Competences assessment with emphasis on the Evolution.

INTRODUCTION

The aim of the reference guide and repository is to map the existing literature with the aim of creating an overview of different viewpoints of assessment of competence in vocational education with a particular focus on transversal competences.

The goal is to clarify some of the important elements that constitute existing definitions and models of the assessment of competences and of transversal competences, in order to give the schools in the project ‘a roadmap’ that they can use to create their own ways of assessing competences given the particular conditions of their institutions.

The notion of competence in itself seems to evade the development of a model since competence is defined as an appropriate act, which is specific to the situation at hand.

What is considered an appropriate act and competent performance varies from context to context.

Even within particular sectors what is considered a competent performance in one organization is considered incompetent in another organization.

Additionally, what is considered an appropriate act varies over time. What is considered competent is different today than what it was a few years ago.

The notion transversal competence is important, in the sense that it is this type of competences that enable people to adapt to changing work situations.

TRENDS AND SHIFTS IN EDUCATION

For the educational systems the implications of the dynamics mentioned above are far reaching, since the social institution known as “education” changes its role in what it is now called the learning economy.

From education to learning organization

The notion of competence has emerged because of an interest in bringing education and work more closely together. As such it is associated with a trend in modern societies where the focus is on learning and where education is seen as playing a different part in providing the workforce with the qualifications, skills and competences to cope with the challenges of business and organizational life.

When western societies were built, education had the responsibility of providing a skilled workforce for the labour market. This perspective has moved towards other conceptions that stress the importance of the work place as sources of learning, and where learning increasingly is a response to employers’ needs and is employer-led.

Related concepts are the learning organization or organizational learning, where workplaces and organizations are seen as sites of engagement that bring with it both learning opportunities and boundaries for learning for organizational participants.

Rather than focusing on the individual’s learning as a matter of cognitive capacity, the attention is being placed now in how people, together with other people, in regular forms of doing work and with material resources, can sort out the challenges of their work.

One reason for these changing perspectives is a change in the conception of work, which is now being considered as so differentiated and complex that it cannot ever be embraced by the relatively standardized curricula of the education systems.

The other reasons are that the social-economic conditions under which work is being performed are considered much more changeable than before.

The reasons for this are globalization, technological development, and social changes among others.

From end producers of knowledge to enablers of learning capability

The role of educational institutions has changed from being seen as the end producers of knowledge to enablers of learning capability. Rather than viewing education as the site where knowledge is transmitted to younger generations, so that knowledge can later on be transferred and applied into work processes, the role now is:

  • To prepare students to develop the capacity of generating knowledge-that-works in particular situations that will be met in a constantly changing labour market, and
  • To support the continuing development of workers’ competences.

In such a new context, learning abilities are not seen in the possession and acquisition of knowledge. Rather, learning is in the possibility of performing and doing with the resources available the needed actions for dealing with challenges of work.

It requires, apart from technical skills, also personal and social skills.

This implies for education that focus has shifted from being on content and technical qualifications, skills and competences towards building up people as transformative agents that may be able to learn themselves and in collaboration with others.

In other words, focus has shifted towards acquiring skills of learning, knowledge acquisition and problem solving when faced with different and changing problems in the work place.

This development has often been caught in the notion of learning to learn.

Lifelong learning is another key related notion here, which also highlights a new role for education in supporting the continuing development of more differentiated groups of people, who vary not only according to their age but also in terms of their culture and to their different needs. As such, education has been given a different and important role in supporting adult education, continuing education, professional development and e-learning but which requires a close collaboration with business life.

From learning input to learning outcomes

Another trend that influences the discussion of competence assessment is the move in the focus from learning input towards learning outcome.

Instead of defining education in terms of what different national educational systems and each institution could offer to students, it is suggested to start making agreements on what could be expected to be the result of education in terms of what learners, in different stages, could achieve.

The international agreement on the minimum outcomes that all learners in the world should be able to reach is a strategy to guarantee that the whole world population attains the minimum basic outcomes from schooling. The main aim is to raise the general educational level in the world and secure universal effective gaining from education to all the world population, thus making education a real universal right.

Since the 2000’s outcomes-based education has been the new dominant way of thinking to organize both the macro and micro governance of education. This means, that increasingly international organizations, national governments and educational institutions of all levels have been gradually adopting this “paradigm” to articulate the provision of education.

There are several reasons that support the perceived adequacy of this paradigm for the current challenges in education.

  • First, the shift to outcomes allows moving the focus of education towards more learner-centred and performance-oriented learning processes. This means that the individual and what s/he can do as a result of learning replace the idea that the knowledge provided by teachers and institutions are the aim of learning. The strengthening of the individual is central.
  • Second, the explicitation of the outcome of education creates the possibility of comparing contextual differences in educational offerings and by that allowing more transparency in the valuation of what learners are expected to gain out of their participation in education. The explicitation of outcomes becomes then a very important and practical tool for comparing offerings across institutions and nations. Thus, it facilitates also the mobility of people since those who receive them can in an easier way judge what the person could qualified for —at least in paper.

Third, and due to the previous two characteristics of the outcomes-based perspective, the language of outcomes allows expressing the intentions of the educational offerings in terms of the qualifications that people should reach. The outcomes become important for thinking about the assessment of competences. The European Qualifications Framework is a European attempt to order and standardise different levels of schooling to different levels of learning outcomes.

