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Evaluating Group Exercise Leader Performance: An Easy and Helpful Tool

Eickhoff-Shemek, JoAnn M. Ph.D., FACSM; Selde, Susan M.S.


Learning Objective To recognize the need for conducting performance appraisals of group exercise leaders and to be able to properly use a performance appraisal tool specifically designed for group exercise leaders.

This article includes a useful performance appraisal tool to evaluate group exercise leaders and discusses how the tool was developed and procedures for using it. Supplemental Digital Content is Available in the Text.

JoAnn M. Eickhoff-Shemek, Ph.D., FACSM, is a professor and coordinator of the Exercise Science program at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Dr. Eickhoff-Shemek's research focuses upon legal liability and risk management issues in the health/fitness field. She is the legal columnist and an associate editor for ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal® and a member of the program planning committee for ACSM's Health & Fitness Summit & Exposition. Dr. Eickhoff-Shemek is ACSM Health/Fitness Director® certified, ACSM Exercise Test TechnologistSM certified, and a Fellow of ACSM.

Susan Selde, M.S., is the academic success coordinator at Creighton University. Ms. Selde has taught 17 years at the University of Nebraska at Omaha in the School of Health Physical Education and Recreation. Ms. Selde has served as an ACSM examiner and has been an ACSM Health & Fitness Summit & Exposition presenter. Ms. Selde is ACSM Group Exercise Leader® certified and ACE Aerobic Instructor certified.

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Supervisors of group exercise programs are faced with a variety of challenges on a daily basis. Many of these challenges can be associated with the behaviors of the group exercise leaders (GELs) they supervise both inside and outside the classroom, such as not teaching in a safe/effective manner and not responding to phone/e-mail messages. These types of situations can make the GEL supervisor's job quite stressful. However, an effective administrative process exists that can help minimize this stress by improving GEL behaviors-a performance appraisal and feedback process. This article will provide basic background information about performance appraisals, discuss the importance and the many benefits of conducting performance appraisals of GELs, and include a performance appraisal tool that can be used/adapted by any GEL supervisor.

Robert L. Mathis, Ph.D., and John H. Jackson, Ph.D., MBA, define performance appraisal as "the process of evaluating how well employees perform their jobs when compared to a set of standards, and then communicating that information to those employees" (1). Performance appraisals can be informal, such as on-the-spot feedback on any given day, or systematic, such as a formal process where the performance of an employee is discussed and recorded (1). This article will focus on the systematic performance appraisal, which, for the GEL supervisor, includes a thorough teaching observation and evaluation of each GEL followed by a formal discussion with each GEL about his or her performance.



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Why Is It Important to Conduct Systematic Performance Appraisals of GELs?

GEL supervisors have numerous responsibilities, but the most important is ensuring the safety of the group exercise program participants. How does a GEL supervisor know if all GELs are teaching in a safe manner? Appropriate credentials (e.g., certification and experience) do not guarantee that the GEL is teaching in a safe manner. The best way to determine if a GEL is teaching safely is for the GEL supervisor to actually observe and evaluate each GEL while teaching an entire class.

Providing safe instruction in group exercise programs can prevent injuries and subsequent litigation. In Santana v. Women's Workout and Weight Loss Centers, Inc. (2), the plaintiff fell during a step aerobics class and seriously fractured her ankle. She claimed that the class was improperly instructed because the participants were performing step aerobics simultaneously with the use of a dynaband. An expert witness in this case stated that the combination of the two forms of exercise created a situation that was "inherently dangerous," and it did not meet the standard of care. The court stated that "defendants have a duty to use due care to not increase the risks to a participant over and above those inherent in the sport" (2). It is not known in this case if the GEL supervisor ever conducted a performance appraisal of the instructor. However, if this had been done, the GEL supervisor should have informed this instructor to avoid combined exercises that could increase risks to participants. If the instructor then implemented this feedback, the injury and lawsuit probably would not have occurred.

