluation. We are clearly not happy with what we’ve been able to do in terms of learning evaluation. There are two reasons for this. First, learning evaluation is very complex and difficult to accomplish—doubly so given our severe resource constraints in terms of both budget and time. Second, our learning-evaluation tools are mostly substandard—enabling us to create vanity metrics but not enabling us to capture data in ways that help us, as learning professionals, make our most important decisions.

In 2019, I will continue my work in learning evaluation. I still have so much to unravel. If you see a bit of wisdom related to learning evaluation, please let me know.

Will’s Top Fifteen Publications for 2018

Let me provide a quick review of the top things I wrote this year:

  1. LTEM (The Learning-Transfer Evaluation Model)
    Although published by me in 2018, the model and accompanying 34-page report originated in work begun in 2016 and through the generous and brilliant feedback I received from Julie Dirksen, Clark Quinn, Roy Pollock, Adam Neaman, Yvon Dalat, Emma Weber, Scott Weersing, Mark Jenkins, Ingrid Guerra-Lopez, Rob Brinkerhoff, Trudy Mandeville, and Mike Rustici—as well as from attendees in the 2017 ISPI Design-Thinking conference and the 2018 Learning Technologies conference in London. LTEM is designed to replace the Kirkpatrick-Katzell Four-Level Model originally formulated in the 1950s. You can learn about the new model by clicking here.
  2. Raymond Katzell NOT Donald Kirkpatrick
    Raymond Katzell originated the Four-Level Model. Although Donald Kirkpatrick embraced accolades for the Four-Level Model, it turns out that Raymond Katzell was the true originator. I did an exhaustive investigation and offered a balanced interpretation of the facts. You can read the original piece by clicking here. Interestingly, none of our trade associations have reported on this finding. Why is that? LOL
  3. When Training Pollutes. Our Responsibility to Lessen the Environmental Damage of Training
    I wrote an article and placed it on LinkedIn and as far as I can tell, very few of us really want to think about this. But you can get started by reading the article (by clicking here).
  4. Fifty-Four Mistakes in Learning Evaluation
    Of course we as an industry make mistakes in learning evaluation, but who knew we made so many? I began compiling the list because I’d seen a good number of poor practices and false narratives about what is important in learning evaluation, but by the time I’d gotten my full list I was a bit dumbstruck by the magnitude of problem. I’ve come to believe that we are still in the dark ages of learning evaluation and we need a renaissance. This article will give you some targets for improvements. Click here to read it.
  5. New Research on Learning Evaluation — Conducted with The eLearning Guild
    The eLearning Guild and Dr. Jane Bozarth (the Guild’s Director of Research) asked me to lead a research effort to determine what practitioners in the learning/elearning field are thinking and doing in terms of learning evaluation. In a major report released about a month ago, we reveal findings on how people feel about the learning measurement they are able to do, the support they get from their organizations, and their feelings about their current level of evaluation competence. You can read a blog post I wrote highlighting one result from the report—that a full 40% of us are unhappy with what we are able to do in terms of learning evaluation. You can access the full report here (if you’re a Guild member) and an executive summary. Also, stay tuned to my blog or signup for my newsletter to see future posts about our findings.
  6. Current Practices in Gathering Learner Feedback
    We at Work-Learning Research, Inc. conducted a survey focused on gathering learner feedback (i.e., smile sheets, reaction forms, learner surveys) that spanned 2017 and 2018. Since the publication of my book, Performance-Focused Smile Sheets: A Radical Rethinking of a Dangerous Art Form, I’ve spent a ton of time helping organizations build more effective learner surveys and gauging common practices in the workplace learning field. This research survey continued that work. To read my exhaustive report, click here.
  7. One of the Biggest Lies in Learning Evaluation — Asking Learners about Level 3 and 4 (LTEM Tiers 7 and 8)
    This is big! One of the biggest lies in learning evaluation. It’s a lie we like to tell ourselves and a lie our learning-evaluation vendors like to tell us. If we ask our learners questions that relate to their job performance or the organizational impact of our learning programs we are NOT measuring at Kirkpatrick-Katzell Level 3 or 4 (or at LTEM Tiers 7 and 8), we are measuring at Level 1 and LTEM Tier 3. You can read this refutation here.
  8. Who Will Rule Our Conferences? Truth or Bad-Faith Vendors?
    What do you want from the trade organizations in the learning field? Probably “accurate information” is high on your list. But what happens when the information you get is biased and untrustworthy? Could. Never. Happen. Right? Read this article to see how bias might creep in.
  9. Snake Oil. The Story of Clark Stanley as Preface to Clark Quinn’s Excellent Book
    This was one of my favorite pieces of writing in 2018. Did I ever mention that I love writing and would consider giving this all up for a career as a writer? You’ve all heard of “snake oil” but if you don’t know where the term originated, you really ought to read this piece.
  10. Dealing with the Emotional Readiness of Our Learners — My Ski Accident Reflections
    I had a bad accident on the ski slopes in February this year and I got thinking about how our learners might not always be emotionally ready to learn. I don’t have answers in this piece, just reflections, which you can read about here.
  11. The Backfire Effect. Not the Big Worry We Thought it was (for Those Who Would Debunk Learning Myths)
    This article is for those interested in debunking and persuasion. The Backfire Effect was the finding that trying to persuade someone to stop believing a falsehood, might actually make them more inclined to believe the falsehood. The good news is that new research showed that this worry might be overblown. You can read more about this here (if you dare to be persuaded).
  12. Updated Smile-Sheet Questions for 2018
    I published a set of learner-survey questions in my 2016 book, and have been working with clients to use these questions and variations on these questions for over two years since then. I’ve learned a thing or two and so I published some improvements early last year. You can see those improvements here. And note, for 2019, I’ll be making additional improvements—so stay tuned! Remember, you can sign up to be notified of my news here.
  13. Replacement for NPS (The Net Promoter Score)
    NPS is all the rage. Still! Unfortunately, it’s a terribly bad question to include on a learner survey. The good news is that now there is an alternative, which you can see here.
  14. Neon Elephant Award for 2018 to Clark Quinn
    Every year, I give an award for a great research-to-practice contribution in the workplace learning field. This year’s winner is Clark Quinn. See why he won and check out his excellent resources here.
  15. New Debunker Club Website
    The Debunker Club is a group of people who have committed to debunking myths in the learning field and/or sharing research-based information. In 2018, working with a great team of volunteers, we revamped the Debunker Club website to help build a community of debunkers. We now have over 800 members from around the world. You can learn more about why The Debunker Club exists by clicking here. Also, feel free to join us!


