Assessment-driven Training

An advantage in Outcomes-based Education and Training but hardly understood…

The Outcomes-based (OB) approach in learning were implemented in South Africa’s schools and learning institutions, but endured much criticism – especially from those who did not grasp the advantages. Let’s not throw away the baby with the bath water…

Many benefits in the OB assessment approach

The assessment-driven approach in OB was thoroughly researched and proven to focus learners on the outcomes that are directly related to workplace skills. However, most assessment design and developers still do not grasp the difference between content-based and outcomes-based learning and the advantages embedded in the assessment-driven approach. When they need to design and develop assessment guides and instruments they reach out to the book and not the outcomes.

Does assessment-driven mean we don’t start with the book?

Exactly just that. You start with the assessment criteria in the unit standard. In fact, when you design and develop the whole programme, you are not even supposed to have a book until you have developed your draft assessment guide and instruments. Only after the assessment instruments are drawn up, the outline of the book should be drafted.

But what is wrong with starting with the content or the book?

Developers who start with the book rather than the assessment criteria usually end up having question papers with irrelevant questions. Their preferred method is to look for steps, formulas, procedures, definitions and difficult terminologies within the book. These will then be channelled into matching column, multiple choice, alternative choice and insert-type questions. When doing this, most developers do not take in account the weight of different outcomes, and assessment instruments are developed that’s invalid, unfair to the learners and unreliable. The context of the specific organisation is also not taken into account, which lower standards due to the generic approach that is being used.

What about subjective type of questions?

Most developers do not want to add open questions for different reasons. Firstly you need open-minded assessors to mark open-ended questions…seemingly hard to find. Secondly, it takes more time assessing them and thirdly not all providers trust their assessors to apply their minds. The truth however is that most learners like open-ended questions as many like to express themselves rather than being restricted. Are we fair to our learners by providing assessments that are accommodating their individual needs?

What about the memorandum?

The outcomes and assessment criteria direct and assist in the formulation of the learning outcomes. The learning outcomes should be stated and developed in the book. Audience and context is crucial in the selection and research of the content, which should only answer to the learning outcomes. The memorandum and the book are now developed concurrently as both documents should answer to the learning outcomes. Although the book is used as guide in drawing up the memorandum, open ended questions should acknowledge learning acquired outside the boundaries of the book. That will also simplify assessment in recognition of prior learning (RPL) where a holistic approach rather than a delimited style is preferred.

Doesn’t the unit standard become the content?

Even the unit standard can become content if we see it as the Alpha and Omega. Remember, unit standards are compiled by Standard Generating Bodies which consisted of people…who have limitations. They recognise their own short-comings through publishing it for a time period so that the public can participate in a democratic manner. Therefore the unit standard only becomes a guide and not the only source in developing assessments. The context (obtained through analysing the internal and external environment of each specific organisation) of learning plays a much larger role when developing assessment activities.

But Higher Education still believes in books, journals, publications…content!

Maybe with a better balance between knowledge based and workplace based learning, they will understand the gap that was created through the years of content-based learning. Maybe then they will understand why our economy look like it does and why workplaces are reluctant to provide jobs for graduates.


The value of assessment-driven training is the fact that it focuses on the outcomes within the workplace context instead of generic content. It increases standards and excludes irrelevant learning. It is valid and reliable as it focuses on the purpose of the skill.

Let’s keep and feed this baby!

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RPL Challenges in Higher Education

Easy to legislate…difficult to apply?

Initially when Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) was proposed and imposed through different legislation and prescripts in the early 2000s, the purposes of RPL in South Africa were social redress and transformation.  Higher Education institutions realized sporadically that RPL implementation will not only change their mission statement, but will also influence their admission policy, existing resources, assessment procedures, staff, exit policy and mode of delivery.

Today, 16 years later, Higher Education institutions still struggle to grapple with challenges in RPL implementation which may compromise high standards of institutions which provide them with credibility and integrity.  Some challenges still hinders implementation…

Challenges in RPL implementation

During a RPL workshop in May 2016, the following challenges were anticipated by high level (level 8-10) attendees from different faculties in Higher Education:

  • Conceptual knowledge can be difficult to find in workplace evidence.
  • Inexperienced assessors will have difficulty to assess RPL evidence in a holistic manner due to lack of workplace experience.
  • Admission policy guidelines will have to be amended to be more inclusive.
  • Exit points are currently protecting HE interest –open exit points can be misrepresented.
  • Fee structures can’t be generic, but should differ over the huge range of programmes.
  • Promotion of RPL to own management and training staff.
  • RPL Office for speedy implementation rather than immediate integration.

