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Is effort relevant?

March 27, 2010

In a previous post regarding observable behaviours and measuring performance,  I made the statement;

You cannot measure effort, interest or care. These are not and should not be included as a result …

I still believe that this is critical for assessing individual task competence, but in conjunction with something I read in Atul Gawande’s book “Better” (great book by the way – if you haven’t read it and his earlier work, “Complications”, you are doing yourself a disservice), I’ve started to reconsider the importance of student effort in the determining overall workplace proficiency.

I’m not referring to a student’s motivation or their apparent attitude toward the training, but instead the actual physical or mental exertion that is required by the student to complete the work related tasks in the actual work environment.

Is there a difference between a student who can complete a task with relative ease and another who must apply 100% of their capability to be successful? If so, should it be a serious consideration; i.e. could it mean the difference between a successful assessment or a failure, regardless of the actual outcome?

On pondering the answer to this question, I immediately thought of the physical fitness test employed by the Royal Australian Air Force. On face value it appears to be quite tame in terms of difficulty – just a few sit ups, a flexed arm hang and a 2.4 km jog. But when you consider that it is to completed sub-maximally, that is without overly exerting yourself, you start to understand how it could challenge someone who has let their fitness level deteriorate. If the test arbiter thought that you were applying too much effort during the examination or it looked like you needed to (eg sporting a couch-potato physique), you were promptly issued with a heart monitor set to betray your accumulated laziness as a high-pitched squeal to everyone within ear-shot.

Not the best analogy I’d agree as the test is really assessing your physical limits by extrapolating your result from the lesser challenge. However, the concept of testing the student sub-maximally, in terms of effort, not via a modified set of standards, ensures that they are able to manage an increase in workload without detriment or have the capacity to elicit additional assistance should it be required.

Can we actually measure the amount of effort that a student is using to complete a task? Not directly, but if we look carefully, we should be able to use a few other metrics that signal when the student requires additional effort to complete their allotted duties. As we approach our work capacity, we have less time to devote to individual tasks. We begin to make more mistakes, spend additional time correcting them and start overlooking things that were previously readily apparent or no longer appear important by comparison. A few physical signs also appear; raised vocal pitch, edginess in our responses, a small sweat, abruptness with our co-workers and less tolerance to distractions (and peripheral incompetence, perceived or otherwise). Of course this is only a sample of possible physical reactions to the exertion and can be quite subjective , dependant on both the person and the working conditions. None-the-less, you can still use measurable such as; time, accuracy, quantity  (or  voice volume, word choice, number of corrections) etc.

In conducting simple tasks, this is usually an irrelevant factor and its the outcome that counts.  But what about the real world; the complex environments that we actually work in where you task-share, prioritise demands, manage multiple competing responsibilities, scan the environment for additional actions and respond to contingencies? Being able to just complete a single task is insignificant on the competency schema and a student who falters when the pressure increase slightly will usually have an affect the workplace and/or it’s workers. Additionally, work complexity will wax and wane with activities depending on the time of day and task at hand forcing the student to ramp up at short notice and then identify opportunities to relax or ‘regather themselves’ afterward.

Shouldn’t competence include the ability to surge on demand and identify when additional resources are needed in sufficient time to employ them?  Shouldn’t your assessments therefore cover this intangible element?

Do you measure error rates, time between tasks or the physical markers for workplace stress that indicate the student has progressed beyond comfortable capacity? Do you test how well the student can prioritise their tasks, identify their own limits and call for assistance in time for the work to be shared? Are you accounting for  the impact the student is having on the entire workplace, not just the direct results of their efforts? Most importantly, are you assessing the effect the workplace is having on the student and whether they are truly proficient, not just simply competent?

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