My Final Reflections on 2018

I’m blessed to be supported by smart passionate clients and by some of the smartest friends and colleagues in the learning field. My Work-Learning Research practice turned 20 years old in 2018. Being a consultant—especially one who focuses on research-to-practice in the workplace learning field—is still a challenging yet emotionally rewarding endeavor. In 2018, I turned my attention almost fully to learning evaluation. You can read about my two-path evaluation approach here. One of my research surveys totally flopped this year. It was focused on the interface between us (as learning professionals) and our organizations’ senior leadership. I wanted to know if what we thought senior leadership wanted was what they actually wanted. Unfortunately, neither I nor any of the respondents could entice a senior leader to comment. Not one! If you or your organization has access to senior managers, I’d love to partner with you on this! Let me know. Indeed, this doesn’t even have to be research. If your CEO would be willing to trade his/her time letting me ask a few questions in exchange for my time answering questions about learning, elearning, learning evaluation, etc., I’d be freakin’ delighted! I failed this year in working out a deal with another evaluation-focused organization to merge our efforts. I was bummed about this failure as the synergies would have been great. I also failed in 2018 to cure myself of the tendency to miss important emails. If you ever can’t get in touch with me, try, try again! Thanks and apologies! I had a blast in 2018 speaking and keynoting at conferences—both big and small conferences. From doing variations on the Learning-Research Quiz Show (a rollicking good time) to talking about innovations in learning evaluation to presenting workshops on my learning-evaluation methods and the LTEM model. Good stuff, if a ton of work. Oh! I did fail again in 2018 turning my workshops into online workshops. I hope to do better in 2019. I also failed in 2018 in finishing up a research review of the training transfer research. I’m like 95% done, but still haven’t had a chance to finish.

2018 broke my body, made me unavailable for a couple of months, but overall, it turned out to be a pretty damn good year. 2019 looks promising too as I have plans to continue working on learning evaluation. It’s kind of interesting that we are still in the dark ages of learning evaluation. We as an industry, and me as a person, have a ton more to learn about learning evaluation. I plan to continue the journey. Please feel free to reach out and let me know what I can learn from you and your organization. And of course, because I need to pay the rent, let me say that I’d be delighted if you wanted me to help you or your organization. You can reach me through the Work-Learning Research contact form.

Thanks for reading and being interested in my work!!!

On August 25th 1998, Work-Learning Research was officially born in Portland, Maine, in the United States of America. Please help me celebrate an eventful 20 years!!

In lieu of a big birthday-party bash, I’d like to offer some thanks, brag a little, and invite you to leave a comment below if my work has touched you in any beneficial ways.

If you want a history of the early years, that’s already written here.

