How to Assure the Alignment of Learning Certificate Programs

Student raising hand in certificate learning training class.

Aligning Learning Programs with Organizational Goals

In today’s fast-paced business environments, aligning certificate programs with organizational goals is not just a value-add; it’s a necessity. This alignment ensures that learning outcomes directly contribute to the organization’s strategic objectives, creating a symbiotic relationship between workforce development and organizational success.

Certificate programs tailored to an organization’s goals do more than just enhance learner skills. They foster a culture of continuous improvement and innovation, both key elements in maintaining competitive advantage, and in meeting existing standards for workplace learning.

Moreover, aligning certificate programs with organizational goals helps in optimizing resource allocation. By identifying the specific skills needed to achieve business objectives, organizations can design targeted learning interventions that enhance job performance. This prevents wasting time and resources on unnecessary or redundant programs, ensuring that every dollar spent on workforce development has a clear return on investment.

Engaging Stakeholders and Obtaining Management Support

The success of certificate programs hinges on the active engagement of stakeholders and the support of management. Engaging key stakeholders early in the planning process ensures that the program aligns with the strategic goals of the organization and addresses the actual needs of all parties involved.  This assures that the programs’ purpose and scope are aligned with the organization’s mission.

The process starts with identifying all potential stakeholders, including management, employees, subject matter experts and participants. The next step is to communicate and validate how the proposed program will benefit each group. For management, emphasizing the return on investment through improved performance, reduced turnover, cost savings and potential revenue growth is crucial.

Securing management support is not just about obtaining approval for budget; it’s also about encouraging management to actively champion the program and its purpose. Management’s endorsement can dramatically increase program effectiveness, creating a culture of continuous learning and improvement. Engaging all stakeholders directly in the design and development of courses builds support, leading to smoother implementation and maximum impact and sustainability of certificate programs.

Needs Assessment Establishes the Need for Learning Programs

In the realm of training and development, conducting a needs assessment is the foundational step in designing effective programs that truly meet the needs of an organization and the audience it serves. Adherence to ANSI/ASTM E2659 further emphasizes the importance of a systematic needs assessment.

ANSI/ASTM E2659, which sets the consensus standards for certificate programs, requires an initial analysis to determine whether a certificate program should be developed and to address specific gaps in skills or knowledge. This standardized approach not only adds a layer of credibility but also ensures a structured methodology to address specific learning and development gaps.

The value of needs assessment lies in its ability to tailor certificate programs that are directly aligned with both the strategic goals of the organization and the key skills, knowledge, attitudes (KSA) and individual competencies required for learners to perform at their best. By first identifying what specific skills or knowledge are lacking, organizations can avoid the common pitfall of one-size-fits-all programs. Instead, they create targeted programs that offer measurable benefits in terms of enhanced productivity, improved job performance, and increased employee satisfaction.

Furthermore, a needs assessment provides a clear roadmap of what needs to be achieved and why. It aids in securing buy-in from all stakeholders by clearly outlining how the proposed program will address specific issues and contribute to organizational goals.  It is the basis of program outcomes, learning objectives, and assessment considerations which enhance career and employment opportunities for participants and produce measurable results for organizations that invest in professional development and human capital.

Establishing Clear Learning Objectives and Outcomes

The learning objectives and performance outcomes that guide course development should be based on a needs assessment. As stated, a competent needs assessment will uncover the KSAs and competencies required to successfully perform the job duties assigned to any position. This is typically accomplished by conducting job task analysis (JTA) for skills and competency analysis for knowledge and attitudes.

By basing course content on job-related KSAs, we can ensure that the program will be directly job-related and lead to clear performance outcomes that benefit both individuals and the organizations that employ them.

A vital component of workplace training programs is to improve employment opportunities for participants. In some cases, this means qualifying people for entry-level jobs in industries experiencing labor shortages. In other cases, it means preparing workers for promotional opportunities that require additional knowledge and skills they currently lack or preparing them for changes to the way they currently work.

Certificate Issuers should conduct labor market research to identify current and future job opportunities in the professions and careers of interest to them. They should target job skills in demand in order to best serve their stakeholders.  

