Love assessment, hate tests

What do we mean when we talk about assessment in the context of e-learning? Too often, I’d suggest, we mean the test at the end of an online course. Perhaps we’ll call it a ‘quiz’ in the hope of making it more palatable for the learner, but all that does, I suspect, is make the learner feel still more patronised. The purpose of such a test is to determine whether the learner has, or has not passed the course.

If that’s all our assessments do, then we’re failing in our duties as professionals. If the audience for our courses genuinely are learners, then the purpose of our assessments should be to (a) discover the level of their current know-how and (b) provide feedback that helps them to perform better.

Let me give you an example to show you how this can work. I’ve deliberately chosen a case where there simply isn’t a right or wrong answer, so we’re about as far from a pass/fail test as we can be.

The example comes from work by HR luminary Dave Ulrich. In his book Human Resource Champions, Harvard Business Press, 1996, Ulrich talks of four roles or priorities for HR professionals:

Role / Priority I think the role of HR is to help the organisation to…
Strategic Partner  Accomplish business goals, by ensuring that HR strategies are aligned with business strategy.
Administrative Expert Improve operating efficiency, by ensuring that HR processes (e.g. for recruitment and remuneration) are themselves as efficient as possible.
Employee Champion Maximise employee commitment, by ensuring that HR policies and programmes respond to employees’ personal needs.
Change Agent Anticipate and adapt to future issues and concerns, by ensuring that HR processes increase the organisation’s ability to change.

Whether you’re an HR person yourself or a humble L&D operative like me, you’ll probably have your own personal ranking of these priorities. So let’s imagine ourselves developing an online course for an HR audience and specifically designing an interaction in which we invite learners to choose their top two priorities from the four listed above.

What now? Well, first we can point out the advantages and strengths of any particular selection. So someone who has chosen Strategic Partner and Administrative Expert is fully process-oriented while someone who paired Employee Champion with Administrative Expert is duly focused on day-to-day, operational issues. But we can also note that there are risks associated with these choices too and have the opportunity to spell out these disadvantages: the process specialist may be neglecting the ‘people side’ of the job whereas the operational specialist may be overlooking strategic matters in favour of the here and now.

So what have we achieved here? I think this simple case has three interesting characteristics:

  • We’ve used assessment as a way of finding out about the learner, rather than as an opportunity to say “Yes, well done” or “No, not quite”.
  • We’ve provided feedback that helps the learner to assess themselves, which indicates ways to develop and improve performance.
  • We’ve used e-learning to match the variety of responses (I’ll leave it to you to work out how many different pairs of priorities there are) in a way that perhaps wouldn’t be possible in a face-to-face or virtual classroom setting.

We’ll be exploring these ideas and their consequences in an LSG webinar on Thursday, 13th October 2011. Email us for details and do join us for the discussion!

About the author

Nick Simons - Leadership