I set out 20 years ago to help bridge the gap between scientific research and practice. I had some naive views about how easy that would be, but I’ve tried over the years to compile research from top-tier scientific journals on learning, memory, and instruction and translate what I find into practical recommendations for learning professionals—particularly for those in the workplace learning field. I haven’t done even one-tenth of what I thought I could do, but I see only a little harm in keeping at it.


I have a ton of people to thank for enabling me to persevere. First, my wife, who has been more than patient. Second, my daughter who, still in her mid-teens, brings me hope for the future. Also, my parents and family who have built a foundation of values and strength. A great deal of credit goes to my clients who, let’s face it, pay the bills and enable this operation to continue. Special thanks for the 227 people who sponsored my Kickstarter campaign to get my smile-sheet book published. Thanks also for the other research-to-practice professionals who are there with ideas, feedback, inspiration, and support. Thanks go out to all those who care about research-based work and evidence-based practice. I thank you for standing up for learning practices that work!


I’ve made a ton of mistakes as a entrepreneur/consultant, but I’m really proud of a few things, so permit me a moment of hubris to share what they are:

  1. Work-Learning Research has freakin’ survived 20 years!! As the legendary Red Sox radio announcer Joe Castiglione might say, “Can you believe it?”
  2. I have avoided selling out. While vendors regularly approach me asking for research or writing that will publicly praise their offerings, I demur.
  3. I published a book that added a fundamental innovation to the workplace learning field. Performance-Focused Smile Sheets will be, in my not-so-humble opinion, an historic text. I’m also proud that 227 people in our field stood up and contributed $13,614 to help me get the book published!
  4. I was talking about fundamental research-based concepts like retrieval practice and spacing back in the early 2000’s, over ten years before books like Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel (2014) popularized these concepts, and I continue to emphasize fundamental learning factors because they matter the most.
  5. I have developed a new Learning Evaluation model (LTEM) that enables us to abandon the problematic Kirkpatrick-Katzell Four-Level Model of Evaluation.
  6. I have developed a number of extremely useful models and frameworks, including the Learning Maximizers Model, the Learning Landscape Model, the SEDA Model, the Decisive Dozen, etc.
  7. I have pioneered methods to overcome the limitations of multiple-choice tests, specifically enabling multiple-choice tests to overcome its recognition-only problem.
  8. I have created a robust catalog of publications, blog posts, and videos that share research-based practical wisdom.
  9. I have, at least a little bit, encouraged people in our field to be more skeptical and more careful and to be less inclined to buy into some of the biggest myths in the learning field. I’m attempting now to reinvigorate the Debunker.Club to enable those who care about research-based practice to support each other.
  10. I have, in a small way (not as much as I wish I could) attempted to speak truth to power.
  11. I have, I hope at least a little bit, supported other research-to-practice advocates and thought leaders.
  12. I have had the honor of helping many clients and organizations, including notable engagements with The Navy Seals, the Defense Intelligence Agency, Bloomberg, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Walgreens, ADP, Oxfam, Practising Law Institute, U.S. National Park Service, Society of Actuaries, the Kauffman Foundation, ISPI, the eLearning Guild, ATD, and Learning Technologies among many others.
  13. To make it a baker’s dozen, let me say I’m also proud that I’ve still got things I want to do…

Celebrate with Me!

While I would have loved to host a big party and invited you all, in lieu of that dream, I invite you to leave a comment.

Thank you for embracing me and my work for so many years!

Maybe it’s weird that I’m leading the celebration. Maybe it seems sad! Let me just say, f*ck that! The world doesn’t hand out accolades to most of us. We have to do our own work and celebrate where we can! I’m happy it’s Work-Learning Research’s 20 anniversary. I invite you to be happy with me!

I am truly grateful…

One more thing… the official anniversary is in a week, when I’ll be pleasantly lost in a family vacation… Apologies if I can’t respond quickly if you leave a note below!


Donald Kirkpatrick (1924-2014) was a giant in the workplace learning and development field, widely known for creating the four-level model of learning evaluation. Evidence however contradicts this creation myth and points to Raymond Katzell, a distinguished industrial-organizational psychologist, as the true originator. This, of course, does not diminish Don Kirkpatrick’s contribution to framing and popularizing the four-level framework of learning evaluation.

The Four-Levels Creation Myth

The four-level model is traditionally traced back to a series of four articles Donald Kirkpatrick wrote in 1959 and 1960, each article covering one of the four levels, Reaction, Learning, Behavior, Results. These articles were published in the magazine of ASTD (then called the American Society of Training Directors). Here’s a picture of the first page of the first article:

In June of 1977, ASTD (known by then as the American Society of Training and Development, now ATD, the Association for Talent Development) reissued Kirkpatrick’s original four articles, combining them into one article in the Training and Development Journal. The story has always been that it was those four articles that introduced the world to the four-level model of training evaluation.