One of the important results of needs assessment is a list of the learning outcomes and objectives that should guide the development of certificate programs. Although these findings should be stated in specific and measurable terms, oftentimes instructional designers must further refine learning objectives to make them useful for generating relevant content and exercises.

The most popular technique for developing measurable objectives is based on Robert Mager’s formula for performance-based learning objectives. He argued that objectives should have four components. Two are required: a target behavior and content, while two are optional: conditions and standards.

As a bare minimum, an objective should have an observable behavior and content. It often also contains conditions and standards. The four components are described below:

  1. A statement of the target behavior in the form of an action verb.
  2. A statement of the content, which is the task or topic upon which the trainee will act.
  3. A statement of the conditions under which the trainee is expected to perform the target behavior, such as the environment and the tools and technology provided.
  4. A statement of the standards that the trainee will achieve upon mastery.

For example: Explain the safety rules that apply in an auto factory when working with machinery without error.

This objective contains all four components and would facilitate the measurement of safety knowledge under auto factory conditions.

By applying the Mager formula, learning objectives become more actionable, trackable, and more likely to be achieved.

Certificate Program Alignment Methods

Achieving alignment in certificate programs is a challenge. Alignment includes the following critical elements:

Certificate Program Alignment Methods
Figure 1: Certificate Program Alignment

To ensure that all these seven elements are properly aligned, certificate issuers must manage an array of details about the content of the course and the final assessment. To do this efficiently, a number of techniques have been developed by instructional designers and psychometricians. These include an instructional design matrix to translate learning objectives into content and test specifications that detail how learning objectives should be assessed.

An instructional design matrix translates learning objectives into detailed content, including both the subject matter and the activities to be included in a certificate program. It takes many forms, but is usually conveyed as a table that includes the intended learning outcomes and shows how those outcomes will be supported by content and exercises.

Here’s an example from a Train the Trainer program.

ModuleObjectiveLesson ContentActivities/ ExercisesAssessment Method
2- Needs Assessment (NA)Identify why NA is necessary• Presentation on importance of NA
• Case study on negative impact of skipping NA
Lecturette w/PPT

Small groups w/ debrief
Knowledge: Multiple Choice
2Align needs to organizational goals and strategy• Presentation on how organizations develop strategy and goals
• Presentation on how course supports organizational strategy
• Case study on aligning customer service course to organizational strategy
• Individual application: Identify your key organizational goals
Lecturette w/PPT








Small groups w/ debrief


Individual w/ debrief  
Knowledge: Multiple Choice
Figure 2: Sample Instructional Design Matrix for Train the Trainer Program

An instructional design matrix is created along with the Instructional Design Document that describes how the certificate program will achieve its objectives. The level of detail provided is a function of the skill of the designer and the complexity of the content and delivery mode. E-learning requires a much more detailed matrix to specify all the elements that need to be created and how the course content will be sequenced.   The key is to assure that every learning objective has content and practice to support it and a way to assess participants’ progress.

A second way to achieve alignment is from the assessment perspective. Psychometricians create a detailed plan before embarking on writing exams and validating them. This is known as test specifications. They provide clear and precise instructions on what objectives to test, how to assess them, and what the expected outcomes should be. 

Like instructional design matrices, test specifications can be developed at a high or detailed level, depending on the need. A high level specification describes the objectives to be assessed, the method and the number of items required. A detailed specification describes each item on a test, including the correct answer and how to score it. It also clearly links test items to objectives and content taught in the certificate program.

This is a critical step in high stakes testing, where the outcome affects a participant’s employment status. For tests to be used in employment, they must demonstrate they are directly job-related, measuring key knowledge and skills required to perform an assigned job function.

Below is an example of a detailed test specification from a course on the design of electrical systems. It includes all the test items on a final exam along with the objectives and content that each test item is designed to assess.

Q#ModuleObjectiveTest Question & AnswerCompany ReferenceCurriculumKnow or Perform
1Joint PoleIdentify allotted time parameters for preparation and return of formsOnce a joint pole number is pulled, how many days are allowed before Form-2 must be submitted to the JPO?