From qualifications to competencies

Related to the previous considerations, there has been a change also from focusing on qualifications (formal qualifications acquired through the educational system) towards focusing on competences (the ability to perform with the use of knowledge resources in the specifics of work situations).

This goes beyond the classical distinction between knowing-that and knowing-how, which is often used to denote what competence is compared to qualification.

  • The former covers formal knowledge such as theoretical, technical knowledge or procedural knowledge acquired by the individual.
  • The latter covers how to apply these kinds of formal knowledge in practice.

It is important to look at the two concepts together. The knowing-how brings the knowing-that, acquired in formal education, closer to practice.

The translation of knowing-that to knowing-how is one of transfer, where the aim is to embed a formal rationality in terms of theories, models and concepts into practice.

This is still a popular conception of competence but it is also a limited one.

Newer forms of thinking about competence can be found in later developments in educational research, particularly those who views learning in the relationship between the individual and cultural practices.

Here the focus is on learning as a constitutive part of people’s activity together and with others, with the symbolic and material artefacts of culture, in participating and performing knowledge.

Form this perspective, competence is to be found in the persons’ adequate performance with knowledge and material resources in the requirements of a work situation.

Several perspectives have emerged within the position:

  • The situated learning. The Communities of Practice.
  • The actor-network theory, where learning is seen as the process of assembling human and non-human and material and immaterial forces that reverberate in networks of lived stories of people in organizations.

The concept of competence is defined not in terms of a formal rationality that has to be translated into practice, instead, it is conceptualized according to material and discursive conditions of the organization and its specific historical, spatial and material conditions.

From assessment of learning to assessment for learning

The previous points have an impact on the role of education and thus also on the curricula, the pedagogical models that are being used, the assessment systems and all other elements of education.

To speak very roughly, the role of the education systems was seen previously as to produce qualified people to the labour market, where these qualifications were seen as end products or at least as permanent skills that only needed temporary adjustments, which were also noted above.

Today the role is to prepare people to become part of a labour market, in which job requirements are much more changing and fluid than ever before. We may speak of this as a change from a focus on knowledge production to a focus on generating learning capacity.

In this shift, assessment has also diversified in meaning. It is now recognized that assessment is such an important piece in education, that changes in assessment have the potential of producing changes in educational practices.

Assessment, as part of educational practices is related to the activity of producing a valuation of the learners’ performance against a pre-established expected characterization of performance. This can be done by authorities during or at the end of studies.

It can also be part of the end of an educational process and this is what is frequently done through examinations and is called summative assessment.

But alternatively it can be a series of feedback conversations between a teacher and students, and that is part itself of the teaching and learning process. This is what is called assessment for learning.

Independently of its form, assessment always implies the establishment of a ranking of values, that is, there are performances that are less desired and some that come close to what is expected or even fulfil completely expectations.

If assessment is the activity of the production of valuations of performance, there are always involved teachers or institutions that set the description of what is expected.

The valuations and the scales of not good/good performance are not value neutral. There are always frames of normative nature behind systems of assessment.

In most of the activities of assessment those frames are explicit in the form of a visible criteria of assessment organized in a ranking from low (not good) to high (good).

There are also times in which those are not explicit but are simply part of the judgment of the experts who judge and value performances. This is important to notice because it means that any kind of assessment system adopts a position from which to establish a desired “should” be, and a grading of performances accordingly.

WHAT IS COMPETENCE?

The initial definition of competence in the project is “the ability to apply learning outcomes adequately in a defined context (education, work, personal or professional development). The definition encompasses cognitive elements, functional aspects, (involving technical skills) interpersonal attributes (social or organizational skills) and ethical values”.

A general way of describing learning goals according to the Bologna declaration is in terms of knowledge, skills and competences. Let us briefly discuss the differences between them.

Knowledge

Knowledge can be defined as the interaction between intelligence (capacity to learn) and situation (opportunity to learn). It is agued that knowledge is more socially constructed than intelligence.

Knowledge includes underpinning theory and concepts, as well as tacit knowledge gained as a result of the experience of performing certain tasks. Knowledge is regarded as knowing-that, which is separate from understanding, which refers to more holistic processes of processes and context. Understanding can be referred as knowing-why.

What is interesting here is that knowledge means not only knowing of abstract theories models and concepts but also the knowing how to apply these theories, models and concepts into practice.

It is often argued that the acquisition of declarative knowledge must precede the development of procedural knowledge.

What is taught in schools and other educational institutions must, in other words, precede learning from practice. The challenge identified thus becomes of transferring theories, models and concepts into practice in the most effective way.

Skills

Some experts associate skill with the integration of well-adjusted muscular performances. Others define skills more broadly as any combination, useful to industry, of mental and physical qualities, which require considerable training or practice to be acquired.

A useful definition of skill is that it refers to “… a level of performance, in the sense of accuracy and speed in performing particular tasks”.

Skills are relevant for all groups. Skills are, as such, tacit. They are both perceptual and manual. They can involve the application of declarative knowledge into practice (knowing-how) but also just be acquired through practice. They are however also preconditioned on a high level of repetitiveness in the work tasks as well as a high level of experience with performing these tasks. That does not necessarily mean that tasks are simple. They can be very complex. What is not changing, however, is the lot of standards or norms by which actions are evaluated as skilful.