In 1994, in the first edition of his book, Evaluating Training Programs: The Four Levels, Donald Kirkpatrick wrote:

“In 1959, I wrote a series of four articles called ‘Techniques for Evaluating Training Programs,’ published in Training and Development, the journal of the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD). The articles described the four levels of evaluation that I had formulated. I am not sure where I got the idea for this model, but the concept originated with work on my Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.” (p. xiii). [Will’s Note: Kirkpatrick was slightly inaccurate here. At the time of his four articles, the initials ASTD stood for the American Society of Training Directors and the four articles were published in the Journal of the American Society of Training Directors. This doesn’t diminish Kirkpatrick’s central point: that he was the person who formulated the four levels of learning evaluation].

In 2011, in a tribute to Dr. Kirkpatrick, he is asked about how he came up with the four levels. This is what he said in that video tribute:

“[after I finished my dissertation in 1954], between 54 and 59 I did some research on behavior and results. I went into companies. I found out are you using what you learned and if so what can you show any evidence of productivity or quality or more sales or anything from it. So I did some research and then in 1959 Bob Craig, editor of the ASTD journal, called me and said, ‘Don, I understand you’ve done some research on evaluation would you write an article?’ I said, ‘Bob, I’ll tell you what I’ll do, I’ll write four articles, one on reaction, one on learning, one on behavior, and one on results.'”

In 2014, when asked to reminisce on his legacy, Dr. Kirkpatrick said this:

“When I developed the four levels in the 1950s, I had no idea that they would turn into my legacy. I simply needed a way to determine if the programs I had developed for managers and supervisors were successful in helping them perform better on the job. No models available at that time quite fit the bill, so I created something that I thought was useful, implemented it, and wrote my dissertation about it.” (Quote from blog post published January 22, 2014).

As recently as this month (January 2018), on the Kirkpatrick Partners website, the following is written:

“Don was the creator of the Kirkpatrick Model, the most recognized and widely used training evaluation model in the world. The four levels were developed in the writing of his Ph.D. dissertation, Evaluating a Human Relations Training Program for Supervisors.

Despite these public pronouncements, Kirkpatrick’s legendary 1959-1960 articles were not the first published evidence of a four-level evaluation approach.

Raymond Katzell’s Four-Step Framework of Evaluation

In an article written by Donald Kirkpatrick in 1956, the following “steps” were laid out and were attributed to “Raymond Katzell, a well known authority in the field [of training evaluation].”

  1. To determine how the trainees feel about the program.
  2. To determine how much the trainees learn in the form of increased knowledge and understanding.
  3. To measure the changes in the on-the-job behavior of the trainees.
  4. To determine the effects of these behavioral changes on objective criteria such as production, turnover, absenteeism, and waste.

These four steps are the same as Kirkpatrick’s four levels, except there are no labels.

Raymond Katzell went on to a long and distinguished career as an industrial-organizational psychologist, even winning the Society for Industrial and Organizational Performance’s Distinguished Scientific Contributions award.

Raymond Katzell. Picture used by SIOP (Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology) when they talk about The Raymond A. Katzell Media Award in I-O Psychology.

The first page of Kirkpatrick’s 1956 article—written three years before his famous 1959 introduction to the four levels—is pictured below:

And here is a higher-resolution view of the quote from that front page, regarding Katzell’s contribution:

So Donald Kirkpatrick mentions Katzell’s four-step model in 1956, but not in 1959 when he—Kirkpatrick—introduces the four labels in his classic set of four articles.

It Appears that Kirkpatrick Never Mentions Katzell’s Four Steps Again

As far I can tell, after searching for and examining many publications, Donald Kirkpatrick never mentioned Katzell’s four steps after his 1956 article.

Three years after the 1956 article, Kirkpatrick did not mention Katzell’s taxonomy when he wrote his four famous articles in 1959. He did mention an unrelated article where Katzell was a co-author (Merrihue & Katzell, 1955), but he did not mention Katzell’s four steps.

Neither did Kirkpatrick mention Katzell in his 1994 book, Evaluating Training Programs: The Four Levels.

Nor did Kirkpatrick mention Katzell in the third edition of the book, written with Jim Kirkpatrick, his son.

Nor was Katzell mentioned in a later version of the book written by Jim and Wendy Kirkpatrick in 2016. I spoke with Jim and Wendy recently (January 2018), and they seemed as surprised as I was about the 1956 article and about Raymond Katzell.

