Kirkpatrick’s levels and education ‘evidence’


Sarah Yardley, Keele University Medical School, Faculty of Health, Keele ST5 5BG, UK. Tel: 00 44 1782 734694; Fax: 00 44 1782 734637; E-mail:


Medical Education 2012: 46: 97–106

Objectives  This study aims to review, critically, the suitability of Kirkpatrick’s levels for appraising interventions in medical education, to review empirical evidence of their application in this context, and to explore alternative ways of appraising research evidence.

Methods  The mixed methods used in this research included a narrative literature review, a critical review of theory and qualitative empirical analysis, conducted within a process of cooperative inquiry.

Results  Kirkpatrick’s levels, introduced to evaluate training in industry, involve so many implicit assumptions that they are suitable for use only in relatively simple instructional designs, short-term endpoints and beneficiaries other than learners. Such conditions are met by perhaps one-fifth of medical education evidence reviews. Under other conditions, the hierarchical application of the levels as a critical appraisal tool adds little value and leaves reviewers to make global judgements of the trustworthiness of the data.

Conclusions  Far from defining a reference standard critical appraisal tool, this research shows that ‘quality’ is defined as much by the purpose to which evidence is to be put as by any invariant and objectively measurable quality. Pending further research, we offer a simple way of deciding how to appraise the quality of medical education research.


There is a move to make medical education more evidence-based,1 exemplified by the activities of the Best Evidence Medical Education collaboration (BEME []) and other evidence reviews exemplified in Table 1. The BEME collaboration has published 14 reviews to date. Seven of them, listed in Table 1, used Kirkpatrick’s levels to appraise evidence, as did the seven other recent non-BEME reviews identified by a literature search, which indicates that these levels are widely used to evaluate education. This paper aims to review their utility as a standard by reviewing their origins, context of use and application in the domain of medical education and beyond.

Table 1.   Distribution of Kirkpatrick levels in reviews
  Kirkpatrick levels
ParticipationAttitudesKnowledge and/or skillsBehaviourOrganisational practiceBenefit to patients
  1. * Miller and Archer accepted self-reports of change in behaviour as level 3

Issenberg et al.32Simulation educationKirkpatrick levels used but distribution not shown
Dornan et al.9Early workplace experience (%)66 (24)84 (30)102(34)25 (9)6 (2)3 (1)
Steinert et al.33Faculty development (%)39 (28)19 (14)31 (23)38 (28)7 (5)3 (2)
Hammick et al.34Interprofessional education (%)14 (27)12 (24)11 (22)6 (12)3 (6)5 (10)
Driessen et al.35Portfolios (%)19 (90)  2 (10)  
Overeem et al.21Formative assessment of doctors’ performance (%)8 (33)4 (17)12 (50)
Colthart et al.36Self-assessment (%)38 (100)
Tochel et al.37Portfolios (%)7 (16)26 (58)10 (22)2 (4)
Buckley et al.38Portfolios (%)59 (86)4 (6)5 (7)1 (1) 0
Hill et al.22Resident-as-teacher programmes (%)9 (31)17 (59)2 (7)1 (3); student, not patient
Cherry et al.20Asepsis complicating catheter insertion (%)   25 (40) 37 (60)
Wong et al.39Internet-based medical education (%)209 (61)124 (36)7 (2) 1 (< 1)
Wong et al.40Effect of patient safety and quality improvement education: undergraduate curricula (%)7 (24)8 (29)9 (31)3 (10)1 (3)1 (3)
 Effect of patient safety and quality improvement education: postgraduate curricula (%)7 (14)14 (28)14 (28)2 (4)12 (24)1 (2)
Miller & Archer41Impact of workplace-based assessment on doctors’ education and performance (%)8 (44)5 (28)1 (6)4 (22)*

