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Happy Sheets: Six Reasons to Be Happy

Bob Little 

September 2, 2016

Youd be unusual indeed if – as either trainer or trainee – you’d never encountered “happy sheets.”

Don Kirkpatrick – developer of the Kirkpatrick model of evaluation, published in 1959 and then updated in 1975 and 1994 – is widely credited with being the “father” of the happy sheet (also known as “reaction sheet or “smile sheet). The happy sheet applies to the first of Kirkpatrick’s (initial) four levels of evaluation – Reaction, Learning, Behavior, and Results.

Level one measures the reactions of the trained to the training they received, by asking them to comment on the adequacy of that training, the approach, and its perceived relevance. The goal is to identify problems. Its not to determine whether the training worked.” Among other things, the results should help you to improve the training – in terms of conduct and content – for future learners.

However – human nature being what it is – it’s tempting to use the happy sheet to confirm the trainer’s skills and good taste in arranging an ideal venue and excellent refreshments. Don Kirkpatrick’s son, Jim – the senior consultant for Kirkpatrick Partners says, “What we do is to ask participants their thoughts about us and our methods, our buildings and our coffee. We should be asking about these things – and how they’re experiencing the training event in relation to their needs.”

He advocates including questions on the happy sheet that relate to higher evaluation levels. These include:

  • I understood the objectives that were outlined during the course (level two).
  • I will be able to apply what I learned during this session on the job (level three).
  • I anticipate that I will eventually see positive results as a result of my efforts (level four).

Keep the questions regarding what the participants liked and didn’t like, but consider adding such questions as, ‘What were the three most important things you learned from this session?’, ‘From what you learned, what do you plan to apply back at your job?’, and ‘What kind of help might you need to apply what you learned?’,” adds Jim, who co-authored three books related to evaluation with his father.

Queensland, Australia-based Stacey Barr, who helps people to set, recognize and achieve tangible results for their organizations, believes that, irrespective of what questions you ask on happy sheets, you’re just measuring the participants’ perspectives. She says, “This won’t give you any idea of what kind of impact it will – or will not – have on your business, after the freshly trained people return to work.

“When I run my performance measuring workshops, I don’t use happy sheets, but I ask four questions: ‘Overall, how do you rate your experience of this workshop?’, ‘Why didn’t you rate any higher?’, ‘Why didn’t you rate any lower?’, and ‘How likely will you be to refer this workshop to others?’

“This information helps me to understand what to keep in the workshop, what to change, and how well it’s performing as time goes by.”

According to learning “guru” and EdTech entrepreneur Donald Clark, Traci Sitzmann’s meta-studies covering 68,245 trainees investigate whether satisfied students learn more than dissatisfied students, and whether self-assessments of knowledge are accurate.

Clark reports that Sitzmann’s studies show that self-assessment captures motivation and satisfaction, but not knowledge levels. So she recommends that self-assessments shouldn’t be included in course evaluations, and shouldn’t be used as a substitute for objective learning measures.

Agreeing with Barr’s view, Clark says, “Favourable reactions on happy sheets don’t guarantee that the learners have learnt anything. This data merely measures opinion.

Learners can be happy and stupid. One can express satisfaction with a learning experience yet still have failed to learn. For example, you may have enjoyed the experience just because the trainer told good jokes and kept the class amused.

Conversely, learning can occur and job performance improve even though the participants thought the training was a waste of time. Learners often learn under duress, through failure or through experiences that, although difficult at the time, prove to be useful later.

Clark believes that happy sheet data is often flawed, since it’s neither sampled nor representative. Its often a skewed sample from those who have pens, are prompted, and liked or disliked the experience.

In any case, it’s too often applied after the damage has been done,” he says. “The data is gathered but, by that time, the cost has been incurred. More focus on evaluation prior to delivery, during analysis and design, is more likely to eliminate inefficiencies in learning.

However, Karen Roem – based in Cambridge, in the U.K. – takes a more charitable view. She says that, with the right questions, happy sheets can reveal what people want or need to know about a subject – and they give you ideas on how you can help trainees to learn the topic for themselves.

Roem argues for keeping faith with happy sheets for six reasons:

  • They’re quick, simple, and easy on your budget.
  • Feedback can be given anonymously.
  • You don’t have to embarrass trainees into completing happy sheets at the end of a session. You can create opportunities for feedback during a session and/or you can email the sheet to the trainees after the course – putting them under less pressure and allowing them to give more useful, considered feedback.
  • Any dissatisfaction with happy sheets may be overcome by redesigning the sheet – maybe focusing on the learner, not the trainer, along lines suggested by Paul Clothier in his book, “The Complete Computer Trainer.” He suggests that the form should include a list of topics covered in the class, with check boxes for the learner to indicate his or her level of understanding for each topic.
  • You’re not super (wo)man. Just because getting negative feedback isn’t easy, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t ask for it. If all we’re after is getting feel good comments, happy sheets are limited in value.
  • Feedback from happy sheets can make a real difference. For every completed happy sheet received, Roem pledges to donate a sum of money to “Children of Nepal,” a British charitable organization that aims to extend and improve educational opportunities for children living in Nepal. This gives the learner an incentive to complete and return the form – so everyone is happy.

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