Dr. Paul Camp, a professor at Georgia Institute of Technology, who for more than thirty years has been studying the ways we learn, describes the shortfalls of most leadership training assessment programs using a “U-Shaped” development curve. The notion that performance always improves with time, that the more you learn, the more you know and the more you know the more you can do, is as close to an accepted law of nature as it is possible to come by in education research.

It is deeply engrained in all aspects of almost every pedagogical approach. It governs the linear development of ideas in the writing of textbooks and the design of everything from traditional courses to experiential learning activities. It also governs the evaluation of all of these programs through reliance on pre/post testing.

However, as a law, it appears that it may have the same scientific status as the medieval impetus theory. The unspoken notion that you never get worse as you continue to learn has to be called into serious question by the phenomenon of U-shaped development.

We have observed this learning curve in our business simulations. Individuals may exhibit confidence in their actions in the first round when the situation is relatively straightforward. Then, as we provide new information and present impacts from previous decisions, those same individuals start to miss simple decisions. The new information causes them to question what they thought they knew and understood.

If we test the simulation training participants in the first hour of the round, it will appear that they “get it.” Although, as they go through progressive rounds and the situation becomes more complex, they begin to experience cognitive disconnects that separate them from the new material, as well as from the information they thought they knew. Assessments done at this point often show subpar thinking—not because the participant doesn’t get it, but because he is in the middle of constructing a new mental model.

So, to make leadership development assessments more viable for both the individual and the organization we need to rethink the purpose and how assessments are designed and utilized.  Instead of using assessments as checkpoints threaded throughout professional development training programs to determine if the participant remembered the right information, an assessment should:

  1. Provide the individual with information that will help them surface and evaluate their own mental models
  2. Provide the organization with information that will help surface and evaluate course designs and offerings

To achieve these goals requires a different design approach.  Typically, there is a question pool and some type of interface (e.g., computer or paper-based) that is used to collect responses. Scores and feedback associated with the question are generated and presented back to the participant. These assessments are relatively easy to develop and the information gathered fits within the capabilities of most learning management systems.

Mike Vaughan

Author Mike Vaughan

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