Competence-based learning


Once upon a time qualifications were gained by studying for a period of time and then sitting an examination. The examination was supposed to test the candidate’s knowledge and understanding of the subject. If the candidate passed, they were awarded a grade to show how well they had performed. If a candidate failed the exam they would get one opportunity to resit; the resit usually being held a year later. This was the assessment regime that I, and my contemporaries, had during school and both further and higher education.


This system had many benefits such as simple to understand, fairness to all candidates sitting the examination, easy to mark, easy to administer, compare performance and maintain quality. However, opponents of the “one-shot” examination argued it was unfair to certain sections of the candidates who suffered from examination stress or dyslexia and the like. In addition, exams were “academic” and didn’t test a candidate’s ability to do something. Around twenty-five years ago we started to see BTEC phrasing learning objectives on the lines of: “In order to pass, the candidate should do……….”. While there were still examined components, assessed coursework became an integral part of assessing candidates. Around that time I was asked by City & Guilds to devise (as part of a small team) a new syllabus for the new assessment regime for a vocational qualification. This I duly did and I was very proud of the final result.

Over the years, competence-based assessment has reigned supreme from school to university. Examinations have become increasingly irrelevant as its possible to pass on coursework grades alone or a combination of a good coursework grade and a poor examination one.

Although the jargon has changed over the years we now expect pupils and students to “do” rather than “think”. I was quite amazed at what was required to pass an “A” level that a friend’s son is studying. Because the course is modular there are a large number of practical assignments to be completed. Somewhat hidden is the expectation that candidates can re-take assessments until they become competent. After some investigation I found the picture to be somewhat like this: pupils take an A-level in bite-sized chunks, each of which has a number of practical assessments and an exam at the end, it is quite normal to to take a number of resits to improve the final grade and most pupils take several A-levels at one time. This means that most pupils are constantly doing coursework after coursework with little or no time for reflection or “deep-learning” to use a topical phrase.

As regards vocational qualifications I believe that competence-based assessment has a very valuable role to play. In certain areas I did, and still do, support their use. We all need electricians who can wire up things correctly, we all need pharmacists who can make up medication correctly and so forth. However, these are training objectives and not educational ones.

Despite the common misuse of “pupil” and “student” there is a real difference. Pupils are taught to do something i.e. they should develop a competence. However, students study i.e. they should develop a deep knowledge and understanding of a particular discipline and this often has no practical purpose to it. Can we really have a competence for History or English Literature or Photography to name but three? Yes, there are some basic practical skills that can be tested but they are not the essence of the discipline. Ditto Mathematics, Physics and more.

I believe that it is time to re-visit the way the educational establishment carries out assessment and I welcome the recent discussion of reforming A-Levels. To my mind, education exists to civilise and inspire people to become better human beings and that is only possible if we have time to reflect, make connections between disciplines and then take new steps forward. I cannot see how the treadmill of coursework, driven by the need for competence, can help this.

It really is time for Higher Education to become academic again. By all means keep practical work to develop basic skills but do not assess it. Rather, assess the academic content by examinations that test deep knowledge, reading around the subject, understanding the margins of the discipline in question, applying knowledge to new scenarios. Being expert at PhotoShop does not make someone a photographer, being highly skilled at using a collimator does not a Physicist make, being able to differentiate a function does not mean that person is a Mathematician.
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About ReidIvinsMedia

After working for many years in Higher Education I've decided to drop out and join, eventually, the self-employed. Here I blog about my interests which include education, politics, backpacking, poker, photography and real ale.
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