Six tips to increase reliability in competence tests and exams

Posted by John Kleeman

Reliability (how consistent an assessment is in measuring something) is a vital criterion on which to judge a test, exam or quiz. This blog post explains what reliability is, why it matters and gives a few tips on how to increase it when using competence tests and exams within regulatory compliance and other work settings

What is reliability?

Picture of a kitchen scaleAn assessment is reliable if it measures the same thing consistently and reproducibly.

If you were to deliver an assessment with high reliability to the same participant on two occasions, you would be very likely to reach the same conclusions about the participant’s knowledge or skills. A test with poor reliability might result in very different scores across the two instances.

It’s useful to think of a kitchen scale. If the scale is reliable, then when you put a bag of flour on the scale today and the same bag of flour on tomorrow, then it will show the same weight. But if the scale is not working properly and is not reliable, it could give you a different weight each time.

Why does reliability matter?

Just like a kitchen scale that doesn’t work, an unreliable assessment does not measure anything consistently and cannot be used for any trustable measure of competency.

As well as reliability, it’s also important that an assessment is valid, i.e. measures what it is supposed to. Continuing the kitchen scale metaphor, a scale might consistently show the wrong weight; in such a case, the scale is reliable but not valid. To learn more about validity, see my earlier post Six tips to increase content validity in competence tests and exams.

How can you increase the reliability of your assessments?

Here are six practical tips to help increase the reliability of your assessment:

  1. Use enough questions to assess competence. Although you need a sensible balance to avoid tests being too long, reliability increases with test length. In their excellent book, Criterion-Referenced Test Development, Shrock and Coscarelli suggest a rule of thumb is 4-6 questions per objective, with more for critical objectives. You can also get guidance from an earlier post on this blog How many questions do I need on my assessment?
  2.  Have a consistent environment for participants. For test results to be consistent, it’s important that the test environment is consistent – try to ensure that all participants have the same amount of time to take the test in and have a similar environment. For example, if some participants are taking the test in a hurry in a public and noisy place and others are taking it at leisure in their office, this could impact reliability.
  3. Ensure participants are familiar with the assessment user interface. If a participant is new to the user interface or the question types, then they may not show their true competence due to the unfamiliarity. It’s common to provide practice tests to participants to allow them to become familiar with the assessment user interface. This can also reduce test anxiety which also influences reliability.
  4. If using human raters, train them well. If you are using human raters, for example in grading essays or in observational assessments that check practical skills, make sure to define your scoring rules very clearly and as objectively as possible. Train your observers/raters, review their performance, give practice sessions and provide exemplars.
  5. Measure reliability. There are a number of ways of doing this, but the most common way is to calculate what is called “Cronbach’s Alpha” which measures internal consistency reliability (the higher it is, the better). It’s particularly useful if all questions on the assessment measure the same construct. You can easily calculate this for Questionmark assessments using our Test Analysis Report.
  6. Conduct regular item analysis to weed out ambiguous or poor performing questions. Item analysis is an automated way of flagging weak questions for review and improvement. If questions are developed through sound procedures and so well crafted and non-ambiguously worded they are more likely to discriminate well and so contribute to a reliable test. Running regular item analysis is the best way to identify poorly performing questions. If you want to learn more about item analysis, I recently gave a webinar on “Item Analysis for Beginners”, and you can access the recording of this here.

 

I hope this blog post reminds you why reliability matters and gives some ideas on how to improve reliability. There is lots more information on how to improve reliability and write better assessments on the Questionmark website – check out our resources at www.questionmark.com/learningresources.

Judgement is at the Heart of nearly every Business Scandal: How can we Assess it?

Posted by John Kleeman
How does an organization protect itself from serious mistakes and resultant corporate fines?

An excellent Ernst & Young report on risk reduction explains that an organization needs rules and that they are immensely important in defining the parameters in which teams and individuals operate. But the report suggests that rules alone are not enough, it’s how they are adopted by people when making decisions that matter. Culture is a key part of such decision making. And that ultimately when things go wrong “judgement is at the heart of nearly every business scandal that ever occurred”.