Competences

It is very difficult to obtain an appropriate understanding of competence. The concept of competence is a fuzzy one, but it is seen as useful for bridging the gap between job and education. What the concept of competence does is then to bring the workplace and organizational issues into the spotlight.

There is a distinction here between competences and competencies, which is also fuzzy and disputed but in our view highlights the differences between the abilities to do a job properly (competences) and set of defined behaviours that enables the identification, evaluation and development of the behaviours of employees.

The OECD defines competencies as ‘the ability to successfully meet complex demands in a particular context … the mobilisation of knowledge, cognitive and practical skills, as well as social and behaviour components such as attitudes, emotions and values and motivations’.

As such, the definition of competency involves an explicitation of competences into a set of identifiable criteria for successful performance, where successful performance is equal to organizational success.

A similar definition of competency: The combination of observable and measurable knowledge, skills, abilities and personal attributes that contribute to enhanced employee performance and ultimately result in organizational success.

Some authors directly relate competency to vocational education and defines it as the individual’s ability to use, apply and demonstrate a group of related awareness, knowledge, skills and attitudes in order to perform tasks and duties successfully and which can be measured against well-accepted standards (levels) required in employment as well as assessed against provided evidences at work location.

This definition of competency implies a more formal, objective process of assessing performance by clear knowing what is assessed and how it is being assessed. In this way, competency emphasizes specification into identifiable entities and parts, and underpinning it is the notion of effectiveness or success as defined by the institution/organization or representatives of them.

As noted, the distinction is fuzzy and often used interchangeably in the literature.

We have chosen the above conceptualization because it is operational and highlights the distinction between the ability to do a job properly and how institutions try to define and capture the requirements for doing a job properly.

This is very important for our project, because the distinction between the definition and the actual capacity is at stake when assessing competence.

Competence assessment requires that competences are converted into a structured guide of defined behaviours (competencies) enabling the identification, evaluation and development of peoples’ competences; that is, making possible the link between the definition and the actual capacity into something that can be assessed.

 

To return to the question of competence, there are a number of dimensions that need to be taken into consideration when thinking about competence. These dimensions are:

  • Ability
  • Knowledge
  • Understanding
  • Skill
  • Action
  • Experience
  • Motivation

As noted, these dimensions cover both knowledge and skills but competence is more than that. It is also noteworthy that they cover personal attitudes and attributes, social abilities as well as technical knowledge and skills.

In other words, what we find here is a view of the whole person tied together with the job-requirements.

Competencies are neither only general nor are they only specific. What the notion of competence does is to tie it to practices such as work situations.

However, this framework does not enable us to go beyond the level of the person, which means that competence and thereby competent behaviour is seen strictly as a question of the personal attributes.

There are few attempts to see competence from a social-cultural perspective. If we do this we notice, however, that competence understood as an adequate response to the requirements of a particular situation is not only a matter of the person but has to do with forces in the social, cultural and organizational context.

In this way, the work situation is not seen in an isolated perspective as a bounded entity but is instead seen as part of a network of activities that are tied together and relate to each other in many different ways.

In short, work situations are parts of complex assemblages and they are themselves also assemblages.

What we have done here is then not only to tie education to work situations. What we have done is to tie education to technological, organizational, cultural, ethical, and societal issues and how they penetrate people as well as the work situations they are put in.

When we, as such, introduce the notion of assemblage, we argue that competence is really the ability to assemble many different things together into a material and meaningful whole that are considered an adequate response to the requirements of the work situation.

Competence relies on a number of different forces: personal abilities, attributes and attitudes, but also the material affordances and dispositions that are embedded in the context of the work situation and the people that you work with.

Competence is then not only an individual phenomenon but is a social-cultural phenomenon in a way in which, the categories ‘individual’ and ‘organization’ are inevitably entangled with another, so that it becomes impossible to draw the boundaries between the two.

This naturally opens questions for competence and competence-assessment – and especially in the area of transversal competences. The question is what can we actually say about competences and transversal competences and how can we say something about it that it makes sense to measure it.

In other words, can we transform competences into identifiable parts and competencies that can be measured and assessed in a way in which it supports competence development?

We have to keep in mind the fuzzy concept of competences, which makes it both hard and dangerous to measure them by means of rigid sorting schemes and classification instruments.

We can very well imagine that some people perform their work completely satisfactory well but may perform poorly in competence measurement schemes. We may even imagine that these experiences from work make it easy for them to both change sectors and move to other cultures as well. This is perhaps exactly because assessment schemes presume that competence is something that belongs to an individual.

In other words, through the notion of competencies, competences are individualized and transformed into specific, identifiable characteristics of individuals. This is also natural because it is difficult, maybe even impossible, for education to approach it otherwise.

The point is however that this operation from competences to competencies implies a reduction and simplification of something that is in reality very complex, fluid and dynamic. All technologies are like that, also assessment technologies.

The point is that competence is something you perform in collaboration with other people and in particular material conditions structured by the work place.

What we have touched upon here is the difference between tying competences to an individual versus looking at them from a socio-cultural perspective. It also has implications when you look at the role of education.

