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2 minute read

To Test Out or Not to Test Out: No Longer a Question [Guest Post]

There’s an ongoing debate about whether testing out should be done for compliance training. The basic idea of testing out is this: if you can pass the test (usually the same test/quiz that’s given at the end of the course), then you have demonstrated your competence in the subject matter and don’t need to take the full training. Simple, right? I’m all for it. 100%.

But let me put my support for it into context. I see testing out as a risk-based, relevant mechanism that should be offered for certain trainings to allow learners to show they understand the material, and move on. It can be part of a holistic compliance program that views training as a valuable resource rather than a “check-the-box” activity. 

Compliance Is an Open Book Test

One of my favorite infographics and expressions from Broadcat is "Compliance is an open book test". In most cases, people don't need to memorize what to do. They can look it up at almost any turn. There’s even a whole book called Checklist Manifesto based on how this concept can make medical practices better.


At minimum, employees need to know the basic scenarios that they're most likely to encounter in their work and how to manage them. Beyond that, they need to know who to reach out to—and perhaps more importantly, how to reach out—for those out-of-the-ordinary situations. The answer, of course:  check with a peer, manager, policy, helpline, HR, or Compliance. 

Compliance is an open book test every day! So then, why do we test employees as if they were sitting for standardized tests?

Well, mostly we’re looking for them to demonstrate competency in the subject. So, if they already know what to do and can demonstrate it by answering a series of well-designed questions, we should let them! Having a test-out option communicates to employees that you have a reasonable, risk-based, and holistic approach to training and communication on your policies and procedures, which can build trust with your teams. It's a win-win! 

Testing Out Must Be Part of a Risk-Based Training and Education Plan

Everything in the compliance profession and our programs needs to be risk-based. With that comes the understanding that not all training and education is created equal. Some—like the California course on Sexual Harassment Prevention—are legally mandated, and therefore, testing out is (sadly) not an option.

For non-mandated courses that are routine and rarely change—like health and safety, information security, or records management—testing out should be considered a viable mode of demonstrating competence. 

Here are my criteria for whether testing out should be offered: 

  1. Employees have been through the training once already.
  2. There are no major changes to the concepts.
  3. Employees can prove they understand how to apply the concepts to their jobs by passing a test.

Put simply, I care about two things:  they understand the basics and know where to go for the rest. And I can easily build that into a test. I don’t need to make the test extraordinarily difficult or obtuse—I need to make it actionable. Like: Do you know what to do when things go wrong? Do you know who to contact and in what order? Do you know where related resources are and when to use them? If they get those things right, I’ve done my job!

If not, they can refresh by reviewing the relevant sections of the course they didn’t know, rather than the whole thing. This reinforces the message and makes it sticky. If I make them do more than that, then training becomes a punishment, which undermines my effort as well as the reputation of my compliance program. That is no bueno! 

Ultimately, weighing when to allow employees to test out is part of taking a thoughtful, risk-based approach to compliance training and education—something every compliance department should be doing.

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