employees talking about training evaluation

Correctly evaluating your employee training programs could be the most critical step to make sure you are providing value to your employees and seeing the ROI that leadership is hoping to see. However, doing this is easier said than done.

In a job market where employees are demanding career growth and upskilling and reskilling resources more than ever before, organizations can easily get lost in the planning and implementation stages of their L&D programs – but how do you improve said programs if you don’t have any data on how effective they are?

The Kirkpatrick model, which we explore in this article, gives HR and L&D pros a comprehensive framework they can use to evaluate and improve their training programs to make sure employees get the best quality training and organizational training goals are met. We dive into:


What is the Kirkpatrick Model?

This framework for evaluating training programs was developed by Donald Kirkpatrick, Ph.D., in the 1950’s as he was writing his Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

The Kirkpatrick model is one of, if not the most popular training evaluation model ever developed. By evaluate, we mean assess the impact a training program is having on employees and organizational objectives through a multi-level framework.

The model consists of four levels of evaluation (outlined in more detail below) that aim to get HR and L&D teams closer to the truth about how impactful their training programs are and what they need to improve.

The Importance of Evaluating Your Training Programs

Evaluating your training program is critical to maximizing the value it provides for your employees and the organization at large. The positive impact of continuous and effective evaluation shows up in different key areas of business performance.

Boost in ROI

From a financial perspective, it’s not enough to ride the wave of initial leadership and stakeholder buy-in for the training program. HR and L&D teams must continuously evaluate factors like cost and ROI to be able to pivot the program properly and prove the value of funding the program in the long term.

Research by ATD showed that organizations with robust employee training programs could see upwards of 200% higher income per year than those without formal training in place.

Although the upside to spending the time and resources can be great for organizations, this upside tends to diminish if the program isn’t tweaked and adjusted to fit the specific needs and goals of each organization.  

Increased Program and Employee Engagement

Having a comprehensive framework to evaluate your training program on a regular basis will also bring benefits like improved program and employee engagement.

To know how well a training program is being perceived, adopted, and utilized, you must collect data from those participating in it through evaluations.

This data will give you crucial insights into things like sentiment, utilization, completion of modules and many other metrics that will let you make changes early and often to provide your employees with the most relevant and engaging training possible. In turn, this not only engages employees with the material and program at large, but you will also see an overall employee engagement increase, as 58% of employees feel that training programs positively contribute to their job satisfaction.

To delve deeper into the best way to collect training feedback

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The Four Levels of Evaluation

To remain one of the leading frameworks for evaluating training programs of all kinds, the Kirkpatrick model has been updated and adjusted to make sure it fits the modern workforce and the needs of organizations today. Here are the four levels of the model:

Level 1: Reaction

Level one of the Kirkpatrick model of training evaluation is to look at “the degree to which participants find your training favorable, engaging, and relevant to their jobs”.

Level one has traditionally been carried out through SMILE sheets or similar types of questionnaires that aim to assess how participants perceive the training right after a session or upon completing a course. This information can then be used to adjust the program or module and evaluate its effectiveness and if the training should continue.

It’s worth mentioning that although resources like the SMILE sheet are still useful for this step, the model has evolved to recommend the use of a variety of resources like gathering feedback from the instructors, hiring impartial observers, and holding focus groups to have a better idea and more in-depth data on your employees sentiment on the training they’re receiving.   

Level 2: Learning

Level 2 measures the degree to which participants acquire the intended knowledge skills, attitude, confidence, and commitment based on their participation in the training.

Knowledge assessments are often used at this level to gather data on whether trainees are learning and retaining the content of their training.

As with smile sheets in level 1, knowledge assessments continue to be useful, but L&D teams must go beyond them. The Kirkpatrick model calls for organizations to use other forms of pre- and post-training learning assessments like on the job preparedness and confidence level surveys.

In short, it’s critical that L&D and HR teams approach this level with the goal of finding out if their people are going back to work feeling better prepared to do their jobs or not.

Level 3: Behavior

This level aims to measure the degree to which participants apply what they learned during training when they are back on the job.

This is where you hope the theory your employees are learning in the classroom or LMS is being applied to daily on the job tasks. It is critical for L&D teams to spend time gathering both qualitative and quantitative data on how the behavior or procedures of employees have changed (or haven’t changed at all) post training.

Gathering data on how employees conduct certain key procedures and task pre and post training is a great place to start and can be done through observation and periodic post-training practical evaluations.

This step on the model should drive you to spend more time gathering data in the workplace as opposed to when the training is happening and is fresh in everyone’s mind.  

Level 4: Results

Finally, level 4 focuses on the degree to which targeted outcomes occur because of the training and the support/accountability package.

Targeted outcomes could be things like improved efficiency, higher sales, increased productivity, better customer service scores and any other metric or KPI your program was aiming to improve.

The challenge with this final step is that these results are often challenging to measure, let alone attribute their improvement to the training program alone. However, L&D teams must be given the resources and use the data they should’ve collected throughout the previous three steps to draw out patterns along with pre and post training analysis that will show the effectiveness or lack thereof for the training program.

Although many argue that this step of the framework is impossible to reach given its large cope and cost, it is critical to emphasize that this step of the Kirkpatrick model is very much attainable. If your program is designed, adjusted, and evaluated properly, getting to this stage in your evaluation lifecycle should be much easier.

How to Start Using the Model to Evaluate Your Programs

If you’re currently not doing any type of formal or organized evaluation of your existing employee training and development programs, it’s useful to start with something like a pilot program. This could mean that you implement the four levels of the Kirkpatrick evaluation model to your smallest programs (based on the size of the participating cohort) and collect the data on the early wins, challenges, and results of using this model as a test before implementing it at the organization wide level.

It’s critical that you use these pilot programs or tests as an opportunity to go all the way, making sure you reach level 4, as this will allow you to collect valuable insight into what could make it difficult to do this with company-wide training programs based on your specific organizational setup.

Keep in mind that you should never wait 90 or even 30 days to evaluate. Evaluating your training programs using the four different levels of the Kirkpatrick model is something that should and can be done continuously.

If you’re starting out a new program, the Kirkpatrick learning model can also be a useful tool to guide how you structure the program.  

Start from level 4 and think about what broader organizational goals you’re trying to achieve with your new program as this will help to set the north star, so to speak, that everyone involved in its development can follow.

Use levels 3 and 2 to shape the behaviors, knowledge, and skills you want to teach your employees. You can use internal and external resources to come up with the best methods for assessing your people’s current proficiency levels and understanding of what you’re trying to upskill or train them on and pick the best content that will allow them to learn effectively and carry over to on-the-job activities. Finally, with level 1 you can focus on asking questions about what your teams need to do to make sure your training program will be enjoyable, engaging, and relevant to employees.

Online Learning and The Kirkpatrick Model

An online learning platform like an LMS can provide training teams with the flexibility of having vast libraries of expert-led content at their disposal. Training teams can then use these libraries to craft custom learning paths for their specific programs and can even go as far as tailoring to specific job roles within the cohort.

This provides administrators and learners alike with huge amounts of flexibility and enables instructional designers and program managers to pivot as they learn what topics and lessons are the most engaging and relevant to their cohort.

Online learning also gives administrators a unique look into learner trends since learning platforms can collect real time data.

This is a game changer for implementing something like the Kirkpatrick model, as it allows those administering the program to see how employees are interacting with the content. Are they flying through the modules? Which ones are taking the longest? How are they doing on the built-in knowledge checks? How do they rate each lesson after it’s complete? – are all questions you need to ask to carry out a proper training program evaluation and ones that an online learning platform can help you answer without days of manual work and data analysis.

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