Nor did Donald Kirkpatrick mention Katzell in any of the interviews he did to mark the many anniversaries of his original 1959-1960 articles.

To summarize, Katzell, despite coming up with the four-step taxonomy of learning evaluation, was only given credit by Kirkpatrick once, in the 1956 article, three years prior to the articles that introduced the world to the Kirkpatrick Model’s four labels.

Kirkpatrick’s Dissertation

Kirkpatrick did not introduce the four-levels in his 1954 dissertation. There is not even a hint at a four-level framework.

In his dissertation, Kirkpatrick cited two publications by Katzell. The first, was an article from 1948, “Testing a Training Program in Human Relations.” That article studies the effect of leadership training, but makes no mention of Katzell’s four steps. It does, however, hint at the value of measuring on-the-job performance, in this case the value of leadership behaviors. Katzell writes, “Ideally, a training program of this sort [a leadership training program] should be evaluated in terms of the on-the-job behavior of those with whom the trainees come in contact.

The second Katzell article cited by Kirkpatrick in his dissertation was an article entitled, “Can We Evaluate Training?” from 1952. Unfortunately, it was a mimeographed article published by the Industrial Management Institute at the University of Wisconsin, and seems to be lost to history. Even after several weeks of effort (in late 2017), the University of Wisconsin Archives could not locate the article. Interestingly, in a 1955 publication entitled, “Monthly Checklist of State Publications” a subtitle was added to Katzell’s Can We Evaluate Training? The subtitle was:A summary of a one day Conference for Training Managers” from April 23, 1952.

To be clear, Kirkpatrick did not mention the four levels in his 1954 dissertation. The four levels notion came later.

How I Learned about Katzell’s Contribution

I’ve spent the last several years studying learning evaluation, and as part of these efforts, I decided to find Kirkpatrick’s original four articles and reread them. ATD (The Association for Talent Development) in 2017 had a wonderful archive of the articles it had published over the years. As I searched for “Kirkpatrick,” several other articles—besides the famous four—came up, including the 1956 article. I was absolutely freaking stunned when I read it. Donald Kirkpatrick had cited Katzell as the originator of the four level notion!!!

I immediately began searching for more information on the Kirkpatrick-Katzell connection and found that I wasn’t the first person to uncover the connection. I found an article by Stephen Smith who acknowledged Kazell’s contribution in 2008, also in an ASTD publication. I communicated with Smith recently (December 2017) and he had nothing but kind words to say about Donald Kirkpatrick, who he said coached him on training evaluations. Here is a graphic taken directly from Smith’s 2008 article:

Smith’s article was not focused on Katzell’s contribution to the four levels, which is probably why it wasn’t more widely cited. In 2011, Cynthia Lewis wrote a dissertation and directly compared the Katzell and Kirkpatrick formulations. She appears to have learned about Katzell’s contribution from Smith’s 2008 article. Lewis’s (2011) comparison chart is reproduced below:

In 2004, four years before Smith wrote his article with the Katzell sidebar, ASTD republished Kirkpatrick’s 1956 article—the one in which Kirkpatrick acknowledges Katzell’s four steps. Here is the front page of that article:

In 2016, an academic article appeared in a book that referred to the Katzell-Kirkpatrick connection. The book is only available in French and the article appears to have had little impact in the English-speaking learning field. Whereas neither Kirkpatrick’s 2004 reprint nor Smith’s 2008 article offered commentary about Katzell’s contribution except to acknowledge it, Bouteiller, Cossette, & Bleau (2016) were clear in stating that Katzell deserves to be known as the person who conceptualized the four levels of training evaluation, while Kirkpatrick should get credit for popularizing it. The authors also lamented that Kirkpatrick, who himself recognized Katzell as the father of the four-level model of evaluation in his 1956 article, completely ignored Katzell for the next 55 years and declared himself in all his books and on his website as the sole inventor of the model. I accessed their chapter through Google Scholar and used Google Translate to make sense of it. I also followed up with two of the authors (Bouteiller and Cossette in January 2018) to confirm I was understanding their messaging clearly.

Is There Evidence of a Transgression?

Raymond Katzell seems to be the true originator of the four-level framework of learning evaluation and yet Donald Kirkpatrick on multiple occasions claimed to be the creator of the four-level model.

