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If It Isn’t Hurting, It Isn’t Working?

You’ll probably be familiar with this phrase about physical training. It suggests that if the training isn’t hard-going at the time and your muscles don’t feel sore the next day or the day after, then you probably aren’t working to your full potential and may not achieve the results you are hoping for.

Of course, there are some types of physical pain that tell you it’s definitely time to stop – if you have twisted your ankle, you really shouldn’t carry on running! This is where it helps to have an expert to hand to reassure you that any pain you are feeling is the transformational kind, rather than a sign to stop as soon as possible.

But that’s physical training. When it comes to workplace training programmes, we don’t expect learners to experience pain, or ask participants to exercise stamina and endurance on the programme. Indeed, the most common measure currently used to evaluate workplace training programmes is often referred to as a ‘Happy Sheet’, and asks whether learners have enjoyed the training. On their part, training participants often regard training as a perk, primarily a chance to network away from the workplace.

However, research shows that enjoyment of a training programme isn’t a good indicator of how effective that programme is. Learning that is enjoyable may be effective but it may sacrifice content in favour of enjoyable ‘gimmicks’. And vice-versa, learning that is not enjoyable may actually be more effective but at the expense of learner satisfaction.

Kirkpatrick’s four levels

As you may know, the ‘Happy Sheet’ concept originates from the work of Donald Kirkpatrick who, back in the 1950s, started thinking about how we could systematically evaluate workplace training. He identified four levels of evaluation:

Level 1. Reaction – initial endorsement by participants of the training

Level 2. Learning – learning occurred as a result of the training

Level 3. Behaviour – learning affected behaviour, or performance on the job

Level 4. Results – the training programme had the desired results in the organisation

The ‘Happy Sheet’ relates to Kirkpatrick’s Level 1, where participants are asked for their initial reactions to the training. This is the simplest of Kirkpatrick’s four levels, but the one that is most commonly carried out.

Given that research suggests little link between enjoying a training programme and achieving the desired effect, should Level 1 evaluation simply be dropped? Not necessarily.

Kirkpatrick suggested that trainers should think of participants in their training programmes as customers, and Level 1 evaluation was aimed at collecting what is essentially a form of customer feedback, a way of ensuring nothing was catastrophically wrong with the way the programme was being delivered. For a face-to-face session, it might ask questions about the lighting levels, the food, as well as whether the training felt relevant, or was pitched at the right level. With an online programme, it might ask whether visuals were correctly pitched or whether the course was easy to navigate.

There is nothing wrong with collecting this type of feedback on a training programme as it can be used to make tweaks to that programme. However, this superficial level of evaluation alone cannot be used to judge the overall effectiveness of that training programme.

Kirkpatrick is still active in the world of evaluation and training, and more recently has set up Kirkpatrick Partners, with his son James and daughter-in-law Wendy. In one of their more recent books, ‘Training on trial’, they talk about the chain of evidence obtained by carrying out evaluation at all four levels. By carrying out evaluation at all four levels, a strong chain of evidence is collected as to how effective the training programme has been on impacting overall business performance.

This makes a lot of sense. While it may be the case that learners sometimes need to draw on grit and determination to carry through a workplace training or life-long learning assignment (as anyone who has completed a part-time degree whilst working will testify), they shouldn’t be asked to endure a course that is poorly designed, pitched at entirely the wrong level, unnecessarily long or mind-numbingly boring…

Learners have enough on their plates as it is. They may need to arrange time for study into a busy workplace schedule, or when returning from an off-site training course. Professional development also needs to allow time for learners to reflect on their learning and apply it to their practice. They will need to keep coming back to material which they don’t immediately master and this can feel frustrating and stressful. To succeed, they will have to keep studying long enough to work through a longer course, even if enthusiasm dips and there are newer strains on their time. This is a challenge which many MOOCs are experiencing right now, as high drop-out rates amongst full-time working professionals are commonplace. Potentially most painful of all, learning can sometimes challenge long-held beliefs and force learners to re-assess their views of themselves and the world.

Of course, as with physical training, learning is not always painful. It can be extremely positive. There will be days of jubilation, as a tough concept is finally mastered, and days of empowerment, as it becomes clear that progress has been made. But perhaps it is time we become more realistic and started thinking of lifelong learning as like going to the gym. Learning is very much a marathon and not a sprint and by putting in the work, and pushing through the highs and lows, we are able to invest in our futures through effective learning.

For more on the evaluation of learning, please read our brand-new white paper.

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