In a recent book, Donald Kirkpatrick explains how he arrived at the set of four descriptors that are now widely used to evaluate the impact of interventions in education.2 He had observed that technical training could be evaluated by measuring learners’ reactions, learning and behaviour, and their impact on the organisations for which the learners worked.3 Kirkpatrick’s purpose was to provide managers with promptly identifiable and easy-to-measure outcomes in learners and the organisations for which they worked. Business leaders needing tangible evidence that training would enhance their sales volume, product quality and profitability quickly implemented his ideas. Reports of their successful use in business attracted interest from other fields and his ideas spread. Kirkpatrick himself said there was no need to validate the descriptors because accolades poured in.2 Despite the wide use of Kirkpatrick’s levels in medical education, there has been no review or critique of their use in this context. Therefore, we set out to:

1 undertake a narrative review of Kirkpatrick’s original writings, subsequent refinements of his work, and publications critiquing the application of his levels;

2 examine how Kirkpatrick’s levels have been used in systematic reviews of medical education and examine what is lost by excluding evidence on account of its Kirkpatrick level, and

3 consider alternative approaches to appraising evidence about education.


The project was not submitted for research ethics approval because it did not directly involve human subjects or animals. Because our conclusions could have been influenced by our individual experiences of undertaking systematic review and our interpretations of published work, we adopted the principles of cooperative inquiry to help us remain aware of our subjective reactions while working together.4–6 Epistemologically aligned to constructionism, this methodology entails co-constructing an interpretation by discussing findings, critically reflecting on them cooperatively, and expanding ideas through interactive critique.7,8

Study design

We agreed a research focus, research questions, propositions to explore, and initial actions to expand our ideas. In accordance with the principles of cooperative inquiry, we agreed how to carry out actions whilst observing and recording the process and outcome of our experiences. We maintained an audit trail of the developing interpretation by, initially, making notes of face-to-face meetings and using strands of e-mail correspondence as a record. The increasing complexities of the project led us to audio-record face-to-face meetings and, later, use a wiki/web authoring technology to co-construct an interpretation of the evidence we reviewed. Two actions were taken to achieve the first of our three research aims. One was to review Kirkpatrick’s original papers and recent reflections on his work.2 The other was to search for critiques of the application of Kirkpatrick’s levels in medical education and – having found no published evidence within the field – beyond. To that end, we searched MEDLINE, CINAHL (Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature), EMBASE, ERIC (Educational Resources Information Centre), BEI (British Education Index), PsycINFO, Academic Search Elite and Business Source Elite for articles with ‘Kirkpatrick’ in their titles and/or abstracts and which provided a critique of Kirkpatrick’s work. Only three were identified, although thousands of articles used (often secondary) references to the levels as a de facto standard. We identified Kirkpatrick’s own work by searching the same databases extensively and tracing his own references. We chose a narrative review methodology to make maximum use of the little identifiable critique to evaluate the application of Kirkpatrick’s levels. We took two actions to achieve the second aim. Having found that the term ‘Kirkpatrick’ invariably appeared in the abstract of papers using his levels, we searched the journals Medical Education, Medical Teacher, Academic Medicine, Teaching and Learning in Medicine, Advances in Health Sciences Education, BMC Medical Education, British Medical Journal, Lancet and the Journal of the American Medical Association for review articles published during 2005–2010 that used the word ‘Kirkpatrick’ in the title or abstract. These are presented in Table 1. The other action was to use a case–control study design to re-examine all publications excluded from our own previous BEME review9,10 on the grounds of a Kirkpatrick level of ≤ 2. For each excluded publication, we sought two control publications from the same journal in the same year that were included in the final dataset of our previous review. We read all three index publications and their five respective control publications (there were five rather than six control publications because only one control was available for one of the three index publications) and discussed whether it was self-evident that they should have been excluded or included, and in what ways they illuminated the review topic. This identified deficiencies in Kirkpatrick’s levels that, together with the previous steps, helped us achieve the third aim of considering alternatives to Kirkpatrick’s levels.