If we would look at competence as the translation of declarative knowledge into practice, it would almost be bound to fail because the criteria for competence would be still be defined from the educational perspective instead of from the work situation and from the organization.

Looked from this perspective organizations do not primarily change or learn due to the transfer of declarative knowledge from education to organization but through a transformative effort driven primarily from forces within the organization but where education can provide important inputs.

In this process, education can play an important part if we can find collaborative models that can merge the learning structures of organizations with education and in this case vocational education and training.

On the part of education, this of course requires flexible learning models and curriculum design as well as assessment schemes that promote flexibility with all the associated notions of problem-solving, creative abilities, collaborative and communicative abilities, independent thinking and so forth combined still with a deep insight and competence into the technical requirements of one’s profession.

Main characteristics

To summarize the discussion above we will highlight the following main points, which characterize competences in comparison with other notions related to knowledge and learning:

The first point is that the notion of competences diverges from the notions of knowledge and skills, but they are necessary parts of competences. As such, competence is not an entity apart from knowledge and skills. In general, it is more fruitful to consider competences as a more complex and broader conception of performing in a job properly, and where knowledge and skills are integrated parts of doing this performance properly.

The second point is that the notion of competences has a focus on the whole person instead of only on person’s technical knowledge, capabilities or skills. Competences involve the whole person including also their personal attributes and characteristics, as well as social abilities and characteristics.

The third point is that competences are something that can be applied to dynamic and changing situations and to the ability of dealing with new and complex tasks in a relatively autonomous ways.

The fourth point relates to whether competence is seen as an individual or socio-cultural phenomenon. We have made the point that competence is a socio-cultural phenomenon meaning that organizational practices are assemblages that are continuously made from knowledge, actions, materials, techniques, technologies, resources and so forth. Organizational outcomes are almost never the results of the performance of one single individual but the results of people collaborating within the affordances (spaces, material, resources etc.) provided by the organization.

The fifth point relates to the distinction between competence and competencies. While competences are linked to a socio-cultural context, competencies can be seen as the attempt to transform the social into identifiable and necessary behavioural attributes that can be assigned to an individual. We write this not as a critique of those who try to do this. We write this as a reminder that this is a very complex and difficult operation. For instance, an important competence is often defined as the ability to collaborate and communicate. But it takes at least two to collaborate and communicate, and such abilities are highly context-dependent.

The sixth point states that the understanding of what it means to be competent has to be seen in relation to the complexities of the tasks before you, function, expectation and experience. Competence and what is required to be competent are different also beyond the social, cultural, organizational and professional issues. The criteria for competence are different whether you are talking about a surgeon, a professor, a teacher, blue collar workers or white collar workers, a military officer, a policemen or whatever profession we are talking about.

In the educational system different levels of competence have been conceptualized through the European Qualifications Framework, which try to relate the expected learning outcomes of the different levels of the school systems to differences in expectation regarding competence levels.

This should make it easier to make cross-country comparisons and to assess what kinds of competence levels people have acquired through the educational systems. These competence levels describe certifiable competences or competencies, which the different countries attribute to professionals at different levels of the work force.

The European Qualifications Framework distinguishes between knowledge, skills and competences according to the complexity of the tasks before you (from level 1 to level 8) and works with a description of competence in terms of responsibility and autonomy.

Furthermore, it works with a distinction between responsibility and autonomy in terms of individual work and being able to take responsibility and autonomy for the work of others.

Finally it is also noteworthy that they also work with a distinction of being able to take responsibility and autonomy in regard to relatively predictable or unpredictable change.

 

Table 1 – European Qualifications Framework

 

To sum up the discussion here, we can say that even though this table suggests that it is possible to create a language of competence that seems standardized, the actual nuances of the contexts in which these descriptions come to life cannot be ignored.

The result is a much more diversified palette of nuances of competence than what this table seems to suggest.

Just as a simple example, take two novice bakers educated one in Denmark and one in France. Even though if in paper their qualifications could correspond to a Level 4, the differences in what they are actually able to perform respond to the diversities of the educational and practical experiences they have been exposed to and, thus, their factual performance in technical and transversal competences may vary significantly.

Back to the CompAssess project this means that the assessment of competency is possible, designable and desirable as a form of increasing the relevance of education to the betterment of workforce qualifications. However, it is an illusion to intend that assessment tools or even assessment systems could grasp any single nuance of real competence of people performing work at a high level of expertise.

All the small nuances of competence may remain uncontrollable. Assessment, though, can offer a glimpse into what can be outcomes of competency.

WHAT ARE TRANSVERSAL COMPETENCES?

In the discussion above we have emphasized a socio-cultural competence versus a more individually centred notion of competence. In this respect we made a distinction between competences and competencies where the latter emphasizes the attempt made by organizations and institutions to transform competences into identifiable and necessary behavioural attributes that can be assigned to an individual.

In any case a socio-cultural approach to competence also has implications for looking at the notion transversal competences, which highlight a person’s abilities to move among and perform adequately in different contexts; i.e. different organizations, different cultures etc.

What are those competences? And how can we address them?

