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Trainer's Corner: The Role of Testing in Training

Often, tests are approached as a dreaded tool that will determine if we pass or fail a course. In reality, tests are a whole lot more versatile than this. They are, in fact, learning tools.

Have you ever taken a test that you learned a lot from, no matter what you scored? I have. I have come away from some tests saying, “I did not realize I knew so much.” Other tests have caused me to say, “Now I know what I don’t know.” And sometimes I have even said, “Working through those questions really did help me understand the topic better.”

In training, we generally understand that we learn through trial and error. If we are not making mistakes, we are not learning. Tests are a great way to challenge our learners and help them learn the material better. In some cases, getting something wrong on a test can lead to better learning than getting all the answers right. People often remember the things they missed better than those they got correct.

Well-designed tests help us determine if a participant has met the objectives of a course. The problem is that sometimes tests are not well-designed. They should always be based upon the objectives of the course and should not try to “trick” the learner. At ICMI, we just recently updated the quizzes in our Online Training Pass agent courses to make sure that each of the quiz questions related to one of the course objectives and was supported by the course content. This is part of a review process we periodically conduct on all of our courses to make sure that content stays relevant and that quizzes are aligned with the content.

Here are a few important points about tests from Harold D. Stolovitch and Erica J. Keeps’ book Telling Ain’t Training (ASTD, 2011):

  • Tests are a natural part of learning.
  • Tests do not have to be threatening, but sometimes they are.
  • Tests let the learner try out their learning with a bit of challenge.
  • We must give feedback after a test for the test to be effective.
  • Tests require active learner engagement, so they are a good tool to use often.

The quizzes in ICMI’s Online Training Pass courses are designed to reinforce the material in the module just completed. They cause learners to pause and reflect back on the content and make sure they understand it. They help “settle” the content in the learner’s memory by having them “try out their learning with a bit of challenge.” They also provide pointers to the most important content. The questions may just cause the learner to recall information, or they may require the learner to apply information. We allow learners to review the test after it is scored so that they have feedback on what they missed.

All ICMI quiz questions are randomized, as are the answer choices listed for each multiple choice question. That means that the questions (and the answer choices) will appear in a different order every time the quiz is pulled up. This helps prevent any cheating in close quarters, but it also means that there is enough difference on each test that the same learner will experience the test as entirely different each time they pull it up. If someone retakes the quiz, it is a valid measure of their knowledge and skills each time (and not just their ability to remember the order of answers).

Whether you allow learners to use their notes to complete the quiz will depend on whether you want them to know the information by memory or just want them to work with the content to absorb it further. Either quiz goal will help the facilitator gauge the learner’s mastery of the content through the quizzes and allow learners to be actively engaged while trying out their learning. Be sure to let trainees know from the beginning how the quiz scores will be used, as well as how quizzes are learning tools.

What are your thoughts about the role of testing in training? Share them in the comments.