The suitability of Kirkpatrick’s levels for appraising education interventions

Most articles found by our search used Kirkpatrick’s levels as heuristics in education evaluation; just four critiqued their use11–14 and one of these found that Kirkpatrick’s levels were applied uncritically in the field of human resource development.14 Abernathy,12 noting that the levels could influence the questions asked and results produced, rejected them as unsuitable for evaluating either ‘soft’ outcomes or continuous learning (as opposed to time-limited interventions). Alliger and Janak identified three types of assumption by which Kirkpatrick’s model could tacitly shape research findings, comprising: assumptions of hierarchy associated with the numeric labelling of levels; assumptions of causal links between levels, and assumptions that the levels are positively inter-correlated.11 Blanchard et al.13 argued that the purpose of any research had to be determined before any evaluation of it at any particular Kirkpatrick level could be considered.

Although none of those studies concerned medical education, they seem applicable to it and Kirkpatrick himself might have agreed with these authors because he actually advocated using the levels as a training heuristic,2 not to evaluate how professionals become expert practitioners through deliberate practice and social learning. He chose the levels to measure very short-term and tangible endpoints like sales volume, quality and profitability. Kirkpatrick’s solution to intangible benefits of training, which he acknowledged in his original work, was to link them to tangible benefits because training orientated towards specific measurable behaviours could be assigned a market value.2 Of his numerous references to successful applications of the levels,2 none came from a field as complex as medical education, which differs from business in that it is required to meet the needs, equitably, of a whole array of beneficiaries, including patients, students, practitioners, communities and health care organisations. A problem with Kirkpatrick’s levels is that different levels concern different beneficiaries: levels 1–3 concern learners; level 4a concerns organisations, and level 4b concerns patients. Teachers are missing from the scheme altogether. The model does not allow for the rich variety of outcomes that can be evaluated using qualitative as well as quantitative methodologies, nor explain how or why such outcomes are consequential to particular elements of complex interventions. It tends only to be used to measure anticipated outcomes and ignores unanticipated consequences. That is, it asks ‘Was outcome X achieved as intended, or not?’ rather than ‘What were the outcomes of this intervention?’ A clinical parallel would be a clinical trial that measured only the intended effects of a new drug and not its side-effects.

Application of Kirkpatrick’s levels to medical education research

Opinion was expressed in the late 1990s that medical education was not using evidence in a way that would most effectively support practice and, as we have described elsewhere, the BEME collaboration came into being.15 Its mission was to conduct ‘a logical, explicit, and comprehensive appraisal of available information to determine the best evidence relating to an issue in medical education’.16 Forty years after Kirkpatrick’s original work, the BEME collaboration adopted a modified version of Kirkpatrick’s levels (which it named a ‘hierarchy’) as a grading standard for bibliographic reviews (Table 2). A prototype coding sheet, accompanied by explanatory notes, offered two complementary ways of appraising evidence, using either Kirkpatrick’s ‘hierarchy’ to grade the impact of interventions (Table 2) or a simple anchored rating scale of 1–5 of the ‘strength’ (Table 3) or trustworthiness of findings. The BEME’s use of the term ‘hierarchy’ implied that a higher Kirkpatrick level represented greater quality. The BEME scheme has been widely adopted, largely because the notion of a hierarchy of evidence resonates strongly with two dominant themes in clinical medicine, the parent discipline of medical education, namely: the ‘evidence hierarchy’ (from the case study at the bottom to the statistical meta-analysis at the top) of evidence-based medicine,17 and the valuing of ‘hard’ clinical outcomes over ‘soft’ intermediate outcomes in contemporary health services research, against which medical education research has been unfavourably compared.18,19

Table 2.   Kirkpatrick’s levels as represented on the Best Evidence Medical Education Collaboration’s specimen coding sheet (
Impact of intervention studied
Code the level of impact being studied in the item and summarise any results of the intervention at the appropriate level. Note: include both predetermined and unintended outcomes
Kirkpatrick hierarchy
Level 1 Participation: covers learners’ views on the learning experience, its organisation, presentation, content, teaching methods, and aspects of the instructional organisation, materials, quality of instruction
Level 2a Modification of attitudes/perceptions: outcomes relate to changes in the reciprocal attitudes or perceptions between participant groups towards the intervention/simulation
Level 2b Modification of knowledge/skills: for knowledge, this relates to the acquisition of concepts, procedures and principles; for skills this relates to the acquisition of thinking/problem-solving, psychomotor and social skills
Level 3 Behavioural change: documents the transfer of learning to the workplace or willingness of learners to apply new knowledge and skills
Level 4a Change in organisational practice: wider changes in the organisation or delivery of care, attributable to an educational programme
Level 4b Benefits to patient/clients: any improvement in the health and well-being of patients/clients as a direct result of an educational programme
Table 3.   Appraisal of the strength of medical education research (
1 No clear conclusions can be drawn; not significant
2 Results ambiguous, but there appears to be a trend
3 Conclusions can probably be based on the results
4 Results are clear and very likely to be true
5 Results are unequivocal

