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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!!!

Respondents

Over 200 learning professionals responded to Work-Learning Research’s 2017-2018 survey on current practices in gathering learner feedback, and today I will reveal the results. The survey ran from November 29th, 2017 to September 16th, 2018. The sample of respondents was drawn from Work-Learning Research’s mailing list and through extensive calls for participation in a variety of social media. Because of this sampling methodology, the survey results are likely skewed toward professionals who care and/or pay attention to research-based practice recommendations more than the workplace learning field as a whole. They are also likely more interested and experienced in learning evaluation as well.

Feel free to share this link with others.

Goal of the Research

The goal of the research was to determine what people are doing in the way of evaluating their learning interventions through the practice of asking learners for their perspectives.

Questions the Research Hoped to Answer

  1. Are smile sheets (learner-feedback questions) still the most common method of doing learning evaluation?
  2. How does their use compare with other methods? Are other methods growing in prominence/use?
  3. How satisfied are learning professionals with their organizations’ learner-feedback methods?
  4. To what extent are organizations looking for alternatives to their current learner-feedback methods?
  5. What kinds of questions are used on smile sheets? Has Thalheimer’s new approach, performance-focused questioning, gained any traction?
  6. What do learning professionals think their current smile sheets are good at measuring (Satisfaction, Reputation, Effectiveness, Nothing)?
  7. What tools are organizations using to gather learner feedback?
  8. How useful are current learner-feedback questions in helping guide improvements in learning design and delivery?
  9. How widely are the target metrics of LTEM (The Learning-Transfer Evaluation Model) currently being measured?

A summary of the findings indexed to these questions can be found at the end of this post.

Situating the Practice of Gathering Learner Feedback

When we gather feedback from learners, we are using a Tier 3 methodology on the LTEM (Learning-Transfer Evaluation Model) or Level 1 on the Kirkpatrick-Katzell Four-Level Model of Training Evaluation.

Demographic Background of Respondents

Respondents came from a wide range of organizations, including small, midsize, and large organizations.

Respondents play a wide range of roles in the learning field.

Most respondents live in the United States and Canada, but there was some significant representation from many predominantly English-speaking countries.

Learner-Feedback Findings

About 67% of respondents report that learners are asked about their perceptions on more than half of their organization’s learning programs, including elearning. Only about 22% report that they survey learners on less than half of their learning programs. This finding is consistent with past findings—surveying learners is the most common form of learning evaluation and is widely practiced.

The two most common question types in use are Likert-like questions and numeric-scale questions. I have argued against their use* and I am pleased that Performance-Focused Smile Sheet questions have been utilized by so many so quickly. Of course, this sample of respondents is comprised of folks on my mailing list so this result surely doesn’t represent current practice in the field as a whole. Not yet! LOL.

*Likert-like questions and numeric-scale questions are problematic for several reasons. First, because they offer fuzzy response choices, learners have a difficult time deciding between them and this likely makes their responses less precise. Second, such fuzziness may inflate bias as there are not concrete anchors to minimize biasing effects of the question stems. Third, Likert-like options and numeric scales likely deflate learner responding because learners are habituated to such scales and because they may be skeptical that data from such scales will actually be useful. Finally, Likert-like options and numeric scales produce indistinct results—averages all in the same range. Such results are difficult to assess, failing to support decision-making—the whole purpose for evaluation in the first place. To learn more, check out Performance-Focused Smile Sheets: A Radical Rethinking of a Dangerous Art Form (book website here).

The most common tools used to gather feedback from learners were paper surveys and SurveyMonkey. Questions delivered from within an LMS were the next highest. High-end evaluation systems like Metrics that Matter were not highly represented in our respondents.

Our respondents did not rate their learner-feedback efforts as very effective. Their learner surveys were seen as most effective in gauging learner satisfaction. Only about 33% of respondents thought their learner surveys gave them insights on the effectiveness of the learning.

Only about 15% of respondents found their data very useful in providing them feedback about how to improve their learning interventions.

Respondents report that their organizations are somewhat open to alternatives to their current learner-feedback approaches, but overall they are not actively looking for alternatives.

Most respondents report that their organizations are at least “modestly happy” with their learner-feedback assessments. Yet only 22% reported being “generally happy” with them. Combining this finding with the one above showing that lots of organizations are open to alternatives, it seems that organizational satisfaction with current learner-feedback approaches is soft.