Of course, we can never know the full story. Kirkpatrick and Katzell are dead. Perhaps Katzell willingly gave his work away. Perhaps Kirkpatrick asked Katzell if he could use it. Perhaps Kirkpatrick cited Katzell because he wanted to bolster the credibility of a framework he developed himself. Perhaps Kirkpatrick simply forgot Katzell’s four steps when he went on to write his now-legendary 1959-1960 articles. This last explanation may seem a bit forced given that Kirkpatrick referred to the Merrihue and Katzell work in the last of his four articles—and we might expect that the name “Katzell” would trigger memories of Katzell’s four steps, especially given that Katzell was cited by Kirkpatrick as a “well known authority.” This forgetting hypothesis also doesn’t explain why Kirkpatrick would continue to fail to acknowledge Katzell’s contribution after ASTD republished Kirkpatrick’s 1956 article in 2004 or after Steven Smith’s 2008 article showed Katzell’s four steps. Smith was well-known to Kirkpatrick and is likely to have at least mentioned his article to Kirkpatrick.

We can’t know for certain what transpired, but we can analyze the possibilities. Plagiarism means that we take another person’s work and claim it as our own. Plagiarism, then, has two essential features (see this article for details). First, an idea or creation is copied in some way. Second, no attribution is offered. That is, no credit is given to the originator. Kirkpatrick had clear contact with the essential features of Katzell’s four-level framework. He wrote about them in 1956! This doesn’t guarantee that he copied them intentionally. He could have generated the four levels subconsciously, without knowing that Katzell’s ideas were influencing his thinking. Alternatively, he could have spontaneously created them without any influence from Katzell’s ideas. People often generate similar ideas when the stimuli they encounter are similar. How many people claim that they invented the term, “email?” Plagiarism does not require intent, but intentional plagiarism is generally considered a higher-level transgression than sloppy scholarship.

A personal example of how easy it is to think you invented something: In the 1990’s or early 2000’s, I searched for just the right words to explain a concept. I wrangled on it for several weeks. Finally, I came up with the perfect wording, with just the right connotation. “Retrieval Practice.” It was better than the prevailing terminology at the time—the testing effect—because people could retrieve without being tested. Eureka I thought! Brilliant I thought! It was several years later, rereading Robert Bjork’s 1988 article, “Retrieval practice and the maintenance of knowledge,” that I realized that my label was not original to me, and that even if I did generate it without consciously thinking of Bjork’s work, that my previous contact with the term “retrieval practice” almost certainly influenced my creative construction.

The second requirement for plagiarism is that the original creator is not given credit. This is evident in the case of the four levels of learning evaluation. Donald Kirkpatrick never mentioned Katzell after 1956. He certainly never mentioned Katzell when it would have been most appropriate, for example when he first wrote about the four levels in 1959, when he first published a book on the four levels in 1994, and when he received awards for the four levels.

Finally, one comment may be telling, Kirkpatrick’s statement from his 1994 book: “I am not sure where I got the idea for this model, but the concept originated with work on my Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.” The statement seems to suggest that Kirkpatrick recognized that there was a source for the four-level model—a source that was not Kirkpatrick himself.

Here is the critical timeline:

  • Katzell was doing work on learning evaluation as early at 1948.
  • Kirkpatrick’s 1954 dissertation offers no trace of a four-part learning-evaluation framework.
  • In 1956, the first reference to a four-part learning evaluation framework was offered by Kirkpatrick and attributed to Raymond Katzell.
  • In 1959, the first mention of the Kirkpatrick terminology (i.e., Reaction, Learning, Behavior, Results) was published, but Katzell was not credited.
  • In 1994, Kirkpatrick published his book on the four levels, saying specifically that he formulated the four levels. He did not mention Katzell’s contribution.
  • In 2004, Kirkpatrick’s 1956 article was republished, repeating Kirkpatrick’s acknowledgement that Katzell invented the four-part framework of learning evaluation.
  • In 2008, Smith published the article where he cited Katzell’s contribution.
  • In 2014, Kirkpatrick claimed to have developed the four levels in the 1950s.
  • As far as I’ve been able to tell—corroborated by Bouteiller, Cossette, & Bleau (2016)—Donald Kirkpatrick never mentioned Katzell’s four-step formulation after 1956.

Judge Not Too Quickly

I have struggled writing this article, and have rewritten it dozens of times. I shared an earlier version with four trusted colleagues in the learning field and asked them if I was being fair. I’ve searched exhaustively for source documents. I reached out to key players to see if I was missing something.

It is not a trifle to curate evidence that impacts other people’s reputations. It is a sacred responsibility. I as the writer have the most responsibility, but you as a reader have a responsibility too to weigh the evidence and make your own judgments.

First we should not be too quick to judge. We simply don’t know why Donald Kirkpatrick never mentioned Katzell after the original 1956 article. Indeed, perhaps he did mention Katzell in his workshops and teachings. We just don’t know.