Clearly judgement is important for almost every job role and not just to prevent scandals but to improve results. But how do you measure it? Is it possible to test individuals to identify how they would react in dilemmas and what judgement that would apply? And is it possible to survey an organization to discover what people think their peers would do in difficult situations?  One answer to these questions is that you can use Situational Judgement Assessments (SJAs) to measure judgement, both for individuals and across an organization.

Questionmark has published a white paper on Situational Judgement Assessments, written by myself and Eugene Burke. The white paper describes how to assess judgement where you:

  1. Identify job roles and competencies or aspects of that role in your organization or workforce where judgement is important.
  2. Identify dilemmas which are relevant to your organization and each of which requires a choice to be made and where that choice is linked to the relevant job role.
  3. Build questions based on the dilemmas which asks someone to select from the choices –   SJA (Situational Judgement Assessment) questions.

There are two ways of presenting such questions, either to survey someone or to assess individuals on their judgement.

  • You can present the dilemma and survey your workforce on how they think others would do in such a situation. For example “Rate how you think people in the organization are likely to behave in a situation like this. Use the following scale to rate each of the options below: 1 = Very Unlikely 2 = Unlikely 3 = Neutral 4 = Likely 5 = Very Likely”.
  • You can present the dilemma and test individuals on what they personally would do in such a situation, for example as shown in the screenshot below.

You work in the back office in the team approving new customers, ensuring that the organization’s procedures have been followed (such as credit rating and know your customer). Your manager is away on holiday this week. A senior manager in the company (three levels above you) comes into your office and says that there is an important new customer who needs to be approved today. They want to place a big order, and he can vouch that the customer is good. You review the customer details, and one piece of information required by your procedures is not present. You tell the senior manager and he says not to worry, he is vouching for the customer. You know this senior manager by reputation and have heard that he got a colleague fired a few months ago when she didn’t do what he asked. You would: A. Take the senior manager’s word and approve the customer B. Call your manager’s cellphone and interrupt her holiday to get advice C. Tell the manager you cannot approve the customer without the information needed D. Ask the manager for signed written instructions to override standard procedures to allow you to approve the customer

You can see this question “live” with other examples of SJA questions in one of our example assessments on the Questionmark website at www.questionmark.com/go/example-sja.

Once you deliver such questions, you can easily report on the results segmented by attributes of participants (such as business function, location and seniority as well as demographics such as age, gender and tenure). Such reports can help indicate whether compliance will be acted out in the workplace, evaluate where compliance professionals need to focus their efforts and measure whether compliance programs are gaining traction.

SJAs can be extremely useful as a tool in a compliance programme to reduce regulatory risk. If you’re interesting in learning more about SJAs, read Questionmark’s white paper “Assessing for Situational Judgment”, available free (with registration) at https://www.questionmark.com/sja-whitepaper.

Item Analysis for Beginners – Getting Started

Posted by John Kleeman
Do you use assessments to make decisions about people? If so, then you should regularly run Item Analysis on your results.  Item Analysis can help find questions which are ambiguous, mis-keyed or which have choices that are rarely chosen. Improving or removing such questions will improve the validity and reliability of your assessment, and so help you use assessment results to make better decisions. If you don’t use Item Analysis, you risk using poor questions that make your assessments less accurate.

Sometimes people can be fearful of Item Analysis because they are worried it involves too much statistics. This blog post introduces Item Analysis for people who are unfamiliar with it, and I promise no maths or stats! I’m also giving a free webinar on Item Analysis with the same promise.

An assessment contains many items (another name for questions) as figuratively shown below. You can use Item Analysis to look at how each item performs within the assessment and flag potentially weak items for review. By keeping only stronger questions in the assessment, the assessment will be more effective.