We asked respondents about their organizations’ attempts to measure the following:

  • Learner Attendance
  • Whether Learner is Paying Attention
  • Learner Perceptions of the Learning (eg, Smile Sheets, Learner Feedback)
  • Amount or Quality of Learner Participation
  • Learner Knowledge of the Content
  • Learner Ability to Make Realistic Decisions
  • Learner Ability to Complete Realistic Tasks
  • Learner Performance on the Job (or in another future performance situation)
  • Impact of Learning on the Learner
  • Impact of Learning on the Organization
  • Impact of Learning on Coworkers, Family, Friends of the Learner
  • Impact of Learning on the Community or Society
  • Impact of Learning on the Environment

These evaluation targets are encouraged in LTEM (The Learning-Transfer Evaluation Model).

Results are difficult to show—because our question was very complicated (admittedly too complicated)—but I will summarize the findings below.

As you can see, learner attendance and learner perceptions (smile sheets) were the most commonly measured factors, with learner knowledge a distant third. The least common measures involved the impact of the learning on the environment, community/society, and the learner’s coworkers/family/friends.

The flip side—methods rarely utilized in respondents’ organizations—shows pretty much the same thing.

Note that the question above, because it was too complicated, probably produced some spurious results, even if the trends at the extremes are probably indicative of the whole range. In other words, it’s likely that attendance and smile sheets are the most utilized and measures of impact on the environment, community/society, and learners’ coworkers/family/friends are the least utilized.

Questions Answered Based on Our Sample

  1. Are smile sheets (learner-feedback questions) still the most common method of doing learning evaluation?

    Yes! Smile sheets are clearly the most popular evaluation method, along with measuring attendance (if we include that as a metric).

  2. How does their use compare with other methods? Are other methods growing in prominence/use?

    Except for Attendance, nothing else comes close. The next most common method is measuring knowledge. Remarkably, given the known importance of decision-making (Tier 5 in LTEM) and task competence (Tier 6 in LTEM), these are used in evaluation at a relatively low level. Similar low levels are found in measuring work performance (Tier 7 in LTEM) and organizational results (part of Tier 8 in LTEM). We’ve known about these relatively low levels from many previous research surveys.

    Hardly any measurement is being done on the impact of learning on learner or his/her coworkers/family/friends, the impact of the learning on the community/society/environment, or on learner participation/attention.

  3. How satisfied are learning professionals with their organizations’ learner-feedback methods?

    Learning professionals are moderately satisfied.

  4. To what extent are organizations looking for alternatives to their current learner-feedback methods?

    Organizations are open to alternatives, with some actively seeking alternatives and some not looking.

  5. What kinds of questions are used on smile sheets? Has Thalheimer’s new approach, performance-focused questioning, gained any traction?

    Likert-like options and numeric scales are the most commonly used. Thalheimer’s performance-focused smile-sheet method has gained traction in this sample of respondents—people likely more in the know about Thalheimer’s approach than the industry at large.

  6. What do learning professionals think their current smile sheets are good at measuring (Satisfaction, Reputation, Effectiveness, Nothing)?

    Learning professionals think their current smile sheets are fairly good at measuring the satisfaction of learners. A full one-third of respondents feel that their current approaches are not valid enough to provide them with meaningful insights about the learning interventions.

  7. What tools are organizations using to gather learner feedback?

    The two most common methods for collecting learner feedback are paper surveys and SurveyMonkey. Questions from LMSs are the next most widely used. Sophisticated evaluation tools are not much in use in our respondent sample.

  8. How useful are current learner-feedback questions in helping guide improvements in learning design and delivery?

    This may be the most important question we might ask, given that evaluation is supposed to aid us in maintaining our successes and improving on our deficiencies. Only 15% of respondents found learner feedback “very helpful” in helping them improve their learning. Many found the feedback “somewhat helpful” but a full one-third found the feedback “not very useful” in enabling them to improve learning.

  9. How widely are the target metrics of LTEM (The Learning-Transfer Evaluation Model) currently being measured?

    As described in Question 2 above, many of the targets of LTEM are not being adequately measured at this point in time (November 2017 to September 2018, during the time immediately before and after LTEM was introduced). This indicates that LTEM is poised to help organizations uncover evaluation targets that can be helpful in setting goals for learning improvements.