A performance appraisal and feedback process also has developmental uses that can enhance the overall job performance of the GEL, for instance, areas for growth are identified and discussed followed by an action plan to improve job performance (1). This process can lead to an increased quality of the group exercise program and operational efficiency of the program for the GEL supervisor. GELs who exhibit behaviors associated with high quality job performance both inside and outside of the classroom create fewer problems for their GEL supervisors. Therefore, GEL supervisors can spend less time putting out fires and have more time to further develop and expand the group exercise program. In addition to identifying and communicating areas of growth, it is important to provide positive feedback in the performance appraisal and feedback process. This type of feedback can motivate the GEL to continue to perform well on the job and reinforce positive behaviors.

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Development of a Performance Appraisal Tool

The first step in the systematic performance appraisal and feedback process is to develop a written tool that will be used to conduct the performance appraisal. Using a written performance appraisal tool (PAT) is important because it helps to objectify the process, that is, all instructors are evaluated using the same criteria and performance standards. In a study we conducted in Omaha, Nebraska, we found that the majority (88%) of GEL supervisors were conducting performance appraisals of their GELs; however, only 62% used a written tool (3). A variety of factors discussed by Drs. Mathis and Jackson should be considered when developing a written PAT, including the following (1):

  1. The type of performance information that will be used. For instance, behavior-based (specific behaviors required of the job), trait-based (subjective characteristics such as attitude and initiative), and results-based (accomplishments).
  2. The job criteria. That is, the most important aspects of an employee's job. For a GEL, examples would be provides safe instruction, uses effective teaching methods, and manages class appropriately.
  3. The performance standards. That is, the expected levels of performance for each job criterion that are clear, measurable, and understood.

When developing a written PAT for GELs, it is important to first analyze the job criteria and performance standards of a GEL. We did this by identifying safe/effective principles of exercise, teaching methods, characteristics associated with professionalism, and desirable outcomes of a group exercise class. We then organized the job criteria and performance standards into the three categories as suggested by Drs. Mathis and Jackson (1): a) behavior-based, b) trait-based, and c) results-based. After we drafted our tool, we wanted to determine its usefulness and limitations.



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Feedback on the Draft GEL Performance Appraisal Tool

At the end of our presentation at ACSM's 2004 Health & Fitness Summit & Exposition (4), we solicited 31 volunteers (GEL supervisors) to pilot test our drafted tool. In the summer of 2004, we mailed each of them three copies of the drafted tool along with a seven-page document titled "Evaluation of Performance Appraisal Form" that included a variety of questions regarding the content, organization, and usefulness of the drafted form. We asked each volunteer to use the drafted tool to evaluate at least three GELs and then complete and return the evaluation form. Of the 31, 16 (52%) evaluation forms were returned with 12 completed. Four that were returned were not completed for various reasons.

The feedback from the 12 evaluation forms was used to change the draft PAT into the PAT that appears at On the evaluation form, we asked if each criterion and its corresponding performance standards were appropriate and, if not, to provide us feedback regarding changes. Several of the volunteers made suggestions to add, delete, or combine some of the performance standards, which we did. Additional questions we asked and the responses are found in the Table. One concern, perhaps, was the length of the tool. A few of the volunteers indicated that it was too long and detailed. However, most of the volunteers indicated that the length was appropriate. One volunteer stated, "Once I was familiar with the form, it was very easy and quick to use." Another stated, "When giving feedback to the instructors, they really appreciated all the areas that were evaluated and they were surprised by the detail."

Table. Feedbac

Table. Feedbac

To address the length issue, we divided the tool into the following three sections, to perhaps make it appear to be less lengthy: In-Class Evaluation, Out-of-Class Evaluation, and Performance Appraisal Feedback. Also, one volunteer indicated that with 45 GELs to supervise, he or she would not have time to do such a lengthy evaluation on all GELS. In these cases, we recommend that GEL supervisors train one or two of their well-qualified, respected, and experienced GELs to assist with the performance appraisal and feedback process. In addition, the tool is available electronically free of charge (see so that GEL supervisors can adapt it to their needs.