Picture of a series of items with one marked as being weak

Item Analysis looks at the performance of all your participants on the items, and calculates how easy or hard people find the items (“item difficulty” or “p-value”) and how well the scores on items correlate with or show a relationship with the scores on the assessment as a whole (“item discrimination” or correlation). Some of problematic questions that Item Analysis can identify are:

  • Questions almost all participants get right, and so which are very easy. You might want to review to these to see if they are appropriate for the assessment. See my earlier post Item Analysis for Beginners – When are very Easy or very Difficult Questions Useful? for more information.
  • Questions which are difficult, where a lot of participants get the questionwrong. You should check such questions in case they are mis-keyed or ambiguous.
  • Multiple choice questions where some choices are rarely picked. You might want to improve such questions to make the wrong choices more plausible.
  • Questions where there is a poor correlation between participants who get the question right and who do well on the assessment. For example it will flag questions that high performing participants perform poorly on. You should look at such questions in case they are ambiguous, mis-keyed or off-topic.

There is a huge wealth of information available in an Item Analysis report, and assessment experts will delve into the report in detail. But much of the key information in an Item Analysis report is useful to anyone creating and delivering quizzes, tests and exams.

The Questionmark Item Analysis report includes a graph which shows the difficulty of items compared against their discrimination, like in the example below. It flags questions by marking them amber or red if they fall into categories which may need review. For example, in the illustration below, four questions are marked in amber as having low discrimination and so potentially be worth looking at.

Illustration of Questionmark item analysis report showing some questions green and some amber

If you are running an assessment program, and not using Item Analysis regularly, then this throws doubt on the trustworthiness of your results. By using it to identify and improve weak questions you should be able to improve your validity and reliability.

Item Analysis is surprisingly effective in practice. I’m one of the team responsible at Questionmark for managing our data security test which all employees have to take annually to check their understanding of information security and data protection. We recently reviewed the test and ran Item Analysis and very quickly found a question with poor stats where the technology had changed but we’d not updated the wording, and another question where two of the choices could be considered right, which made it hard to answer. It made our review faster and more effective and helped us improve the quality of the test.

If you want to learn a little more about Item Analysis, I’m running a free webinar on the subject “Item Analysis for Beginners” on May 2nd. You can see details and register for the webinar at https://www.questionmark.com/questionmark_webinars. I look forward to seeing some of you there!

 

Seven Ways Assessments Fortify Compliance

Posted by John Kleeman
Picture of a tablet being used to take an assessment with currency symbols adjacentWhy do most of the world’s banks, pharmaceutical companies, utilities and other large companies use online assessments to test the competence of their employees?

It’s primarily because compliance fines round the world are high and assessments reduce the risk of regulatory compliance failures. Assessments also give protection to the organization in the event of an individual mis-step by proving that the organization had checked the individual’s knowledge of the rules prior to the mistake.

Here are seven reasons companies use assessments from my experience:

1. Regulators encourage assessments 

Some regulators require companies to test their workforce regularly. For example the US FDIC says in its compliance manual:

“Once personnel have been trained on a particular subject, a compliance officer should periodically assess employees on their knowledge and comprehension of the subject matter”

And the European Securities and Market Authority says in its guidelines for assessment of knowledge and competence:

“ongoing assessment will contain updated material and will test staff on their knowledge of, for example, regulatory changes, new products and services available on the market”

Other regulators focus more on companies ensuring that their workforce is competent, rather than specifying how companies ensure it, but most welcome clear evidence that personnel have been trained and have shown understanding of the training.

People sitting at desks with computers taking tests2. Assessments demonstrate commitment to your workforce and to regulators

Many compliance errors happen because managers pay lip service to following the rules but indicate in their behavior they don’t mean it. If you assess all employees and managers regularly, and require additional training or sanctions for failing tests, it sends a clear message to your workforce that knowledge and observance of the rules is genuinely required.

