using theory based evaluation principles to evaluate training

  • Were a Training Manager from 1960 to take a trip on a time machine to the present day they would emerge to a scarcely recognisable world. Learner-centred training, user-generated content and on-line delivery would all be things of wonder. However, they could draw comfort from evaluation methodologies: the Kirkpatrick framework, first enunciated in the 1950s, is still the cornerstone of training evaluation.

    Why this is so is something of a puzzle, as it is criticised by both academics for not being based on any reliable model of causality linking learning and performance and by training professionals for not providing a useful set of practical tools for doing an evaluation. For me the biggest problem with relying on Kirkpatrick is that it asks me to work backwards: I seemed to be looking at changes in behaviour and workplace impact, treating the process of training as a black box and then making guesses as to how these changes were caused by the training.

    So I started to look for an alternative, and have started to develop a combined application of systems thinking methodologies and theory-based evaluation, or TBE. TBE has apparently been primarily used to evaluate social care initiatives, and does not seem to have been widely adopted within the training community which is a shame, because I have found it to be extremely useful, although given the way in which much training seems to be conceived, it is not without its challenges.

    TBE works by examining the theory of change underpinning an action, and exploring how its implementation works. It then becomes possible to draw conclusions as to the degree to which what is being done contributes to subsequent changes. Reflection on any differences between theory and practice helps to identify what is or is not working.

    The first challenge is often identifying what the theory of change is for delivering a training programme. This should come from a training needs analysis, but in reality TNAs are often not done in any systematic way. Instead, an assumption is often made that training is necessary, and little thought may be given to the operational context where the learning will be implemented. This can mean that the way in which the training is delivered is not necessarily appropriate or that obstacles stopping people from using new knowledge and skills are not taken into consideration.

    If there is no theory of change from a TNA, we need to think through what this might be. At this point systems thinking tools can help, in particular one called Soft Systems Methodology, or SSM. I don’t have the space here to describe the full SSM process, but a key output is a diagram showing a ‘conceptual model’, which represents an ideal situation, in our case how the training is supposed to work. The diagram below shows what a conceptual model for a typical training programme might look like.


    The conceptual model now represents our theory of change, and this is what we use as the basis for the evaluation. We can look at each stage in the model and use these to reflect on the actual situation. For example, the first stage in the whole process of training design and implementation is step 1, to set requirements for the learning system: obvious questions to ask here are whether these requirements exist, how realistic they are, who decided what they were, and so on. By working through each step in our model and asking these questions we can build up a holistic picture of how well the whole training process is working (when we come to steps 9 and 10), and how each stage contributes to the overall effectiveness of the learning system.

    Theory-based evaluation places a great deal of importance on the word just used, ‘contribution’. Trying to use Kirkpatrick as an evaluation tool works the other way, and we find ourselves trying to attribute training to observed changes. Contribution works the other way, and helps us to ask questions about how each stage enables the next, and how the overall model contributes to changes in behaviour and improvements in organisational performance. And it’s important to remember that we can never be 100% confident about causation: all we can ever say is that it seems likely that doing X has led to Y.

    The links with the Kirkpatrick framework are in steps 4 (Level 2), 6 (Level 3) and 9 (Level 4). There is no direct use of Level 1, Kirkpatrick’s ‘reaction’ level: there is very little evidence in research literature to suggest any direct link between liking training and subsequent learning. However, during an actual learning event it is important to gather information from learners about how useful they think the learning will be and to find out about what obstacles there may be in transferring this learning. This feeds into step 5, where we find out about how new knowledge and skill is being used. Assessing the so-called ‘learning transfer climate’ is a major omission in Kirkpatrick-based approaches to evaluation.

    While step 4 assesses whether people are learning, step 6 assesses if they are learning the right things, and so helps us to modify the content of the training as necessary. Step 9 helps us to see whether or not the overall concept of the training is right: should the training be delivered in another way or is training an answer at all?

    Since I have started to use theory-based evaluation and systems thinking approaches in training evaluation projects I have found them to be extremely useful in helping me to make connections between the delivery of training and subsequent workplace changes. By working forwards from the training to the performance rather than backwards from the performance, which is what a simple application of the Kirkpatrick framework implies that we should do, it is much easier to conduct evaluations which really show the value of a training programme.

    The explanation of TBE and systems thinking here has been necessarily short, but if anyone is interested they are welcome to look at my website for more information: .

    Bryan Hopkins is an independent consultant who has worked in training for nearly 30 years. He specialises in providing training needs analysis, design, delivery and evaluation services to international organisations working in the development and humanitarian sectors.

    Bryan has written a number of books on different aspects of learning and development, and his latest book, entitled “Learning and Development: A Systemic Model for Analysing Needs and Evaluating Training” will be published by Routledge in late 2016.

    He lives in Sheffield with his family, a cat and a number of bicycles.

Comments (1 comment)

Rich Parker, Training In Aid

“Thanks Bryan, as ever, for leading the way on systems-based training approaches in the humanitarian sector. Your adaptations of the various tools (especially soft systems methodology) have been extremely useful in the various evaluation projects our organisation has been involved with this year.
Whilst myself and others are perhaps less radical in our criticism of Kirkpatrick-style approaches (or perhaps this is simply a willingness to accept the dominate paradigm of our times?), we’ve certainly witnessed the added value that a systems approach can bring – even if only blended alongside other evaluation tools.
As the proverb goes: “All models are inherently wrong, but some can be quite useful if applied at the right moment….” “

12:00 – Friday October 28th, 2016

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