The eight key competences identified by the European Commission is a starting point. These transversal competences are so general and so basic that they should be addressed at each level in the European Qualifications Framework. These eight key competences are:

Communication in the mother tongue – Communication in a foreign language – Mathematical competence and basic competences in science and technology – Digital competence – Learning to learn

Social and civic competence – Sense of initiative and entrepreneurship – Cultural awareness and expression.

Some of these competences relate to the knowledge and skills components of competences; for example communication in mother tongue, communication in a foreign language, mathematical competence and digital competence. These are knowledge and skills within what we may call identifiable and bounded subject areas.

Competences like learning to learn, social and civic competence, sense of initiative and entrepreneurship and cultural awareness and expression do not have the same bounded characteristics.

Therefore, these eight competences also have to be addressed differently, in the sense that some of them have direct implications in terms of curriculum content while others have to be addressed in terms of what kinds of pedagogies are applied and so forth.

Finally, they also have different implications for assessment practices. Without underplaying the extreme complexities of mathematics, IT, and communication in mother tongue and a foreign language it is probably easier to assess the knowledge and skills of persons within these subject areas than with the other key competences.

These eight key competences constitute one area of concern for vocational education that it needs to address in terms of its curriculum, applied pedagogies and in its assessment practices.

Another matter of concern is however to try to say something specific about transversal competences in relation to organizations. Even if the eight key competences are also somehow related to what is required in organizations (for example language abilities, learning how to learn, IT) it makes sense to say something more specific about transversal competences from an organizational point of view.

But it is, by no means, easy to conceptualize what transversal competences are, since they are just as or even fuzzier than the notion of competence.

They are also not easy to locate within the European Qualification Framework although we may mention that they seem to relate to the criteria such as adapting knowledge and skills to new circumstances, independent thinking, autonomy, self-management and supervising others.

Through these, we move towards defining knowledge, skills and competences in a holistic and critical way, which in other words means that people gain a more thorough understanding of how their undertakings are linked to a broader professional discipline, social community or organization.

In this way, the levels described in the EQF are organized around a continuum where at one end there is a very narrow understanding of how the task relates to other people or to other activities, while in the other end, there is a very broad, complex and holistic understanding of these connections.

As such, transversal competences are not specific skills even through they are linked to specific skills, in the sense that a performance of a specific skill produce a residual of general understanding of context, in this case company context.

Transversal competences can be related to organizational learning, which in France goes under the heading of competence transversale, in Germany under key qualifications and action competence and in the Netherlands under a series of concepts ranging from extra-functional to broad occupational competence.

We have, thus, entered the arena of the organization/the company since transversal skills means linking one’s work to organizational strategies and the social-communicative skills that are associated with it.

In the Netherlands, attempts were made to define key qualifications as the broad, common core of occupations. A distinction between six dimensions of key qualifications can be found: general-instrumental; cognitive; strategic; social-communicative; social-normative; personality.

This discussion leads to a distinction between strategic effectiveness and social and communicative performance skills.

  • The first involves problem solving skills, organizational skills, versatility (multi-skills, procedural knowledge), and leadership skills.
  • The second relates to the social character of the work places as working environment and social context. It implies cooperative skills, social-communicative skills and cultural skills. Both strategic and social competences imply commitment and motivated activity.

These transversal skills relate very clearly to autonomy, responsibility for own work and for others mentioned in the EQF.

One of the specific competences often mentioned is the problem-solving skills, known also as methodical competences, which involves understanding problems or how to approach them and to develop solutions to them.

As noted we can add self-management skills as the ability to organize and plan tasks and to work in organizational environments, like groups, communities and professions.

Finally we add learning abilities in order to adapt to changing circumstances including adopting proper problem-solving approaches and also to work with new people.

ACOA emphasizes core competences as a learning objective for vocational educations. They distinguish four fields of competence needed for any job:

  1. Vocational and methodical competences refer to the vocational content and specific activities, assignments problems and contingencies and to the development of adequate approaches to these problems.
  2. Organisational and strategic competences refer to the ability to organise and plan tasks and to work in specific work and organisational environments.
  3. Social, communicative, normative and cultural competences refer to problems connected to working in groups and the participation in the community of practice at the level of a team, a company or a profession.
  4. Learning and shaping competences refer to the contribution to one’s own learning and development and the development and innovation of organisation or the profession.

This approach to transversal competences is quite common. It is the expression of the self-reliant worker, who through a mix of specific, technical knowledge and transversal skills is able to (co) shape the triangle of work, technology and knowledge.

As such, transversal competences are generative in the sense that they are re-usable in another context.

Some authors argue for five dimensions of transversal competences: (1) capacity for analysis and synthesis, (2) problem solving, (3) teamwork, (4) planning and time management and (5) concern for quality. Some other authors also a focus on creativity, innovation, critical thinking, and communication, very much in line with Cedefop, which identifies the following competences as transversal: critical thinking, creativity, initiative, problem solving, risk assessment, decision taking and the constructive management of feelings.

What is interesting here is that another dimension is added to transversal skills, which is gathered in words such as creativity, innovation and also entrepreneurship, which together with digital skills and languages show up in a mandate from the EC to a team working on transversal skills.

Digital skills and languages are, of course, very important for the transnational transversal skills while digital skills are the basis for many jobs today.

In any case, there seems to be a slide to put more emphasis on the learning and shaping of competences, which means that company and organizational contexts are changing rapidly pushed by technological development, the digitalization of society and globalization.

