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]


Shoot An Arrow, Then Draw A Target Around It
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