Our own first BEME review9 (of early workplace experience in undergraduate medical education) used the levels and, accepting them as a hierarchy, treated a higher Kirkpatrick level as indicative of a more important outcome. This review found that 24% of outcomes were at level 1, which we then regarded as unimportant, and the other 76% were progressively more important according to their higher levels. A total of 64% of outcomes were found to be at level 2, leaving only 12% at levels 3 and 4 combined. When we added in an appraisal of the ‘strength’ of outcomes (Table 3), only 42% of published outcomes were both strong (rated at ≥ 3) and important (Kirkpatrick level ≥ 2) and then mostly at level 2 in the hierarchy. Early workplace experience in undergraduate medical education, those descriptors seemed to tell us, was supported by ‘little good evidence’.9 A recent update of the review found a fall of 50% per annum in the number of articles published, but such a marked increase in the proportion of ‘strong and important’ outcomes that the production of new ‘best evidence’ had fallen relatively little. Either a lower volume of higher-quality research was being undertaken or researcher interests and editorial standards had become more stringently orientated to such outcomes.10

Table 1 shows the comprehensive set of articles that used Kirkpatrick’s levels in medical education evidence synthesis. It includes six of 14 BEME reviews. It shows we were not alone in finding relatively few Kirkpatrick level 3 or 4 outcomes. In only three of 14 data analyses (21%) were half or more of the outcomes rated at a level > 2. In one of them, an investigation by Cherry et al.20 into the impact of educational interventions on aseptic insertion and the maintenance of central venous catheters in acute care, over half the outcomes were rated at level 4. In two others, a review of the outcomes of formative assessment of doctors’ performance21 and a review of resident-as-teacher programmes,22 50% or more of the outcomes were rated at level 3. Careless catheter insertion can cause patients to develop septicaemia and its complications within hours, and training in this practical procedure can reasonably be expected to bring about an immediate reduction in life-threatening infections. Similarly, formative assessment of doctors’ behaviour and teaching residents to teach might reasonably be expected to bring about immediate behavioural changes. Thus, level 3 or 4 outcomes were reasonable expectations in these particular reviews, given the nature of the interventions and their anticipated outcomes. At the other extreme, early workplace experience, for example, might take months or even years to have any demonstrable effect on learners, let alone patients, and its main effects might be on learners’ attitudes, the benefits of which to patients would be very tricky to measure. Attempts to measure comparable effects of early experience on patients would just not make sense.

Most papers in Table 1 described what learners experienced (level 1) or measured what they learned (levels 2a and 2b); these have been more simply termed ‘description’ and ‘justification’ studies, respectively, and each has its own value.23 The snag is that outcomes in ‘clarification studies’, which are a rich basis on which to strengthen medical education,23 could fit under any or all of Kirkpatrick’s levels. Yet, unless we understand how, and why, effects are consequential to particular elements or interactions, it will be difficult to refine education to maximise benefit. To give a specific example, it is possible that a study clarifying how an educational intervention affected learners’ emotions could be classified as demonstrating outcomes at level 1 (reactions) or 2 (attitudes), which are regarded as relatively unimportant, despite being self-evidently important to the professional development of the learners. Are outcomes necessarily more important than processes (which are not included in Kirkpatrick’s levels)? How can the extent to which empirical research is theoretically grounded, or even the value of purely theoretical scholarship, be given due recognition by a classification restricted to outcomes? We are not alone in our criticism of the use of Kirkpatrick’s levels to stratify evidence. Holton criticised their use as a hierarchy on the grounds that they lack important attributes of a theory and lack supportive evidence to indicate that lower-level outcomes are prerequisite to higher-level ones.14