Lessons to be Drawn

The results of this survey reinforce what we’ve known for years. In the workplace learning industry, we default to learner-feedback questions (smile sheets) as our most common learning-evaluation method. This is a big freakin’ problem for two reasons. First, our learner-feedback methods are inadequate. We often use poor survey methodologies and ones particularly unsuited to learner feedback, including the use of fuzzy Likert-like options and numeric scales. Second, even if we used the most advanced learner-feedback methods, we still would not be doing enough to gain insights into the strengths and weaknesses of our learning interventions.

Evaluation is meant to provide us with data we can use to make our most critical decisions. We need to know, for example, whether our learning designs are supporting learner comprehension, learner motivation to apply what they’ve learned, learner ability to remember what they’ve learned, and the supports available to help learners transfer their learning to their work. We typically don’t know these things. As a result, we don’t make design decisions we ought to. We don’t make improvements in the learning methods we use or the way we deploy learning. The research captured here should be seen as a wake up call.

The good news from this research is that learning professionals are often aware and sensitized to the deficiencies of their learning-evaluation methods. This seems like a good omen. When improved methods are introduced, they will seek to encourage their use.

LTEM, the new learning-evaluation model (which I developed with the help of some of the smartest folks in the workplace learning field) is targeting some of the most critical learning metrics—metrics that have too often been ignored. It is too new to be certain of its impact, but it seems like a promising tool.

Why I have turned my Attention to Evaluation (and why you should too!)

For 20 years, I’ve focused on compiling scientific research on learning in the belief that research-based information—when combined with a deep knowledge of practice—can drastically improve learning results. I still believe that wholeheartedly! What I’ve also come to understand is that we as learning professionals must get valid feedback on our everyday efforts. It’s simply our responsibility to do so.

We have to create learning interventions based on the best blend of practical wisdom and research-based guidance. We have to measure key indices that tell us how our learning interventions are doing. We have to find out what their strengths are and what their weaknesses are. Then we have to analyze and assess and make decisions about what to keep and what to improve. Then we have to make improvements and again measure our results and continue the cycle—working always toward continuous improvement.

Here’s a quick-and-dirty outline of the recommended cycle for using learning to improve work performance. “Quick-and-dirty” means I might be missing something!

  1. Learn about and/or work to uncover performance-improvement needs.
  2. If you determine that learning can help, continue. Otherwise, build or suggest alternative methods to get to improved work performance.
  3. Deeply understand the work-performance context.
  4. Sketch out a very rough draft for your learning intervention.
  5. Specify your evaluation goals—the metrics you will use to measure your intervention’s strengths and weaknesses.
  6. Sketch out a rough draft for your learning intervention.
  7. Specify your learning objectives (notice that evaluation goals come first!).
  8. Review the learning research and consider your practical constraints (two separate efforts subsequently brought together).
  9. Sketch out a reasonably good draft for your learning intervention.
  10. Build your learning intervention and your learning evaluation instruments (Iteratively testing and improving).
  11. Deploy your “ready-to-go” learning intervention.
  12. Measure your results using the previously determined evaluation instruments, which were based on your previously determined evaluation objectives.
  13. Analyze your results.
  14. Determine what to keep and what to improve.
  15. Make improvements.
  16. Repeat (maybe not every step, but at least from Step 6 onward)

And here is a shorter version:

  1. Know the learning research
  2. Understand your project needs.
  3. Outline your evaluation objectives—the metrics you will use.
  4. Design your learning.
  5. Deploy your learning and your measurement.
  6. Analyze your results.
  7. Make Improvements
  8. Repeat.

More Later Maybe

The results shared here are the result from all respondents. If I get the time, I’d like to look at subsets of respondents. For example, I’d like to look at how learning executives and managers might differ from learning practitioners. Let me know how interested you would be in these results.

Also, I will be conducting other surveys on learning-evaluation practices, so stay tuned. We have been too long frustrated with our evaluation practices and more work needs to be done in understanding the forces that keep us from doing what we want to do. We could also use more and better learning-evaluation tools because the truth is that learning evaluation is still a nascent field.

Finally, because I learn a ton by working with clients who challenge themselves to do more effective interventions, please get in touch with me if you’d like a partner in thinking things through and trying new methods to build more effective evaluation practices. Also, please let me know how you’ve used LTEM (The Learning-Transfer Evaluation Model).

Some links to make this happen:

Appreciations

As always, I am grateful to all the people I learn from, including clients, researchers, thought leaders, conference attendees, and more… Thanks also to all who acknowledge and share my work! It means a lot!