What the education system can learn from us

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Written by Matt Wingfield on 12 September 2014 in Features

L&D has a lot to offer the world of education, Matt Wingfield says

This summer, just as every year, the UK's 19th Century exams system has been under national scrutiny with the perennial debates in the media around inefficiencies, grade inflation, dumbing down, marking scandals, cheating and more. But while our children in schools sit in exam halls and attempt to demonstrate the outcomes of their learning with a three-hour written paper, here in the world of work-based L&D there are shining examples all around us of how it should and could be done.

In the professional world of training, from centres of learning to corporate and government workplaces, there exist different tried and tested assessment methods that represent a far more robust, valid and accurate way of assessing people’s skills, knowledge and competencies.

The contrast between the assessment practices still in use in schools and the methods we use in the professional space is a stark one. So why does it matter so much? Because it correlates to the often glaring gap between the skills our young people leave school with and the requirements of UK employers.

Thankfully, bodies such as the eAA (e-Assessment Association) and ETAG (the Government’s Education Technology Action Group) are working to close this gap. We would argue that we don’t need to look too far for evidence of how improvements can (and do) work.


A major development in recent assessment technology is the idea of adaptive testing. This is a computer-based testing model that automatically pinpoints areas where learners can improve. As the difficulty of each test is tailored to the student’s ability, the candidate has a vastly enhanced learning experience.

If the student gets a question wrong, an easier one is generated, or if they get one right, a harder one comes up. All questions come from the same “item bank”, so the results can be graded and standardised nationally – and because questions or tasks from this item bank are randomised (as they are in the UK’s Driver Theory Test), there is no chance for cheats to predict, copy or share test content.

This technique is already widespread in the US and Australia, and is used here on IT courses and modules on quality management by NHS Scotland. Provided there are enough subject matter experts available to create a large enough item bank, this makes it possible for cohorts of thousands of learners to take their tests whenever they are ready, rather than waiting for an annual, end-of-course exam window as they do in schools.

This concept of test-when-ready is also used to great effect by the SQA (Scottish Qualifications Authority) and delivered by eAA member Calibrand, for the Diploma in Professional Financial Advice.

Introduced by the financial services regulator (FCA), this qualification was brought in to improve standards and is a requirement to practice in this industry. Busy financial advisers have online access to all learning and mock exam materials 24/7, and can take modules and practice tests as many times and in whatever order they need, until they are confident enough to pass the real test under high-stakes exam conditions.

Calibrand has developed this course on the principle that advisers don’t want expensive text books or a formal, costly and restrictive programme, instead they want low cost, readily available learning and assessment materials so they can carry on doing their job and learn as quickly and easily as possible at other times. They need accreditation, not only by an academic awarding body but by their employment sector regulator the FCA, allowing them to practise and thrive. Many of these principles can be applied to the education sector. 

Away from the office-based environment too, advances have been made to ensure a better way of measuring other vocational skills. For example, with on-screen testing, technology can allow an emphasis on non-written items such as pictures, diagrams and drag-and-drop tasks, so language or literacy are not barriers.

Of course human input is still vital for assessing certain types of answers, but technology has allowed us to move beyond just multiple choice, and towards other mechanisms that can still be automatically marked.

In more practical and vocational subjects in schools, the use of this technology would also bring the significant benefit that teachers are saved a dramatic amount of admin and marking time.

All of the major awarding bodies have already adopted this method – specifically when assessing competency and capability rather than knowledge – again we see it in action in the government-owned Driver Theory Test, which is currently delivered by eAA member Pearson VUE.

 To take on-screen testing even further, we are now even seeing simulations being used successfully, to immerse the learner in the simulation of a real-life scenario and assess how they respond to applying their knowledge in the appropriate context. This practical assessment of skills is delivered using web and tablet based technologies.

Simulations are already used for examining IT jobs such as database engineers, plus European Union customs officers use them to assess front-line jobs. The method is also ideal for many engineering and agricultural jobs, particularly as both industries are increasingly using robots and drones.

Another area where schools can learn from work-based learning programmes, from apprenticeships to sector skills councils, is in supporting coursework. The concept of e-Portfolio, as promoted by providers such as TAG Assessment, streamlines the vocational learning experience by allowing a student’s work to be assessed, verified, graded and given feedback remotely by the learning provider or a third party. e-Portfolios also mean students have an up-to-date, interactive representation of their achievements as they develop their skills.

This approach is useful wherever a portfolio of evidence is needed to demonstrate practical skills or on-the-job-training. The majority of colleges use e-portfolios as well as the major awarding bodies and sector skills councils including the Construction Industry Training Board.

Finally, perhaps the biggest lesson the schools system can learn from the world of work is how to harness the idea of work-readiness. Educators need to be able to measure employability skills, and innovative, evidence-based e-assessment technologies are proving to be the best way to capture and assess evidence of student knowledge, understanding and practical ability directly relevant to the workplace.

Awarding bodies and institutions including OCR and Edinburgh University are now offering new qualifications that focus on real employability skills from ICT, numeracy and literacy to entrepreneurial and business skills that translate directly to the real world.

The key is to directly address the increasing demand from employers for the skills they need. Should schools scrap written exams altogether? Of course not – in some academic subjects they may still be entirely appropriate. But we need to find a balance. And to find that mix of 21st Century skills – the balance between knowledge and capabilities - we need scalable, reliable, robust and appropriate assessments.


About the author

Matt Wingfield is chairman of the e-Assessment Association


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