Our second empirical investigation of Kirkpatrick’s levels in medical education research found that all three of the papers excluded from our early workplace experience review because the Kirkpatrick level of their outcomes was 1 (learners’ reactions)10 contained information that could answer valid review questions, albeit questions that differed from that we sought to answer at the time. This information was relevant for policymakers,24 curriculum designers,25 and those interested in the development of medical students as researchers24 or in how students use narrative to make sense of their experiences.26

Alternatives for appraising research in medical education

The three (21%) BEME systematic reviews that had a substantial proportion of higher-level ratings show there is a role for Kirkpatrick’s levels, albeit a limited one. When evaluating relatively simple training interventions, the outcomes of which emerge rapidly and are easily observed within classical experiment designs, the levels can direct attention to important beneficiaries other than learners (notably patients). The preceding review, however, leads us to conclude they are unsuitable for the higher proportion of education interventions, which are complex, in which the most important outcomes are longer-term, and in which process evaluation is as important as (perhaps even more important than) outcome evaluation. Indeed, our review found a body of opinion that considered that Kirkpatrick’s levels, applied to the wrong type of evidence, might be harmful.11–14 What alternative ways are there, then, to critique the quality of various types of evidence in a scholarly way without allowing the type of evidence to bias its evaluation? Put another way, how do we balance the right level of inclusiveness with rigour in our approach to value? It is important that the current state of knowledge, including ‘negative’ findings and specific needs for new or more rigorous work to usefully inform further research or practice innovation, is represented.

The scholarship of systematic review in clinical science takes its origins from a paper published 40 years ago by the epidemiologist Archie Cochrane, in which he berated medical practice for being ineffective or frankly harmful.27 The Cochrane Collaboration ( came into existence to promote clinical trials, using systematic review and statistical meta-analysis to synthesise findings from their aggregated results. ‘Evidence’ was rated as ‘weak’ or ‘strong’ according to standard criteria, which appraised its ability to support the statistical estimation of effect sizes. The Cochrane approach is not the only one in the health domain. The Joanna Briggs Institute ( and the W K Kellogg Foundation (, both of which seek to improve health care practice through multidisciplinary working, have taken a pluralistic approach and do not place randomised controlled trials at the top of a hierarchy, regardless of the question posed. Recognising that the hypothetico-deductive, experimental approach of natural sciences is ‘ill-equipped to help us understand complex, comprehensive, and collaborative community initiatives’ (, they allow questions to be asked and answered without forcing complex systems to fit the evaluative tools of one dominant research paradigm. By contrast, the Campbell Collaboration (, which reviews evidence related to education, crime and justice, and social welfare, has aligned itself with the Cochrane Collaboration in holding data that are suitable for statistical meta-analysis as of intrinsically higher quality.

Thus, different review methodologies start from different ‘epistemological’ assumptions, where the term ‘epistemological’ refers to the relationship between the knower and the known. The Cochrane approach, drawn from classical scientific methodology, has a positivist epistemology which allows it to reduce complex situations to a comparison of variables within relatively simple experiment designs. Its standards of critical appraisal are consistent with its epistemological stance. Pope et al. noted that systematic review, although it is strongly favoured in the clinical domain because it helps in making choices between alternative treatments, is not the only way of synthesising evidence.28 The Cochrane Collaboration’s use of evidence for ‘decision support’ can be distinguished from the (non-dichotomous) use of evidence for ‘knowledge support’. Aggregative or interpretive methods of evidence synthesis that mix qualitative with quantitative evidence, or synthesise qualitative evidence alone, give better knowledge support and start from constructionist rather than positivist epistemological assumptions.28 Medical education research, our reviews have shown, is pluralistic. So where does that leave the four out of five reviewers whose bibliographic research does not lend itself to Kirkpatrick rating?