When using this tool, we assume that GEL supervisors have the necessary knowledge and experience to properly evaluate GELs on all performance standards. We recommend that GEL supervisors provide each GEL, upon hiring, a copy of the PAT and discuss with him or her how the tool will be used. It is important to emphasize that the main purpose of this tool is to help GELs improve their job performance and that it is not used to intimidate, threaten, or compare GELs. This tool is more detailed than a job description and it clearly communicates to the GEL the job expectations, which alone can alleviate a lot of problems for the GEL supervisor. When using this tool, we recommend the following:

  1. Timeframe. At the top of the tool, see "Reason for Appraisal" (Introductory, conducted for new hires, perhaps within the first 1 to 3 months; Follow-Up, conducted to determine if a GEL addressed area(s) of concern from a prior appraisal; Regular Interval, conducted annually for each GEL).
  2. Self-appraisa1. Before establishing a date to discuss the feedback, have the GEL also complete this tool for self-evaluation purposes, including the action plan section. This will be helpful at the time of the discussion/feedback session to compare and contrast both evaluations.
  3. Discussion and feedback. Establish a date for the discussion/feedback meeting as close to the observation date as possible. At this meeting discuss, in a positive and constructive manner, the results of the appraisal and the action plan for any improvement needed as well as any general and positive feedback.
  4. Obtain signatures and file the tool. Both the GEL and the GEL supervisor should sign the PAT where indicated; then, a copy is given to the GEL, and the original is filed in the GEL's personnel file. If the GEL does not agree with the GEL supervisor's evaluation, he or she can prepare and submit a memo stating why.
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It is important to remember that performance appraisals need to be kept confidential, that is, results are not shared with other GELs and they should be filed in a secure place. Because of the objectivity built into this performance appraisal tool, it provides a fair way to determine those GELs who are deserving of a promotion, pay raise, or some other reward or recognition.

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Condensed Version and Bottom Line

This article discusses the purposes of conducting performance appraisals of group exercise leaders (GELs), describes the development and refinement of a performance appraisal tool (PAT), and presents the procedures on how to properly use a PAT specifically designed to evaluate the job performance of GELs. Numerous benefits can result for GEL supervisors who use this tool, such as enhanced safe instruction (e.g., the feedback and action plan should help ensure that GELs are teaching safe exercises, thus minimizing injuries and subsequent litigation), increased quality of instruction (e.g., the feedback and action plan should help improve teaching methodology and interaction with participants as well as reinforce positive GEL behaviors), and improved operational efficiency of the group exercise program for the GEL supervisor (e.g., GELs who are encouraged via the feedback and action plan process to meet all of the performance standards listed in the PAT are more likely to achieve these standards of performance than those who are not given any feedback or suggestions on how to improve their job performance), resulting in fewer problems (and stress) associated with the supervision of GELs.

For an electronic version of the Performance Appraisal Tool, e-mail Dr. Eickhoff-Shemek at, or visit



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1. Mathis, R. L., and J. H. Jackson. Human Resource Management, 10th ed. Mason, OH: Thomson South-Western, 2003.
2. Santana v. Women's Workout and Weight Loss Centers, Inc. (2001 Cal. App. LEXIS 1186).
3. Selde, S., and J. Eickhoff-Shemek. Are supervisors of group exercise leaders conducting performance appraisals? The Exercise Standards and Malpractice Reporter 18(6):85-92, 2004.
4. Eickhoff-Shemek, J., and S. Selde. Conducting performance appraisals of group exercise leaders. Presented at ACSM's Health & Fitness Summit & Exposition, Orlando, FL, 2004.

Performance Appraisal; Performance Standards; Job Criteria; Job Performance; Performance Appraisal Feedback

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© 2006 American College of Sports Medicine