Why Performance Tests are Better Than Knowledge Tests

What is a performance test?

A performance test is esssentially a checklist of key performance characteristics that define the criteria for successful performance. The checklist is used during observation of performance (or to review the result or output of performance) to assess whether the performance is acceptable. Performance tests can be used as a “gate” to determine whether performers are ready to “go solo” or simply as a way to verify capability (e.g., in a training course).

By contrast, a knowledge test attempts to assess the learner’s retention and recall of information or, occasionally, the application of rules.


Why I like performance tests.

Performance tests have several advantages over knowledge tests.

1. A performance test measures the right things. 

Assuming that your focus is on performance, a performance test is going to tell you what you should want to know. Specifically, it will tell you what people can do overall, and at a more granular level. It doesn’t tell you the learner “knows” the rules of the road…it tells you the learner can follow the rules of the road, steer and stop the car appropriately, use lanes correctly, follow traffic signals and signs, monitor other drivers’ movements, or any other criteria built into the test. As a benefit, it also tells you if they know the rules of the road based on whether or not they follow the rules in the course of performance!

2. A performance tests defines the work and the criteria for performance.

This is not trivial. In almost every case where we have developed performance tests (including work environments where there are detailed SOPs for every task) we have created new knowledge. That is, we have identified or clarified tasks or techniques or sequences that were missing or incorrect in existing documentation. Usually, the criteria for performance we define at the task level has not been previously documented. (In many cases, employees had figured these things out but they had not been communicated or standardized.) This is valuable to the business.

Clarifying performance requirements usually also simplifies the performance. It takes some of the mystique out of ”mastery” but makes it easier for all performers to perform effectively.

3. Performance tests connect training to performance.

The actual performance test instrument, as mentioned earlier, is typically a description of the work down to the task level. It includes criteria for successful performance that are as clear and objective as possible–instrument must be able to yield consistent results when used by multiple evaluators. In many cases, the performance test is used as a job aid by learners and a training by coaches and supervisors (in addition to being used for assessment).

4. If the performance test is done well, it is a more accurate test of capability than a knowledge test.

Actually performing almost always requires more than simple recall of information or even application of rules. It requires putting everything together in a real situation. That includes information, use of tools/resources, situational factors, and even “noise” in the environment. Performance often happens in “real time” where knowledge tests are usually off-line (or “stop time”). For example, knowing traffic laws (the “written test”) is not a good test for whether a teenager can actually drive, that is, can actually navigate through traffic and make good decisions in the moment. 

5. You don’t have to hide the answers.

A performance test, including the key performance criteria, can be published to anyone. With a performance test, just because you know what is expected doesn’t mean you can do it. So there is no need to hide or randomize the questions and answers. (This is why it can be used by learners as a job aid.)

6. (There is the potential to) get work done during the testing process.

In a business situation, the performance test can often be administered by a “master performer” (who has been trained/qualified to administer performance tests). So while the learner is being tested, he or she is actually doing real work. It may be at a slower rate and may require an additional resource (i.e., the master performer) to evaluate it more closely than normal, it is still resulting in output. And, you would hope that someone would be checking the work of any new (or unqualified) performer anyway so it is not an incremental increase in resource.

7. Managing learner expectations for “going solo.”

Instead of the learner “watching and learning” with the master performer for an undetermined period of time, a specific gate is identified and the learner, master performer, and supervisor will have a clear point in time for when the learner is ready to solo.

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