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How Should We Assess Corporate Learning In 2019? The Benefits Of Formative Assessment

Discussing Formative Assessment: Ways To Assess Corporate Learning In 2019
Summary: Wherever there's learning, there should be an assessment. However, not all assessment is created equal. The prevalent methods of evaluation provide little useful information about actual learning. Here's a look at formative assessment and how it helps corporate learners, L&D and the business alike.

Formative Assessment From Two Different Viewpoints: The Learners’ And The L&D Professionals’

While learning technologies have developed significantly over the past few years, we’ve seen unfortunately little development in the methodological side. Organizations are often just using technological tools to mimic and model past behaviors—“the way things have been done before”—rather than figuring out new ways of working. Assessment and learning evaluations are primary examples of this. Whereas e.g. corporate HR has been using practices like 360 feedback for some time already, Learning and Development often still resorts to trying to model and grade complex behaviors in simple numerical or binary terms.

Furthermore, in my experience, corporations still often rely on immediate, transactional testing for assessment. This may be partly due to technical limitations (e.g. in the digital realm, comprehensive, multiple streams of assessments have been a challenge to SCORM), but a lot of it seems to be due to lack of awareness. Yet, the reality is that these assessment methods tend to provide very little value beyond compliance.

Whereas the shortcomings of “traditional” assessment are generally acknowledged in the education community, and increasingly in the corporate too, people seem to be too comfortable to start figuring out alternatives. But we’ll do just that. So, let’s first look at the two different “genres” of assessment:

Summative Vs. Formative Assessment

Educationalists tend to divide assessment into two categories: summative and formative. Generally speaking, summative assessment focuses on measuring learning at the end of the learning process, while formative assessment seeks to measure it throughout the learning journey. In the summative assessment, quantified indicators of performance are prevalent, hence the attachment of grades.

Formative assessment, on the other hand, makes use of evaluation methods that are much more subtle and continuous in their nature. While summative assessment is generally considered high stakes (assessment only happens in the end, hence the focus on test performance), formative assessment relies on smaller components of continuous feedback to form the bigger picture, hence no individual mistake or failure will destroy one’s performance. In my experience, organizations tend to heavily rely on summative practices, especially in the case of digital learning.

So, why does it all this matter in corporate learning? Why shouldn’t the L&D department just be happy and content with the “grades” they currently give out? Let’s look at it from two viewpoints: the learners’ and the L&D professionals’.

Why Should Organizations Consider Formative Assessment?

While adults are generally better at understanding their learning performance than kids, on absolute terms, we don’t necessarily fare so much better. Thus, we could probably benefit from more formative assessment. I’m sure everyone is familiar with a situation where you’re going through a bunch of material only to find out at the end that you didn’t really get it. Similarly, some people spend more time on “learning” than they should as they’re afraid of getting a low score.

On the other hand, top performing learners may easily score 100% without looking at the material. If you’re only assessing the “outcome” at the end, both groups are probably wasting a whole lot of time. Additionally, a constant stream of high “grades” can very well feed into a mindset where one thinks they already know all there is to know. Similarly, putting in one’s best effort yet still getting low scores can dent one’s willingness to engage in learning activities. Well-designed formative assessment, on the other hand, can help learners to get continuous information on their progress, quickly identify personal skill gaps, and focus on what’s important. In other words, make learning more effective and efficient by guiding the learners with personalized feedback. A culture of formative assessment also tends to promote more active learning and critical thinking, which certainly doesn’t hurt.

In addition to the corporate learners, the L&D has a share to gain with a more formative approach. Organizations around the world are struggling to measure learning and its impact, and part of it’s because the current way of assessment driven by tick-box compliance doesn’t produce very valuable information. The prevalent summative way of assessment and the arbitrary test scores that we so like to use don’t really tell us anything about learning. Rather, they test short-term memory and, occasionally, something called “test-taking skills”. We all have witnessed countless people who have scored high on formal exams but don’t really possess abilities beyond regurgitating information fed to them (if you don’t, just ask your corporate talent acquisition team).

Additionally, if a formal test tells us very little about learning, it tells even less about what really matters to the business. If the target of corporate learning is to activate behaviors resulting in positive business impact, the score you got on the test at the end of the eLearning course makes us none the wiser. The fact that someone has completed and passed a course does by no means indicate that they have built sufficient knowledge, skills or will enact the desired behaviors. So, shouldn’t we use the assessment as a tool to try to add value and actually contribute to the business decision making?

In addition to the above, here are a few more benefits we see in formative assessment:

How Does Formative Assessment Benefit The Learner?

  • Quicker identification of personal learning problems and skill gaps
  • A continuous stream of performance information and instant feedback
  • Ability to focus on the most value-add activities and points of need
  • Help to guide the learning decisions of the employee
  • Creation of a safer environment to practice, make mistakes and learn
  • Develop critical thinking, self-awareness and learning skills

How Does Formative Assessment Benefit L&D And The Business?

  • Constant information of learning results, enabling agility, flexibility and rapid learning interventions. No need to wait until programs or activities are finished!
  • Continuous feedback and information about learning needs as well as content quality, relevance, and personalization, enabling the business to direct its resources smartly.
  • Common formative methods like group reflections and collaborative learning encourage experience sharing, build engagement and create a culture of openness.

How To Put Formative Assessment Into Practice?

While tests are usually the immediate connotation when one hears the word assessment, they are by no means the only way to do it. All learning interactions can be assessed, and a lot more of them probably should be than currently are. When it comes to tracking all those interactions, xAPI proves to be a handy tool able to capture rich data across all learning activities. But even with tools like it, you should first and foremost really commit to the approach. Many companies are already using, for example, learning interactions, social elements, and other activities in their digital learning delivery, but few actually track all that, and even fewer incorporate it into the assessment. Instead, they see interactivity just as an engagement tool (and don’t get me wrong, it works for that too!), and then ultimately resort to some sort of “final exam” type of arrangement. But, keeping that in mind, here are some tools and methods you can use to support a more formative assessment culture.

  • Social learning and collaboration tools for group activities, reflections and experience sharing. Social analytics and peer assessment (e.g. 360) to capture learning insights.
  • Extensive feedback tools and opportunities, and that’s a two-way street! Capture learning needs and areas to address through continuous user input while providing a constant stream of constructive feedback to the learners.
  • Subtle interactions, low-key quizzes, little knowledge checks, and other seamless objects to help both you and the learners to follow the progress.
  • Practicing with live examples and real-life situations helps to transfer acquired knowledge into long-term memory. On some topics, it’s easy to find applicable business problems to solve using the newly learned. Spending time on that may yield business benefits even beyond the scope of learning.

Final Remarks

Overall, formative assessment has a lot to offer for corporate L&D. When we seek to understand learning beyond the unfortunately usual corporate scope of costs, time spent and passes or fails, we need to pay attention to learning itself. The age-old phrase “if you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it” holds valid yet again. Formative assessment helps in just that, understanding and improving learning, for the benefit of learners, trainers, L&D professionals and business executives alike. So, isn’t it about time to bring corporate learning evaluation into 2019 and start helping all these stakeholders succeed through smarter assessment?