Marcia Conner

Shoot An Arrow, Then Draw A Target Around It

Shoot An Arrow, Then Draw A Target Around It

Shoot An Arrow, Then Draw A Target Around It

The mere mention of a test makes hearts race and palms sweat. Err, umm, I have someplace else to be… More than any other, the word test draws gut-level memories of difficult times in school-like settings when we felt unprepared or manipulated to learn something that didn’t seem very important—and then have someone else evaluate us on what they believed we should know.

Magnify that by 2,500, the average number of quizzes students face before they are 18 years old, another 100 or so tests in college. After all that, it might seem surprising that I’d even consider writing about the topic here. Eek!

Testing has my attention right now because colleagues are preparing to send their children off to school and clients are digging into performance review season, asking me if there’s a better way. Then Alfie Kohn put a match to the woodpile in a New York Times piece on the problems with national standards. Although it’s focused on school testing, he makes points directly related to the problems with corporate people measures. For example, “…uniformity isn’t the same thing as excellence; high standards don’t require common standards.” It really is no wonder everyone (even those who do well on them) hate performance reviews. Could there be, as Robby Slaughter asked, a fair and useful system for passing judgments on a one-dimensional view on the past?

Perhaps grouping together tests and performance reviews here seems like too big of a leap for you. At least consider that they are both rigid systems used to assess dynamic knowledge. They can enforce control, but they rarely create environments ripe for creativity.

Is there something to salvage? Absolutely. Performance reviews can be petrified practices we hold up as relics of the 1.0 world, ones that can only become more useful and illustrative as we make them  timely and engaging.

Testing, too, can offer value. Rather than consider it something that is done to you, look at your capacity to periodically check in and test yourself: for starters on what you know and what you’re learning in order to keep sharp.

If you want to find out how well you know something, try this simple test.

  1. Do I know enough so that I can think about it? Do I grasp the subject, the basic language associated with it, and some of the related issues?
  2. Do I know enough to talk about it? Can I name some examples and similar ideas?
  3. Do I know enough to teach it? Can I explain the important characteristics to someone else?
  4. Do I know enough so that I can debate the issues? Can I work though the subject if I’m challenged on certain points?

Discover your level of understanding by periodically asking yourself:

  • What do I know?
  • How do I know it?
  • Which am I unsure about?
  • What can I do to get a more complete understanding?
  • Where can I learn more?
  • What can I do to strengthen and challenge what I think I understand?

Then you might want to expand this testing—this sort of performance review—to ask if you’re fulfilling your promises and if not, what’s needed to get on track. Has your situation changed or your commitment to it? Do you now have information you didn’t have before and is it time to revisit and reset direction?

Look at testing and reviewing as an automatic part of the learning process, not one more sheep dip you’re doomed to swim in. Use it as a useful way to listen and make adjustments, gauge your progress, and achieve something that’s not uniform, rather uniquely yours.

[Photo crecit: Shoot, Thomas Hawk]



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  • Jack Ring

    Another valuable learnativity lesson. The essence of knowledge management (knowledge exchange and choice making) for adults and meaningful learning for all ages. TKU, Marcia.

  • Marcia – great list of questions. Another one that’s always worked well for me is “can I explain the knowledge to a friend or colleague so that it’s simple and easy to understand”. I find that if I can do that, I can usually apply the knowledge myself.

  • As a longtime training geek and ex-classroom trainer and facilitator, I have always been fascinated by the various ways to assess knowledge transfer.

    At one point in my career, as a classroom trainer, I experimented with a way to make lectures much more interactive by peppering them with questions along the way, and it morphed into a very conversational style that was fun and challenging for me, and I was told, more engaging for students.

    Later as a leader, I often used this same technique when trying to lead employees to the water and get them to drink. On a good day, when the stars and moons aligned and I was thinking on my feet well, I tried to incorporate Bloom’s taxonomy into my strategy… asking questions to assess at *what level* students or employees were grasping the content or ideas.

    I had used Bloom’s work before as an instructional designer, but I never grasped it as deeply myself then, as when I was using it as described above, in real-time. That experience deepened my understanding and made me a better designer, as well.

    So, in reading this post, that was obviously the first thing that crossed my mind. Your questions, applied in other assessment settings (performance reviews and self-assessment), reminded me immediately of Bloom. Perhaps there’d be some way to blend your idea with Bloom’s levels, and provide an easy yet structured way to deepen the assessment? Just a thought… it certainly would lend itself well to determining how deeply one, including oneself, understood a given topic.

    Thanks for making me think. That was a fun connection (for me).

    Bloom references:

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