Donald Kirkpatrick’s four levels of training: Lessons from a Legend

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When Donald L. Kirkpatrick,  Professor Emeritus, University Of Wisconsin first gave his ideas for a  series of articles to be published in the Journal of American Society of Training Directors in the year 1959, hardly had anyone anticipated that this was to be the stuff of legend. The articles were subsequently included in what went on to become the bible of workplace training, his book- Evaluating Training Programs, published in 1994. The book further clarifies his earlier thoughts on training in the form of a comprehensive four-level evaluation model that is now considered the industry standard across the HR and training communities. Here  is what the model basically measures and how:



The model seeks to find out how the trainees felt about the learning and training experience by fetching answers to questions like:

  •   Did the trainees enjoy the training?
  •   Did they consider it relevant in terms of the time they invested?
  •   What was the level of participation?
  •   How useful do they think the training was for helping them in their everyday work roles?

Answers to these questions may be obtained by using ‘happy sheets’ which are paper-pencil or online surveys typically administered immediately after the conclusion of the training event. Verbal reactions of trainees are also analysed by instructors and managers. Evaluating the reaction is essential to streamline the organization’s efforts towards those learning activities that are deemed important. Moreover, upset or disappointed trainees are likely to spread negative word of mouth to others who might be deciding whether to go for such learning experiences.

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By evaluating learning, the model seeks to quantify the actual increase in knowledge or intellectual capability from before to after the learning experience. This is done by asking questions like:

  •  Did the trainees learn what was intended to be taught?
  •  Did they experience what was intended for them to experience?
  •  In the specific skill/knowledge that was to be imparted, what is the extent of advancement or change in the trainees?

Written assessments or face-to-face interviews before and after the training event are used to gather information on this front. Reliable, consistent and clear scoring measurements are used to analyse how far was the learning delivered. However, this is easier said than done while measuring abstract skills like attitudinal development.


Behaviour evaluation is the extent to which the trainees applied the learning and changed their behaviour. This usually requires soft skills on the part of the manager, who might try to find answers to questions like:

  •   Were the skills imparted during training applied on the job?
  •   Was there noticeable and measurable change in the activity and performance of the participants?
  •   Is the change in behaviour sustainable?
  •   Would the trainee be able to transfer his learning to another person?

To assess the behavioural changes, the focus is more on subtle techniques like observation and interview to interpret learners’ reactions. Behaviour change evaluation is possible given good support and involvement from line managers or trainees, so it is advisable to gain their(trainees’) confidence from the start by identifying benefits for them.

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This is the ultimate test of the usefulness of the training because it evaluates the effect on the business or environment resulting from the improved performance of the trainee. This is achieved by deriving answers to questions like:

  •   Does the training program give good returns on investement?
  •   Is there an increase in the business performance indicators like volumes, values, percentages, etc.?
  •   Is there a reduction in number of complaints, failure instances, wastage etc.?

Though individually results evaluation is not particularly difficult, the challenge lies in identifying which measures relate to the trainee’s input and influence and how. Also, external factors significantly affect organisational and business performance, which cloud the true cause of good or poor results.

Inspite of a few considerations regarding the time and cost factors, particularly for organizations that do not have a dedicated training department, Kirkpatrick’s model is the most popular model of training evaluation. Organizations world over have benefited from it.


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