Some regulators also take commitment to compliance by the organization into account when setting the level of fines, and may reduce fines if there is serious evidence of compliance activities, which assessments can be a useful part of. For example the German Federal Court recently ruled that fines should be less if there is evidence of effective compliance management.

3. Assessments find problems early

Online assessments are one of the few ways in which a compliance team can touch all employees in an organization. You can see results by team, department, location or individual and identify who understands what and focus in on weak areas to look at improving. There is no better way to reach all employees.

4. Assessments document understanding after training

Many regulators require training to be documented. Giving someone an assessment after training doesn’t just confirm he or she attended the course but confirms they understood the training.

5. Assessments increase retention of knowledge and reduce forgetting

Can you remember everything you learned? Of course, none of us can!

There is good evidence that quizzes and tests increase retention and reduce forgetting. This is partly because people study for tests and so remind themselves of the knowledge they learned, which helps retain it. And it is partly because retrieving information in a quiz or test makes it easier to retrieve the same information in future, and so more likely to be able to apply in practice when needed.

6. By allowing testing out, assessments reduce the time and cost of compliance trainingTake test. If pass, skip training. Otherwise do training.

Many organizations permit employees to “test out” of compliance training. People can take a test and if they demonstrate good enough knowledge, they don’t need to attend the training. This concentrates training resources and employee time on areas that are needed, and avoids demoralizing employees with boring compliance training repeating what they already know.

7. Assessments reduce human error which reduces the likelihood of a compliance mis-step

Many compliance failures arise from human error. Root cause analysis of human error suggests that a good proportion of errors are caused by people not understanding training, training being missing or people not following procedures. Assessments can pick up and prevent mistakes caused by people not understanding what they should do or how to follow procedures, and so reduce the risk of error.

 

If you are interested in learning more about the reasons online assessments mitigate compliance risk, Questionmark are giving a webinar “Seven Ways Assessments Fortify Compliance” on April 11th. To register for this or our other free webinars, go to www.questionmark.com/questionmark_webinars.

Item Analysis for Beginners – When are very Easy or very Difficult Questions Useful?

Posted by John Kleeman

I’m running a session at the Questionmark user conference next month on Item Analysis for Beginners and thought I’d share the answer to an interesting question in this blog.

Item analysis fragment showing a question with difficulty of 0.998 and discrimination of 0.034When you run an Item Analysis report, one of the useful statistics you get on a question is its “p-value” or “item difficulty”. This is a number from 0 to 1, with the higher the value the easier the question. An easy question might have a p-value of 0.9 to 1.0, meaning 90% to 100% of participants answer the question correctly. A difficult question might have a p-value of 0.0 to 0.25 meaning less than 25% of participants answer the question correctly. For example, the report fragment to the right shows a question with p-value 0.998 which means it is very easy and almost everyone gets it right.

Whether such questions are appropriate depends on the purpose of the assessment. Most participants will get difficult questions wrong and easy questions right. In general, very easy and very difficult questions will not be as helpful as other questions in helping you discriminate between participants and so use the assessment for measurement purposes.

Here are three reasons why you might decide to include very difficult questions in an assessment:

  1. Sometimes your test blueprint requires questions on a topic and the only ones you have available are difficult ones – if so, you need to use them until you can write more.
  2. If a job has high performance needs and you need to filter out a few participants from many, then very difficult questions can be useful. This might apply for example if you are selecting potential astronauts or special forces team members.
  3. If you need to assess a wide range of ability within a single assessment, then you may need some very difficult questions to be able to assess abilities within the top performing participants.

And here are five reasons why you might decide to include very easy questions in an assessment:

  1. Answering questions gives retrieval practice and helps participants remember things in future – so including easy questions still helps reduce people’s forgetting.
  2. In compliance or health and safety, you may choose to include basic questions that almost everyone gets right. This is because if someone gets it wrong, you want to know and be able to intervene.
  3. More broadly, sometimes a test blueprint requires you to cover some topics that almost everyone knows, and it’s not practical to write difficult questions about.
  4. Easy questions at the start of an assessment can build confidence and reduce test anxiety. See my blog post Ten tips on reducing test anxiety for online test-takers for other ways to deal with test anxiety.
  5. If the purpose of your assessment is to measure someone’s ability to process information quickly and accurately at speed, then including many low difficulty questions that need to be answered in a short time might be appropriate.

