The Most Meaningful Way to Measure Learning

March 25, 2022 | Reskill Your Workforce | 8 min read

The Value of Assessments Defined Against Learning Objectives

No road trip is complete without a reliable map — or, more likely, your phone’s trusty GPS. Otherwise, you wouldn’t know where you were or how to chart the best course to your destination.

Learning is also a kind of journey, only instead of going somewhere physical, your endpoint is mastery of a new skill. As with a road trip, it’s helpful to have a map. That’s especially true if you’re one of the 76 percent of decision-makers with critical skills gaps in their teams.[1] Closing those gaps will require some significant upskilling and reskilling efforts. To make those efforts as effective as possible, you need to know exactly where your current workforce stands and what they need to learn to become future-fit.

But how do you map a learning journey and keep learners on the right track? You need assessments backed by meaningful learning objectives.

Benchmarking Basics

Assessments evaluate a person’s knowledge of a topic using a standardized measurement —benchmarks, for example, can provide an assessment of how much a learner knows about a given topic. Many existing assessments are known as “normative assessments.” That means they use the performance of other test-takers as their reference points. A learner’s knowledge is evaluated by comparing their score to the scores of others. Those who do better than average are deemed more proficient.

While these comparisons are useful for some purposes, there are better ways to guide future skill development. Think of it like this: If you set off on a road trip with a map that only showed your position in relation to other cars on the road, would you be able to get where you want to go? Those other cars might not be starting from the same place as you. They might not be taking the same routes.

Criterion-based assessments are different. Instead of comparing test-takers’ scores, they measure every learner’s knowledge against the same objective, impartial standard or learning goal. This paints a more accurate picture of where learners stand on the road to skill mastery. Rather than telling you which of your people is best at a particular skill, criterion-based assessments answer the most critical questions for an L&D leader: What does my workforce already know, and what must they learn to master the skills our company needs?

We've discussed different options for interpreting assessment scores and presented a valuable use case for the criterion-based method. Now, let's direct our attention toward creating impactful assessments.

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What Is a Learning Objective?

A learning objective is a clear, concise statement that describes what a learner should be able to do after completing some form of learning content, like a course or video. With that in mind, the most effective assessments measure understanding of the learning objective itself, not the course.

If learning is a journey, you can think of learning objectives like checkpoints on the way to skill acquisition: They keep you on track and guide you toward your destination. You might also think of them as building blocks: smaller pieces of knowledge that, when taken together, constitute mastery of a skill.

For example, if someone were working toward a cybersecurity certification, they’d need to tackle learning objectives like:

  • Recall the three fundamental principles of information security.
  • Compare and contrast single-factor authentication, two-factor authentication, and multi-factor authentication.
  • Create an incident response plan for a hypothetical ransomware attack.

Because learning objectives articulate the specific outcome learners should achieve at each stage of their learning journey, they are particularly useful as a basis for developing benchmarks or any other type of assessment. Consider an assessment that evaluates learners by measuring their knowledge against a set of learning objectives: The results will tell the learner which objectives they’ve met and which they still need to work on to achieve skill mastery.

Why Assessments Work Better When Defined Against Learning Objectives

When we use learning objectives to assess skills, every learner’s progress is measured against the same clearly defined and unchanging standards. As a result, upskilling and reskilling efforts become much more objective, transparent, and personalized:

  • Objectivity:Each learning objective reflects practical knowledge a person needs to master a new skill. When assessments are developed to assess whether or not a learning objective has been met, learners receive clear and unbiased feedback on their current skill level.
  • Transparency: Learning objectives give structure to the skill acquisition process, allowing learners and L&D leaders to more easily track and understand progress. Assessment results show us what a person has successfully learned and what they still need to learn to acquire a new skill.
  • Personalization:Every learner brings their own level of knowledge to a subject and learns at their own pace. When we base benchmark assessments on defined learning objectives, we can determine precisely where each individual should start their journey and how they’re progressing. That way, everyone only spends time on the content they actually need to review.

Going back to our map analogy, assessments tied to learning objectives are more like a modern GPS than a paper atlas. They pinpoint where you are on the road to skill mastery, and they offer directions to your destination based on your unique location.

Taken together, all of this makes for a far more effective approach to developing new skills. Learners can quickly identify and remedy their knowledge gaps. L&D leaders can objectively measure workforce capabilities and track progress toward mastery. There’s no guesswork.

It’s not quite as simple as punching an address into your phone and turning right when the chipper voice says to — but it’s not that much harder, either.