A: 30 days
Joint Pole PolicySlide 49K
2Construction DrawingsRecognize specific types of construction drawingsFinished floor elevations are found on:

A: Elevation drawing
Construction Drawings ProceduresSlides 10-14K
3Construction DrawingsIdentify needed information on construction drawingsUsing the drawing provided, locate the following information: rear property line, street C/L, existing pole

A: See Rubric
Construction Drawings ProceduresSlides 15-18P
Figure 3: Sample Detailed Test Specification for Electrical Design Certificate Program

While an instructional design matrix and test specifications guide the initial development of certificate programs, evaluation proves the ultimate value of those programs after implementation. It also provides useful data to monitor programs and identify needed changes based on participant feedback, test performance and the application of new skills.

When evaluation data suggests that improvements are needed to boost participant satisfaction or performance, this is another opportunity to strengthen alignment of the certificate program. This might include adding more content, modifying assessments or even reworking learning objectives based on learners’ experience.

Conclusion

The alignment of certificate programs is critical to their success. This is because certificate programs must achieve more than just knowledge for knowledge’s sake. When private parties or government organizations fund professional development, they do so with the expectation of tangible economic benefits to participants and the organizations that employ them. Alignment of purpose, scope, outcomes, content and assessment assures that training can achieve those economic goals, including increased employment opportunities, productivity and organizational success.

Whenever new certificate programs are considered,  it is crucial to examine both their why and how. Addressing why a new program is needed leads to a clear understanding of the personal and economic benefits that the course is intended to produce. Addressing how the certificate program will achieve its outcomes using alignment techniques makes sure the course that learners experience actually leads to increased knowledge and application of new skills that make a difference to participants, their employers and ultimately, society at large.

Contributing Author: Donald Ford, Ph.D., Lead Assessor, ANAB Certificate Accreditation Program

Donald J. Ford, Ph.D. is a training and performance improvement consultant specializing in instructional design, human resources and quality improvement. As President of Training Education Management LLC since 1997, he has consulted with clients like: ATD, ANSI, Amgen, Toyota, Nissan, Rockwell International, Samsung Electronics, Orange County Transportation Authority, Glendale Memorial Hospital, Employers Group, Southern California Edison, Saudi ARAMCO, Central Bank of Egypt and Malaysian Institute of Training and Development.  For these and other clients, he has developed custom classroom, self-study and web-based training on a wide variety of topics, conducted performance and needs analyses, facilitated groups, managed quality improvement projects, taught train the trainer and leadership courses and evaluated results. He has been a Lead Assessor with ANSI’s Certificate Accreditation Program since 2009. Dr. Ford holds a B.A. and M.A. in history and a Ph.D. in education, all from UCLA. He also taught graduate courses in Human Resource Development for Antioch University, Los Angeles. He has published 35 articles and four books on topics in training, education and management, including: Bottom-Line Training: Performance-based Results (2005), Bottom-Line Training: How to Design Programs that Boost Profits (1999)  In Action: Designing Training Programs (Editor, ASTD, 1996), and The Twain Shall Meet: The Current Study of English in China (McFarland, 1988). He may be reached at donaldjford@verizon.net or through his website: trainingeducationmanagement.com

Contributing Author: Sherard Jones, President, Strategic Futurist Consulting

Sherard Jones is the President of Strategic Futurist Consulting, where he leads global initiatives in credentialing, accreditation, and standards development. His organization excels in advancing corporate vision and organizational goals through rigorous research and strategic process development. As the Founder of VYYABLE, Sherard empowers aspiring entrepreneurs to successfully launch niche business enterprises with a process-oriented approach.

With over 15 years of experience in strategic program development, he has collaborated with clients on a wide range of projects, including international workforce development, standards revision, and organizational restructuring.

Sherard has a distinguished track record of designing and managing new revenue-generating learning programs and helping existing programs achieve accreditation. He holds a Master’s Degree in Workforce Education and Development from Southern Illinois University and is a certified DACUM facilitator from The Ohio State University.

For inquiries, Sherard can be reached at sjones@stratfuturist.com or via LinkedIn.

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