We would suggest using the framework above, which means that transversal competences cover: Vocational and methodical competences. Organizational and strategic competences. Social, communicative, normative and cultural competences. Learning competences.

Key words are: (1) capacity for analysis and synthesis, (2) problem solving, (3) teamwork, (4) planning and time management, (5) creativity, (6) innovation, (7) entrepreneurship, (8) digital skills, (9) language skills.

How can we assess that in the vocational educational system? There are a number of ways to do that, which are both qualitatively or quantitatively based.

We however would also say that if transversal competences are seen as an important part of the answer for vocational education in facing contemporary challenges, then assessment is not the full answer.

Assessment has to go hand with changes in the school design, curricula, pedagogical methods and teaching methodologies, a change in the ways in which the relationships between teachers and students are organized, a change in how the relationship between VET and the surrounding companies and organizations are organized and so forth.

These are important questions and we cannot look at assessment separate from the learning goals from the curriculum: Key competences are more likely to be acquired when the school level curriculum specifies transversal skills and inter-subjects links.

ASSESSMENT OF (TRANSVERSAL) COMPETENCES

There are many good reasons for discussing assessment and its functions. Internationally, it is debated to what extent assessment methods used actually measure the aspect of the students’ intended and relevant learning processes.

It is also well known that assessments probably affect what and how students learn more than any other parameter. Here, the key issue is what are the explicit and implicit aims of education and its expected outcomes. It is also an important issue to consider how the integrity of assessment can guarantee transparency, validity and reliability of the tools to collect evidences on students’ competence.

Finally, the question at stake is also how the students’ legal rights during assessments can be guaranteed.

In the educational system, assessment is often performed as exams, where the students’ qualifications are determined and assessed according to their performance within well-defined temporal and spatial boundaries, and which are run according to strict rules.

There are three quite serious points of criticism towards assessment as it is often practiced.

  • The validity of exams is generally low, as they only, to a small degree, measure the benefits of different aspects of understanding and professional competence, which are the most important aspects regarding education.
  • Exams have a very governing effect on students’ study activities, often directing them not towards ensuring their understanding of central professional terms, principles and models, but towards solving predictable assignments, which reflects professional capability to a limited extent.
  • Exams, as they are practiced, contribute to maintaining the students in a kind of pupil role, as they relate more to the educational institution’s internal expectations than to the professional content and the practice students are qualifying themselves to enter.

Student tests and assessment can be a serious and often tragic thing, where, for a start, less pompousness and defensiveness and more easy mindedness would be advisable, to improve the process of evaluating and assessing students’ learning. Some teachers become closed and formal when talking about assessment: It seems as if they measure their own value as teachers in difficulties in the questions and the complexity of the procedures they can make up for testing and grading their students and to prevent cheating”.

Assessment seems to be about getting students to know the quality of their learning instead of indulging in categorization.

If exams were planned the right way it would also have the right influence on the students’ study activities. It has been documented that exams play a central role for students.

It is important, therefore, to take care that students under assessment are treated right.

Despite many points of criticism of exams as they are often practiced, there is, however, consensus that exams are and should be an important part of an educational practice, which should not be questioned.

But as research and surveys find many problems with how exams are conducted, other ways of assessment are studied, designed and experimented with, to ensure validity and reliability in connection with assessments and to guarantee the students’ legal rights.

Assessment issues are central to education, and assessment can strongly influence teaching and learning.

The negative side of this influence is that:

  • If only a few subjects are assessed, it can narrow the focus of the curriculum and lead to the neglect of other subjects.
  • If only limited aspects of these subjects are addressed, it can distort them too.
  • If only knowledge is assessed, then the development of skills and attitudes is at best incidental.

The positive side is however that:

  • Rather than the learning that is easily assessed, assessment can tell us about the learning that we agree is important too.
  • Assessment can lead to an increase time and effort spent on what we agree is important, such as developing key competences.
  • Assessment can support effective changes not only in what is taught but also how it is taught, and consequently what is learnt and how it is learnt.

In any case, it can be concluded that there is a lot of politics in assessment, in the sense that the ascribed competencies and the ways in which they are being assessed is an important guide for how students should behave in order to get good evaluations.

It is also obvious that good evaluations do not necessarily lead to an improvement in the actual competences.

The assessment policies and practices need more attention from Member States. Even if a shift to outcome-based approaches has had some effects on assessment methods and policies, the evidence for changes in practice is still scarce. In other words, there is good reason for an institution to focus on how it assesses its students. Students will organize their time and efforts according to how they are being assessed.

Therefore, it is impossible to come up one model that fits all – also in regard to the area of competences and transversal competences. But there is the possibility of stating some principles or of making some more general considerations about assessment and in particular about the assessment of competences and transversal competences.

As noted, we argued that the area of competence in general has to do with ability, knowledge, understanding, skill, action, experience and motivation. In the learning outcomes framework this was operationalized into self-management, autonomy, adapting one’s knowledge and skills to new situations and abilities to support others.

