“I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”  —Alan Greenspan

I once heard a young operator complain, “All we do around here is safety training. Nobody understands half of it and the other half is just common sense.”  In other words, training is either obvious or incomprehensible.  There is a reason that almost every OSHA regulation not only includes a requirement for training, but a requirement to verify that employees understood the training.

Verifying Understanding

The requirement in the OSHA Process Safety Management Standard lays it out:

“The employer shall ascertain that each employee involved in operating a process has received and understood the training required by this paragraph. The employer shall prepare a record which contains the identity of the employee, the date of training, and the means used to verify that the employee understood the training.” — 29 CFR 1910.119(g)(3)

While there are many different variations, the means to verify understanding of training can be divided into four categories:

  • Self-assessment
  • Quiz/Exam
  • Conference/Discussion
  • Observation

Self-assessment

Also called “read and understood,” self-assessment depends on the trainee deciding that they understand the training material.  This may involve the use of self-quizzes, but usually involves the trainee reading training material and then signing a statement that they “read and understood” the material. This type of verification is suitable for simple training, particularly for training that is primarily informative.  However, when self-assessment is used to verify understanding of training, there must be an opportunity and means for a trainee to get clarification of the training material from a trainer.

Self-assessment is rarely suitable for verifying understanding of complex material.  Moreover, self-assessment should not be used to comply with OSHA regulations that require verification of understanding of mandated training. Generally, OSHA inspectors take a dim view of self-assessment.

The signed statement that training has been read and understood is better than nothing as evidence of the verification of understanding.  A sign-in sheet for training does not satisfy the requirements of self-assessment, since it is before the training.  A sign-out sheet may satisfy the requirements of self-assessment.

Quizzes and Exams

Quizzes and exams are written testing tools that verify understanding by asking questions and evaluating trainee responses.  “Exams” are considered to be more formal than “quizzes,” but there is no practical difference between them.  Both require that the trainer prepare the test in advance and their utility in verifying understanding of training depends on the quality of the questions and the type of training.  Quizzes and exams are useful for verifying knowledge; they are not as useful for confirming skills. They are typically used to verify understanding of classroom training.

The form of a quiz or exam can include matching, true/false, multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, short answer, and essay questions, or any combination.  It is important that questions are substantive and that they reinforce the major points of the training.  They should be clear and unambiguous and should not be “trick” questions.

Quizzes and exams may be administered on paper or electronically.  An oral quiz or exam is essentially a conference or discussion, and is discussed in the next section. Once the quiz has been administered, it important to immediately review the questions and to discuss the correct answers.  Otherwise, the wrong answer will become cemented in the mind of the trainee who gave it.

Quizzes and exams naturally provide a record of verifying understanding, assuming that a trainee notes their name on the document and gets passing marks. What a passing mark is should be determined before the quiz or exam is administered.

Conferences and Discussions

Conferences and discussions can occur throughout the course of training or at the end, or both.  They are oral and have the advantage of involving everyone being trained.  Another advantage is that they reinforce understanding for everyone, and give a trainer an opportunity to correct misunderstandings as soon as they are voiced, which benefits everyone, not just the person voicing the misunderstanding.

Conferences and discussions rely on the use of close-ended and open-ended questions to prompt discussion.  Close-ended questions, which can be answered with a single word or short phrase, should be used sparingly. Instead, conferences and discussions should rely heavily on open-ended questions, which require more thought to answer. The trainer should have questions prepared in advance to assure that they are open-ended and that all the material is addressed, but should be flexible in responding to the direction the discussion goes.

While all trainees benefit from hearing the discussion, it is important that questions be addressed to each trainee and that each trainee is called upon to speak.  Some trainees will readily volunteer answers and may be inclined to dominate the discussion; it is up to the trainer to assure that all participate.

Conferences and discussions can be used to verify understanding of classroom training and of on-the-job training.

Documentation of conferences and discussions should include a list of the prepared questions that were used to prompt discussion, and a checklist of trainees to show that each had at least one opportunity to respond.

Observation

Observation is used almost exclusively to verify understanding of on-the-job training. This method of verification depends on a trainer observing a trainee successfully demonstrating a skill.

A trainer should have a list of skills and tasks that must be demonstrated and document that those skills and tasks have been successfully demonstrated as part of the verification.

Implementing Verification of Understanding

Training is essential to a safe workplace.  No matter how well presented and received, training is not complete without a means to verify understanding. So, when you are developing safety training material—or any training material—consider the means to verify understanding of the material and develop that too.  Don’t worry about grading on a curve; ideally, everyone will earn an A.

Most likely, quizzes or exams will be the method you go to first.  They are straightforward, easy to document, and easy for recordkeeping.  In many cases, they are the best method.  However, don’t overlook other methods. Self-assessment may be appropriate in some circumstances.  Conferences and discussion require no more effort to prepare, even if they take more effort to document, and everyone benefits from the clarity of a conversation.  Finally, be sure to include observation in your box of tools.  It is the most difficult to administer, but for training on skills, it is the only valid means to verify understanding.