Far from defining a reference standard for critical appraisal, this review casts doubt on whether such a standard could ever exist and shows how many questions must be answered when planning an evidence synthesis. Rather than leave the reader with no basis on which to appraise evidence, we conducted a thought experiment in order to define a logical approach. For experimental research conducted on positivist principles, the critical appraisal tools of evidence-based medicine can be applied to education evidence. Under the conditions defined in the first paragraph of this section, such as in the evaluation of relatively simple training interventions, Kirkpatrick’s levels are appropriate. In the majority of cases (perhaps 80% of medical education evidence syntheses), a constructionist epistemology is likely to be appropriate, in which case critical appraisal will rest on simple global judgements of trustworthiness, such as the BEME scale of 1–5. Although critical appraisal tools appropriate to individual methodologies could be applied to individual studies included within a review, any gain in reliability is likely to make little difference to the overall conclusions pieced together from multiple different methodologies.


The art of evidence synthesis, we conclude, lies in making well-considered choices rather than valorising one methodology or appraisal standard over another, echoing Eva’s view that there can be no single arbiter of quality because it is the use to which evidence is put that determines its utility.29 The use of evidence to support policy, define outcomes, identify new research questions, answer practical teaching questions, inform teachers’ personal development, serve as a debating tool or establish the ‘state of knowledge’ on a subject can all dictate different methodologies. Even the last of these, which is often presented as a neutral assessment, involves ontological and epistemological positioning. If the topic in question is the efficacy of a simple intervention compared with a placebo administered under controlled conditions, a ‘naive realist’ ontology and epistemology30 would direct the use of Cochrane critical appraisal standards and estimation of effect sizes. The more reductionist a review, the clearer its results, but perhaps also the less applicable they are. Where medical education really deviates from evidence-based medicine is in its recognition of a wide gap between the results of simple experiments and their applicability in ‘real practice’. Context as well as process impacts on educational outcomes. Moreover, rich nuances or even the whole essence of information may be lost when stories of experience are omitted.

For all of these reasons, it is likely a reviewer will need to consider qualitative as well as quantitative sources of evidence and ‘construct’ an argument fitted to the conversation he or she wants to be part of in the relativist, social world of education practice. If the reviewer wants to influence policy, a realist stance and attendant methods may be appropriate,31 whereby the reviewer uses pragmatic judgement to answer questions like: If I were reading the original papers as a practitioner, what would I take away from them? What would I accept within context or pass judgement on in a more refined or nuanced manner than the current systematic review process allows? How can I stratify the studies on this topic to see where evidence is strongest or limited without unnecessarily discounting partially helpful information? Reviewers who seek to position new research may need to seek out previously unsuccessful studies or negative results as well as successful methods and desired results.

Our broad conclusion is that the purpose to which evidence is put influences its trustworthiness and the best way of synthesising it. Having rejected the methodological assumptions of scientific experimentation and the clinical assumption of patient benefit as reference standards of evidence, we suggest that researchers synthesising evidence should: state very clearly the aims of their work; make their epistemological and ontological assumptions explicit; admit any evidence that is appropriate to the aim, including complex and qualitative evidence; consider features of empirical research such as the strength of its theoretical orientation and its relevance to the review question when considering its weight in the final synthesis, and make absolutely transparent, when reporting a review, the decisions they took and their reasons for taking them. Figure 1 outlines approaches reviewers might take pending clearer results from bibliographic research.

Figure 1.

 Questions to consider when designing an evidence synthesis

Contributors:  SY contributed to the conception and design of this study, researched appropriate methods, conducted the subsequent acquisition, analysis and interpretation of data, and fully cooperated in the cooperative inquiry methods employed. TD contributed to the conception and design of the research, identified cooperative inquiry as a potential method and fully cooperated in the method. Both authors contributed to the drafting and revision of this paper and approved the final manuscript for submission.


Acknowledgements:  none.

Funding:  none.

Conflicts of interest:  both authors have previously participated in Best Evidence Medical Education review groups.

Ethical approval:  not applicable.