Here are some distinct possibilities:

  • Perhaps Katzell and Kirkpatrick had an agreement that Kirkpatrick could write about the four levels. Let’s remember the 1959-1960 articles were not written to boost Kirkpatrick’s business interests. He didn’t have any business interests at that time—he was an employee—and his writing seemed aimed specifically at helping others do better evaluation.
  • Perhaps Kirkpatrick, being a young man without much of résumé in 1956, had developed a four-level framework but felt he needed to cite Katzell in 1956 to add credibility to his own ideas. Perhaps later in 1959 he dropped this false attribution to give himself the credit he deserved.
  • Perhaps Kirkpatrick felt that citing Katzell once was enough. Where many academics and researchers see plagiarism as one of the deadly sins, others have not been acculturated into the strongest form of this ethos. Let’s remember that in 1959 Kirkpatrick was not intending to create a legendary meme, he was just writing some articles. Perhaps at the time it didn’t seem important to acknowledge Katzell’s contribution. I don’t mean to dismiss this lightly. All of us are raised to believe in fairness and giving credit where credit is due. Indeed, research suggests that even the youngest infants have a sense of fairness. Kirkpatrick earned his doctorate at a prestigious research university. He should have been aware of the ethic of attribution, but perhaps because the 1959-1960 articles seemed so insignificant at the time, it didn’t seem important to site Katzell.
  • Perhaps Kirkpatrick intended to cite Katzell’s contribution in his 1959-1960 articles but the journal editor talked him out of it or disallowed it.
  • Perhaps Kirkpatrick realized that Katzell’s four steps were simply not resonant enough to be important. Let’s admit that Kirkpatrick’s framing of the four levels into the four labels was a brilliant marketing masterstroke. If Kirkpatrick believed this, he might have seen Katzell’s contribution as minimal and not deserving of acknowledgement.
  • Perhaps Kirkpatrick completely forget Katzell’s four-step taxonomy. Perhaps it didn’t influence him when he created his four labels, that he didn’t think of Katzell’s contribution when he wrote about Katzell’s article with Merrihue, that for the rest of his life he never remembered Katzell’s formulation, that he never saw the 2004 reprinting of his 1956 article, that he never saw Smith’s 2008 article, and that he never talked with Smith about Katzell’s work even though Smith has claimed a working relationship. Admittedly, this last possibility seems unlikely.

Let us also not judge Jim and Wendy Kirkpatrick, proprietors of Kirkpatrick Partners, a global provider of learning-evaluation workshops and consulting. None of this is on them! They were genuinely surprised to hear the news when I told them. They seemed to have no idea about Katzell or his contribution. What is past is past, and Jim and Wendy bear no responsibility for the history recounted here. What they do henceforth is their responsibility. Already, since we spoke last week, they have updated their website to acknowledge Katzell’s contribution!

Article Update (two days after original publication of this article): Yesterday, on the 31st of January 2018, Jim and Wendy Kirkpatrick posted a blog entry (copied here for the historic record) that admitted Katzell’s contribution but ignored Donald Kirkpatrick’s failure to acknowledge Katzell’s contribution as the originator of the four-level concept.

What about our trade associations and their responsibilities? It seems that ASTD bears a responsibility for their actions over the years, not only as the American Society of Training Directors who published the 1959-1960 articles without insisting that Katzell be acknowledged even though they themselves had published the 1956 articles where Katzell’s four-step framework was included on the first page; but also as the American Society of Training and Development who republished Kirkpatrick’s 1956 article in 2004 and republished the 1959-1960 articles in 1977. Recently rebranded as ATD (Association for Talent Development), the organization should now make amends. Other trade associations should also help set the record straight by acknowledging Katzell’s contribution to the four-level model of learning evaluation.

Donald Kirkpatrick’s Enduring Contribution

Regardless of who invented the four-level model of evaluation, it was Donald Kirkpatrick who framed it to perfection with the four labels and popularized it, helping it spread worldwide throughout the workplace learning and performance field.

As I have communicated elsewhere, I think the four-level model has issues—that it sends messages about learning evaluation that are not helpful.

On the other hand, the four-level model has been instrumental in pushing the field toward a focus on performance improvement. This shift—away from training as our sole responsibility, toward a focus on how to improve on-the-job performance—is one of the most important paradigm shifts in the long history of workplace learning. Kirkpatrick’s popularization of the four levels enabled us—indeed, it pushed us—to see the importance of focusing on work outcomes. For this, we owe Donald Kirkpatrick a debt of gratitude.

And we owe Raymond Katzell our gratitude as well. Not only did he originate the four levels, but he also put forth the idea that it was valuable to measure the impact learners have on their organizations.

What Should We Do Now?