We ended up with defining transversal competences as:

  1. Vocational and methodical competences refer to the vocational content and specific activities, assignments problems and contingencies and to the development of adequate approaches to these problems.
  2. Organisational and strategic competences refer to the ability to organise and plan tasks and to work in specific work and organisational environments.
  3. Social, communicative, normative and cultural competences refer to problems connected to working in groups and the participation in the community of practice at the level of a team, a company or a profession.
  4. Learning and shaping competences refer to the contribution to one’s own learning and development and the development and innovation of organisation or the profession.

These relate to:

  1. Independent planning and problem-solving.
  2. Relating ones work to organisational and strategic issues.
  3. Being able to work with other people in changing constellations.
  4. Being able to continuously learn and develop oneself.

What is being emphasized are important process competences by which you can put your knowledge and skills into operation in meaningful, appropriate and effective ways in different contexts, with different people and by which people are also able to develop ones’ knowledge, skills and competences.

In other words, these are processes of learning how to learn. In the literature on assessment there is a distinction between assessment of learning (summative assessment) or assessment for learning (formative assessment), where the latter tends to be more qualitative and on the go.

The important distinction in the assessment is here whether the assessment seeks to document a particular level of performance or if the assessment is made to support the learning process itself.

A typical definition of assessment for learning is found here, at this webpage: http://www.assessmentforlearning.edu.au/default.asp

Assessment for Learning is the process of seeking and interpreting evidence for use by learners and their teachers to decide where the learners are in their learning, where they need to go and how best to get there. Assessment for Learning is also known as formative assessment.

It is emphasized that formative assessment is not an instrument or an event but rather a collection of practices with the common feature that they all should lead to some action that improves learning.

Formative assessment is essentially feedback both to the teachers and to the pupil about present understanding and skill development in order to determine the way forward.

As such, it is not the instrument in itself, which is formative but the use of the information gathered to adjust both teaching and learning. In contrast, summative assessment provides evidence of student achievements for the purpose of making a judgment about student competence.

The Department of Training and Workforce Development of Western Australia (2013) has developed detailed guidelines for the process of designing and implementing competence assessment as a type of continuous formative activity. The description of the process of assessment of competence points to a variety of elements that are involved. Assessment of competency is defined as the process of collecting evidence and making judgments on whether competence has been achieved. This confirms that an individual can perform to the standard expected in the workplace as expressed in the nationally endorsed competency standards, on competency standards developed by relevant industry, enterprise, community or professional groups, or on outcomes of accredited courses if there are no relevant nationally endorsed competency standards.

At the same time, they define four dimensions of competency. These four dimensions can be understood as related and expansive realms of performance that go from a punctual task performance, to planning and management, addressing the unanticipated and solving non-routine problems, to the performance in a work process that requires interaction with others in a work environment:

  • Task skills: the capacity to perform tasks to the required standard;
  • Task management skills: the ability to plan and integrate a number of different tasks and achieve a work outcome;
  • Contingency management skills: the ability to respond to irregularities, breakdowns and other unanticipated occurrences; and
  • Job/role environment skills: the capacity to deal with the responsibilities and expectations of the work environment, including working with others.

The interesting issue in this operational definition of competency for assessment is that both technical and transversal competencies are being combined and integrated: from the individual actual performance in a routine task, to the more complex performance as part of productive work processes in relation to other participant in those processes. Here all aspects of being able to manage a situation appropriately come to the fore.

In these different proposals, the quality of formative assessment lies in the quality of the evidences collected, the feedback given and the reflections that they generate in regard to performance and the motivation for performance.

Such assessment methods are characterized as qualitative where the key words are conversation, dialogue and reflection, which are often supported by instruments for collecting information about the performance but where this information is not seen as the principal value, but where the value, instead, lies in how it is being used to generate learning.

Table2

Table 2 – Kinberg’s Model: the Purposes of Formative Assessment

http://www.kinberg.net/?p=769

Anne Michelle Lee argues for one more distinction between ‘assessment for learning’, ‘assessment as learning’ and ‘assessment of learning’. The differences can be seen in the table below.

 

table3

Table 3 – Assessment of – as – for learning

Assessment OF… AS… FOR…learning

The important difference between assessment for learning and assessment as learning seems to be that in the latter there are more emphasis on student involvement in setting the learning goals and the learning situation and in assessing own learning (self-assessment).

In the discussion however, we will include assessment as learning as part of formative assessment.

 

So, what have we learned about assessing competences and transversal competences? Even if summative assessment schemes and methods often have a negative flair from the discussions, it is probably more fruitful appropriate to see how the different methods can be used to supplement one another.

Formative assessment cannot replace summative assessment and in any case it is not realistic that summative assessment will disappear.

There are some many stakeholders involved, who want to grade and classify students. Further a lot of the students probably also want a grade.

An assessment system, which is exclusively based on the principles of formative assessment would probably not be taken serious by a lot of students. So, it is probably more like to achieve a balance between the two modes of assessment.

At the same time this is a balance between measuring a product or an effect of learning (summative assessment) and saying something about the processes that leads students to such learning (formative assessment).

In the action learning literature and problem-based learning literature a double purpose of the learning process is often presented.

  • The first is specific and characterizes what the results of a particular learning process are. For example if the task/problem has been solved and to what degree it has been solved. This is the immediate effect of learning and is specific in the sense that it considers whether and to what level this task has been achieved.
  • The other purpose is more general and has to do with the processual learning that people bring with them to other situations and other tasks.

