Interview with Will Thalheimer, PhD

Thalheimer (1)What motivated you to write this book?

I’ve worried about my own smile sheets (aka response forms, reaction forms, level 1’s) for years! I know they’re not completely worthless because I got useful feedback when I was a mediocre leadership trainer-feedback that helped me get better. But I’ve also seen the research (two meta-analyses covering over 150 scientific studies) showing that smile sheets are NOT correlated with learning results-that is, smile sheets don’t tell us anything about learning! I also saw clients-chief learning officers and other learning executives-completely paralyzed by their organizations’ smile-sheet results. They knew their training was largely ineffective, but they couldn’t get any impetus for change because the smile-sheet results seemed fine.


So I asked myself, should we throw out our smile sheets or is it possible to improve them? I concluded that organizations would use smile sheets anyway, so we had to try to improve them. I wrote the book after figuring out how smile sheets could be improved.

If you could distill your message down to just one – what would it be?

Smile sheets should (1) draw from the wisdom distilled from the science-of-learning findings, and (2) smile-sheet questions ought to be designed to (2a) support learners in making more precise smile-sheet decisions and (2b) should produce results that are clear and actionable. Too often we use smile sheets to produce a singular score for our courses. “My course is a 4.1!” But these sorts of numerical averages leave everyone wondering what to do.


How can trainers use this book to assist them in the work that they do?

Organizations, and learning-and-development professionals in particular, can use my book to gain wisdom about the limitations of their current evaluation approaches. They can review almost 30 candidate questions to consider utilizing in their own smile sheets. They can learn how to persuade others in using this radical new approach to smile-sheet design. Finally, they can use the book to give them the confidence and impetus to finally make improvements in their smile-sheet designs-improvements that will enable them to create a virtuous cycle of continuous improvement in terms of their learning designs. Getting valid feedback is the key to any improvement. My book is designed to help organizations get better feedback on their learning results.


Do you have a personal motto that you live by?

Be open to improvement. Look for the best sources of information-look to scientific research in particular to enable practical improvements. Be careful. Don’t take the research at face value. Instead, understand it in relation to other research sources and, most importantly, utilize the research from a practical perspective.


Will Thalheimer, PhD


Work-Learning Research, Inc.