Conceptual knowledge difficult to find in workplace evidence

One of the challenges of RPL assessors in Higher Education is to identify and recognize conceptual knowledge within the evidence provided from the workplace.  Conceptual knowledge is different from procedural knowledge that simply follow rules to get to the same outcome. As long as you know “how” to do geometry, you will achieve acceptable marks, but why you are following the steps might be unknown for the candidate.  Conceptual knowledge answers to the “why”.  An excellent chess player can win a match purely by using his procedural knowledge in pattern recognition. However he will not necessarily prove conceptual knowledge.  Conceptual knowledge however can develop through years of experience in following procedures, but this is the question academics should ask:  ‘do we have proof of conceptual knowledge in prior learning, to recognize learning in a Higher Education context?’.

To enable recognition of learning in an Academic institution, emphasis of conceptual knowledge should be higher than procedural knowledge.  A person’s competence can only be justified if he/she understands why he/she is following the procedure. Assessors need to be advised on the difference so that the integrity of deliverables from a Higher Education institution will uphold their credibility.  In the case where an RPL candidate lacks conceptual knowledge as required through set assessment criteria, the candidate should be referred to institutions where the emphasis is more on procedural knowledge.

Holistic RPL assessment approach

Consistency in assessment judgement can only be obtained if assessors speak the ‘same language’, e.g. share a common understanding of competence in their subject matter.  Holistic thinking skills are developed through years of experience, which leaves young RPL assessors as a risk in making an RPL judgement.

The problem however lies in the fact that if we only allow high level assessors to make RPL judgements, the cost of the RPL assessment should drastically increase.  RPL thus become an expensive option, which is against the intended purpose of RPL.

Admission Policy

The admission policy in Higher Education is expected to be very strict to be fair to all learners and the institution.  However, in the case of RPL, a generic approach should be used and applications should be judged in a holistic manner.  Once again high level subject matter expertise should be involved in the admission of individuals, which increase cost even in application.

Should exit be voluntary for the RPL candidate?

In all learning institutions, policy states that exit is voluntary for the RPL candidate.  This means that at any stage when the candidate feel he/she does not want to continue, they may exit.  Academics however reason that in most cases, the input of Higher Education is acknowledged within their products (publications or thesis).  In the case where a professor spent hours in finding the gap in the candidate’s evidence, and went through numerous hours of top-up learning, his institution should be acknowledged.  However this will not be possible if the candidate decides at this stage to exit and applies at another Higher Education Institution.  Policy should thus include guidelines to exit mechanisms to protect the interest of the institution.

Fee structures can’t be generic

An RPL candidate cannot be required to pay a minimum, generic fee for RPL in Higher Education, as the different fields, different levels and requirements on high levels will differ.  Fees must rather be broken down into consultation, assessor, moderation and administration fees per level and field.  The turnaround time of RPL is also a disputable concept as this will also increase fee structures.

Promotion of RPL in Higher Education

An advantage for Higher Education in applying RPL is the partnerships that they will form with different workplaces to associate with typical workplace evidence.  However, it seems that academics still fail to see these advantages for their own academic development.

Need for RPL Office

Although the integration of RPL into existing training structures seems to be the most cost-effective way of implementing RPL, it seems as if it will rather be an add-on that will only increase the workload of high level assessors.  If assessors do not agree on the necessity of this function, it will not carry sufficient weight to mandate this function.

The alternative is to start with a RPL office from which all initial RPL interventions are promoted and coordinated.  Promotion should take place not only outside the institution, but ideally internally so that staff can first pick the fruit of RPL endeavours.  Internal RPL will promote the concept to the highest levels and assist in the training of RPL facilitators, assessors and moderators.


So what do we say?  It is easy to legislate RPL, but not so easy to apply…

Unless Higher Education starts implementing it convincingly and forcefully, we will never know whether this will be feasible and viable in their environment.

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