Why we frown upon smile sheets

A method to get more value out of post-training surveys.


The post-course survey, or smile sheet, has been used for decades as Level 1 evaluations after a training session are done. But, how much value is in them?

These surveys are usually handed out after a long day (or days) of learning, often as an afterthought, and quickly completed by students who want to leave and go home.

Rating scales tend be skewed to the positive on most post-course surveys as students are often reluctant to upset the instructor. Many surveys include an area for open-ended, free-form responses, but these areas are frequently left blank by the students.

Both of these factors severely limit the value of smile sheets, for both trainers and your company’s stakeholders.

Get Better Feedback

In the August 2013 issue of Will’s News, learning and performance consultant and researcher Will Thalheimer proposes that smile sheets would have more value if the questions could be reworked to coax more precise answers from students.1

For example, a typical post-training survey question may read: On a scale of 1 to 5, how valuable was this class in relation to your job tasks?

A much better survey question, as put forth by Thalheimer, would be as follows:

Given the topics taught in this class, how able are you to put what you’ve learned into practice on the job?

I’m NOT AT ALL ABLE to put the concepts into practice.

I have a GENERAL AWARENESS of the concepts taught, but I will need more training, practice, guidance and/or experience to DO ACTUAL JOB TASKS using the concepts taught.

I am ABLE TO WORK ON ACTUAL JOB TASKS, but I’ll need more hands-on experience to be fully competent in using the concepts taught.

I am ABLE TO PERFORM ACTUAL JOB TASKS at a FULLY-COMPETENT LEVEL in using the concepts taught.

I am ABLE TO PERFORM ACTUAL JOB TASKS at an EXPERT LEVEL in using the concepts taught.

An Average Rating

An average rating of 3.5 on the first question would tell your company’s stakeholders that more than half of the students felt the training had value in relation to job tasks. Whereas an average rating of 3.5 on the second, more detailed question tells stakeholders that most students feel they can perform job tasks covered in the training session right away, but several feel they need to perform such tasks frequently back on the job to become fully competent.

This not only helps trainers and training developers to rework the course as necessary, but also provides managers with information on appropriate reinforcement and follow-up needed on the job.

A Second Time

To gain the full effect of an enhanced smile sheet, it can be administered again to the same students after 60 to 90 days back on the job.

This can indicate if the learning “stuck” after the usual post-training decay period, and/or if students are using new skills or performing new tasks often enough on the job to gain the needed experience.

1 Thalheimer, Will. Performance Focused Smile Sheets. August 7, 2013. Retrieved from www.astd.com.

Stephen Howe is manager of maintenance and technical training for United Rentals. www.unitedrentals.com. Founded in 1997, United Rentals is the largest equipment rental company in the world, with an integrated network of more than 850 rental locations throughout the United States and Canada. Howe is a past president of the Automotive Training Managers Council (ATMC), a global organization of training managers from automotive aftermarket, OEM, supplier, service tool and training companies. www.atmc.org.

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