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How to create an exam that everyone will enjoy

Over a coffee with a colleague earlier today, the conversation turned to assessing learning after a training workshop. Of the many people who’ve attended my workshops over the years, some have been extremely capable practitioners for whom school most definitely would have been one of the least rewarding times of their life.  In fact at one workshop a delightful young man confided to me that he couldn’t read, so please could I not ask him to read an excerpt out loud. (It’s for this reason that I always call for volunteers to read out loud – and even when someone’s workmates are laughing and pointing at one of their team to volunteer, I never accept the offer unless the hand comes out to take the paper. In the case of the nice young man, I was able to reassure him that I was looking for someone to pretend to be a grumpy judge, and that he was far too nice for the job!)

When we deliver training, we really do need some way of assessing the learning outcomes that goes beyond the level 1 “smile sheet”, which basically tells you whether or not people liked the food. But sometimes we train people we won’t see again, so we can’t assess the improvement in their workplace skills. In these cases we need some kind of assessment at the end of the day, whether on site if the numbers are small enough, or in a “classroom” style setting.

Academic people are used to sitting exams and won’t be phased by a written or text-based online  test at or after the end of a workshop. But for the non-academic people who at best are not used to sitting exams or at worst are still scarred by their school experiences, the terms “test” or “exam” strike fear into their hearts and will set them up to fail.

Some years ago, I did a green building course over a weekend with Johann Bernhardt and Eddie Van Uden. Then they announced there would be a test at the end, and I was absolutely horrified! Sure, I was interested in green building and wanted to build a green home eventually – but I wasn’t a builder and was convinced I’d make a complete mess of it.

To my surprise and delight, Johann and Eddie set up the exam for everyone’s success. They handed round a sheet of paper with 10 questions on it and space to write the answers (so far, so normal), got us all round a table (bit of a departure from normal there) and then read out the first question and said; “Well, what do you guys think?” (- by now, definitely abnormal in terms of any exam I’d ever sat!) Someone tentatively suggested an answer, someone else asked a question, another offered a story from their experience, and at the end, our trainers asked someone to sum up, then we all wrote the answer down!

We went through all the questions in that way, with different people able to summarise the different questions, and the trainers making sure everyone had good chances to have some input. It was not only a thorough evaluation of the workshop, but also a thoroughly enjoyable way to review and consolidate our learnings.

This approach would be just as effective for people who aren’t confident writers and readers, too: to ensure these people can learn comfortably, we’d need to give open reassurances at the very start of the workshop and before the “test” that we will talk through the workshop at the end so the trainers can make sure people are confident about what they’ve learned, and that you can make notes if you wish. See? Choice not compulsion, participation not reiteration, and co-operation not isolation – much more how it is in a good workplace.

Who among your trainees and which of your workshops could benefit from this approach?