If you want to learn more about Item Analysis, search this blog for other articles. You might also find the Questionmark user conference useful, since as well as my session on Item Analysis, there are also many other useful sessions including setting the cut-score in a fair, defensible way and identifying knowledge gaps. The conference also gives opportunity to learn and network with other assessment practitioners – I look forward to seeing some of you there.

New White Paper Examines how to Assess for Situational Judgment

Posted by John Kleeman

Is exercising judgment a critical factor in the competence of the employees and contractors who service your organization? If the answer to this is yes, as it most likely is, you may be interested in Questionmark’s white paper, just published this week on “Assessing for Situational Judgment”.

It’s not just CEOs who need to exercise judgment and make decisions, almost every job requires an element of judgment. Situational Judgment Assessments (SJAs) present a dilemma to the participant and ask them to choose options in response.


Context is defined -> There is a dilemma that needs judgment -> The participant chooses from options -> A score or evaluation is made

Here is an example: 

You work as part of a technical support team that produces work internally for an organization. You have noticed that often work is not performed correctly or a step has been omitted from a procedure. You are aware that some individuals are more at fault than others as they do not make the effort to produce high quality results and they work in a disorganized way. What do you see as the most effective and the least effective responses to this situation?
A.  Explain to your team why these procedures are important and what the consequences are of not performing these correctly.
B.  Try to arrange for your team to observe another team in the organisation who produce high quality work.
C.  Check your own work and that of everyone else in the team to make sure any errors are found.
D.  Suggest that the team tries many different ways to approach their work to see if they can find a method where fewer mistakes are made.

In this example, option C deals with errors but is time consuming and doesn’t address the behavior of team members. Option B is also reasonable but doesn’t deal with the issue immediately and may not address the team’s disorganized approach. Option D is asking a disorganized team to engage in a set of experiments that could increase rather than reduce errors in the work produced. This is likely to be the least effective of the options presented. Option A does require some confidence in dealing with potential pushback from the other team members, but is most likely to have a positive effect.

You can see some more SJA examples at http://www.questionmark.com/go/example-sja.

SJA items assess judgment and variations can be used in pre-hire, post-hire training, for compliance and for certification. SJAs offer assessment programs the opportunity to move beyond assessments of what people know (knowledge of what) to assessments of how that knowledge will be applied in the workplace (knowledge of how).

Questionmark’s white paper is written as a collaboration by Eugene Burke, well known advisor on talent, assessment and analytics and myself. The white paper is aimed at:

  • Psychometricians, testing professionals, work psychologists and consultants who currently create SJAs for workplace use (pre-hire or post-hire) and want to consider using Questionmark technology for such use
  • Trainers, recruiters and compliance managers in corporations and government looking to use SJAs to evaluate personnel
  • High-tech or similar certification organizations looking to add SJAs to increase the performance realism and validity of their exam

The 40 page white paper includes sections on:

  • Why consider assessing for situational judgment
  • What is an SJA?
  • Pre-hire and helping employers and job applicants make better decisions
  • Post-hire and using SJAs in workforce training and development
  • SJAs in certification programs
  • SJAs in support of compliance programs
  • Constructing SJAs
  • Pitfalls to avoid
  • Leveraging technology to maximize the value of SJAs

Situational Judgment Assessments are an effective means of measuring judgment and the white paper provides a rationale and blueprint to make it happen. The white paper is available free (with registration) from https://www.questionmark.com/sja-whitepaper.

I will also be presenting a session about SJAs in March at the Questionmark Conference 2018 in Savannah, Georgia – visit the conference website for more details.