When does a qualification have depth?

It stands to reason that any qualification needs to have sufficient depth to ensure real learning on the level of the qualification. It, however, is not always clear what is meant by “depth”. This is how I see it and I would really appreciate it if you could add on to my flights of imagination.

A qualification shows depth when the contents of the learning programme are on an acceptable academic level and encourages the students to think cognitively. All learning consists of three main elements, namely theoretical knowledge; philosophy; and skills, or practical work. In the case of occupational and vocational learning the emphasis is more on acquiring skills than on theory and philosophy, although some theory and a little philosophy is mostly necessary in order to achieve at least foundational competence. In the case of academic learning the emphasis falls on theory and philosophy, although most academic learning also includes acquiring certain skills, in some cases rather specialised skills.

The title of the qualifications does not indicate the depth of the learning content. Take flower arranging as an example. You can have an occupational certificate in flower arranging, but also a bachelor’s degree or even a doctoral thesis on the same topic.

The qualification should be coherent. This means that the different modules or subjects included in a qualification should support and complement one another. In this manner students are given a good measure of depth in the purpose of the qualification. It also simplifies the learning process because what students learn in one module or subject provides theory that will help the student understand the contents and rationale behind other subjects.

The qualification should be well-structured. Subjects should progressively become more “difficult” as the student progresses from one academic year to the next. This means that first year subjects should prepare the students for second year subjects and so on until the final year.

The assessment should test the students’ knowledge and, perhaps, skills, at the right level. Some claim that multiple-choice questions only test low level cognitive skills. This is most certainly not the case. Multiple-choice questions, like most other types of exam questions, can be asked in such a way that they test comprehension and not just content. In fact, one can tests many elements of practical work by means of written or e-learning exams.

In closing, there might well be a multitude of other factors determining the depth of a qualification. Therefore it is important to specify what you mean when you claim that a qualification lacks depth.

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