What now is our responsibility as workplace learning professionals? What is ethical? The preponderance of the evidence points to Katzell as the originator of the four levels and Donald Kirkpatrick as the creator of the four labels (Reaction, Learning, Behavior, Results) and the person responsible for the popularization of the four levels. Kirkpatrick himself in 1956 acknowledged Katzell’s contribution, so it seems appropriate that we acknowledge it too.

Should we call them Katzell’s Four Levels of Evaluation? Or, the Katzell-Kirkpatrick Four Levels? I can’t answer this question for you, but it seems that we should acknowledge that Katzell was the first to consider a four-part taxonomy for learning evaluation.

For me, for the foreseeable future, I will either call it the Kirkpatrick Model and then explain that Raymond Katzell was the originator of the four levels, or I’ll simply call it the Kirkpatrick-Katzell Model.

Indeed, I think in fairness to both men—Kirkpatrick for the powerful framing of his four labels and his exhaustive efforts to popularize the model and Katzell for the original formulation—I recommend that we call it the Kirkpatrick-Katzell Four-Level Model of Training Evaluation. Or simply, the Kirkpatrick-Katzell Model.

Research Cited

Bjork, R. A. (1988). Retrieval practice and the maintenance of knowledge. In M. M. Gruneberg, P. E. Morris, R. N. Sykes (Eds.), Practical Aspects of Memory: Current Research and Issues, Vol. 1., Memory in Everyday Life (pp. 396-401). NY: Wiley.

Bouteiller, D., Cossette, M., & Bleau, M-P. (2016). Modèle d’évaluation de la formation de Kirkpatrick: retour sur les origins et mise en perspective. Dans M. Lauzier et D. Denis (éds.), Accroître le transfert des apprentissages: Vers de nouvelles connaissances, pratiques et expériences. Presses de l’Université du Québec, Chapitre 10, 297-339. [In English: Bouteiller, D., Cossette, M., & Bleau, M-P. (2016). Kirkpatrick training evaluation model: back to the origins and put into perspective. In M. Lauzier and D. Denis (eds.), Increasing the Transfer of Learning: Towards New Knowledge, Practices and Experiences. Presses de l’Université du Québec, Chapter 10, 297-339.]

Katzell, R. A. (1948). Testing a training program in human relations. Personnel Psychology, 1, 319-329.

Katzell, R. A. (1952). Can we evaluate training? A summary of a one day conference for training managers. A publication of the Industrial Management Institute, University of Wisconsin, April, 1952.

Kirkpatrick, D. L. (1956). How to start an objective evaluation of your training program. Journal of the American Society of Training Directors, 10, 18-22.

Kirkpatrick, D. L. (1959a). Techniques for evaluating training programs. Journal of the American Society of Training Directors, 13(11), 3-9.

Kirkpatrick, D. L. (1959b). Techniques for evaluating training programs: Part 2—Learning. Journal of the American Society of Training Directors, 13(12), 21-26.

Kirkpatrick, D. L. (1960a). Techniques for evaluating training programs: Part 3—Behavior. Journal of the American Society of Training Directors, 14(1), 13-18.

Kirkpatrick, D. L. (1960b). Techniques for evaluating training programs: Part 4—Results. Journal of the American Society of Training Directors, 14(2), 28-32.

Kirkpatrick, D. L. (1956-2004). A T+D classic: How to start an objective evaluation of your training program. T+D, 58(5), 1-3.

Lewis, C. J. (2011). A study of the impact of the workplace learning function on organizational excellence by examining the workplace learning practices of six Malcolm Baldridge Quality Award recipients. San Diego: CA. Available at

Merrihue, W. V., & Katzell, R. A. (1955). ERI: Yardstick of employee relations. Harvard Business Review, 33, 91-99.

Salas, E., Tannenbaum, S. I., Kraiger, K., & Smith-Jentsch, K. A. (2012). The science of training and development in organizations: What matters in practice. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 13(2), 74–101.

Smith, S. (2008). Why follow levels when you can build bridges? T+D, September 2008, 58-62.





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This week, on March 19th, Wednesday at 10:45 AM, Will Thalheimer (that's me) will be speaking on Subscription Learning at the eLearning Guild's Learning Solutions Conference.

300 people are expected to attend, so come early for your seat!!

Details: Learning Solutions Featured Session F2

Slides for the session

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Nullam dictum felis eu pede mollis pretium. Integer tincidunt. Cras dapibus. Vivamus elementum semper nisi. Aenean vulputate eleifend tellus. Aenean leo ligula, porttitor eu, consequat vitae, eleifend ac, enim. Aliquam lorem ante, dapibus in, viverra quis, feugiat a, tellus.

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