But the whole idea in a problem-based or practice based approach to learning is that the achievement of such general, processual and transversal competences can only be achieved by organizing the learning in regard to the practical matters of the worlds.

In other words, the general knowledge and learning relies organizing learning according to very specific issues.

TOWARDS A MODEL OF TRANSVERSAL COMPETENCE ASSESSMENT IN VET

A model of transversal competence assessment in VET cannot be a fixed assemblage of well-defined concepts that are to be taken as universal meanings to be applied in particular contexts.

Rather, the idea of a model here is a broad articulation of the elements that teachers in VET need to take into consideration in the task of developing concrete initiatives for assessing transversal competence in the context of their national and institutional practices.

In any situation of assessment, there is an assessment tool that is set in operation to emit a judgement on a performance.

The assessment tool can vary in terms of the type of tool and also the time and space in which it is meant to be used. For example, tools could be portfolios with a variety of samples of student work as well as teacher observation and even work-place declarations; or tools such as the “spider web” tool developed by EUC-SyD in Denmark where different dimensions of a competence profile are graded in levels, and the valuation of the teacher as well as the valuation of the student on the same dimensions can be plotted together into a graphic representation of the differences and meeting points in assessment.

This tool is mean to measure progress, so, therefore, it is set in operation during different moments of the educational program in order for the student (apprentice) and teacher (instructor) to see the changes in performance. This is a type of tool whose use extends over time and can be used by different parties involved in the education.

table4

Table 4 – Types of assessment methods

Independently of the choice, the tool is purposefully designed taking into consideration a competence profile that is going to be assessed. The competence profile, at the same time, is framed within the structure and characteristics of the VET system in question.

That is, the VET structure, organization, and overall outcomes and qualifications frameworks shape the competence profile that backs up a particular competence profile for an assessment tool.

Other educational characteristics of the VET program such as the curriculum and pedagogical traditions also frame what is possible to define as competence profile for an assessment situation.

Furthermore, the competence profile allows making explicit the evidence requirements for the performance that the tool intends to value. The assessment tool also provides details of how evidences of competence will be recorded and how they will be validated.

In other words, there is an explicitation of the recording of the situation of assessment. This means that careful thinking about the evidence that is taken as the grounds for assessment, its quality and its recording is very important. Evidence is the information gathered which, when matched against the requirements of the unit of competency, provides proof of competence. Evidence can take many forms and be gathered from a number of sources.

table5

Table 5 – Different types of evidence

The quality of evidence provided is defined in terms of:

  • Validity or that it relates to the competence profile defined and it satisfies the criteria of the established qualifications frameworks;
  • Sufficiency or that it is enough to provide information on all the aspects being assessed;
  • Currency or that it allows to connect to the expectations of stakeholders, particularly employers; and
  • Authenticity or that it grasps students’ own work and production.

Independently of how the tool and the criteria of quality for evidence is defined, the important point is that the quality of the evidences needs to be robust as to provide a solid basis for assessment.

All these elements described above were thought from the point of view of the teacher and the VET system.

But the assessment situation can also be seen from the point of view of the student or the person whose performance is being assessed.

Performance is the activity or series of activities that are unfolded by a person or group of people whose competencies are being assessed in the situation of assessment. The performance should also be thought as a possibility for providing evidence for assessment.

This possibility also needs to be thought and designed in order to secure that, during the assessment, the assessed person can in fact have the chance of doing what may be demanded to fulfil the evidence requirements.

From the point of view of the assessed and the performance, there are important considerations such as the opportunities of learning to gain competence, and the cultural factors and personal factors as well as future work and employment factors may frame the performance.

In the case of VET, it is important to consider that the expectation of education for gaining competence for work is central and therefore, the influence that the organization of the national system allows to stakeholders is also an element to consider when assessing transversal competences.

The activity of assessing is the core of the model. The meeting between teachers and/or work-place tutors and the students for the valuation of performance is the key, core situation of assessment.

The elements described above map the overall elements that influence the assessment situation, now we will specify the elements directly involved in the situation itself.

So, when looking at the moment where the activity of assessment takes place, the integrity of the assessment situation needs also to be taken into consideration.

The integrity of an assessment situation is the relationship between, on the one hand, the validity, reliability, flexibility and fairness of the tool with respect to the competence profile and, on the other hand, the validity, sufficiency, current value, and authenticity of the evidence unfolded in the assessment situation.

The latter elements have been previously defined with respect to the quality of evidence. The former elements here are concerned with the characteristics of the application of the assessment tools.

table6

Table 6: Factors involved in the integrity of assessment decisions

Summarizing, a model of assessment needs to consider a general contextual framing of the assessment situation, and the series of details of the elements that constitute the very same act of assessing in a situation.

There are some of these elements that are framed and depend on the characteristics of the VET system where teachers are located in. And there are also aspects connected to the students whose performance is being assessed.

All in all, a model of assessment makes sense in as far as the assessors are aware of how these diverse elements – contextual and internal to the assessment situation – resonate.

The concept of resonance among the elements is sometimes referred to as the alignment between the different elements of the curriculum in an educational situation.

By choosing the term “resonance” rather than alignment, we want to convey the idea that it is desirable to strive for a connection that is as good as possible, well knowing that sometimes a perfect alignment is not possible to achieve.