Tag: Bloom’s Taxonomy

Competency-based planning and assessing

Competency-based planning and assessing

Earlier this week, I attended a workshop on competency-based (or competency-oriented) planning and assessing held by Dr Stefan Brall at Trier University, and would like to share some of the insights here.

The workshop was aimed at university-level teachers from various subject areas, and so concentrated generally on Competency-Based Education (CBE). According to Richards and Rogers (2001), the principles of CBE can be applied to the teaching of foreign languages (-> CBLT: Competency-Based Language Teaching), making the topic of interest to ELT professionals.

What is a competency?

In everyday language, we talk of people being ‘competent’ when they have the knowledge, qualification(s), or capacity to fulfil the expectations of a particular situation. They have the ability to apply the relevant skills appropriately and effectively. In the area of education, then, these skills are the individual competencies that students need to acquire and develop. Another important distinction here is between declarative knowledge, the theoretical understanding of something, and procedural knowledge, the ability to actually do it. In language teaching, I would argue, our focus is necessarily on the procedural side of things, on getting students to be able to actually communicate in the target langauge. The overarching goal of  CBLT is for learners to be able to apply and transfer this procedural knowledge in various settings, appropriately and effectively.

Literature on CBE explains how the approach can enhance learning, by

  • Focusing on the key competencies needed for success in the field
  • Providing standards for measuring performance and capabilities
  • Providing frameworks for identifying learners’ needs
  • Providing standards for measuring what learning has occurred

What are key competencies?

In the realm of tertiary education, a useful study to look at here is the Tuning Project. This is an EU-wide study which explored the most important competencies that students should develop at university. Although the specific ranking of the competencies may be debated, some of the capabilities that came out as very important include: the application of theory, problem solving, the adaptation of procedural knowledge to new situations, analytical thinking, synthesising information, and creativity (Gonzalez & Wagenaar, 2003). These kinds of skills are those often found at the top ends of taxonomies of learning. Compare, for example, with Bloom’s taxonomy:


Other taxonomies of learning use comparable sequential units to describe cognitive learning. For example, the SOLO model (Structure of Observed Learning Outcome, see Biggs & Tang, 2007) includes a quantitative phase of uni-structural and multi-strucutal learning (e.g. identyfing, describing, combining), and then a quantitative phase of relational (e.g. comparing, analysing causes, applying) and extended abstract learning (e.g. generalising, hypothesising). Seeing these important skills in a hierarchically organised scheme highlights how they build upon each other, and are themselves the products of mastering many sub-skills or competencies.

In language teaching, people have long since spoken of “the four skills”, i.e. skills covering the oral, aural, reading and writing domains. To this we might also add learning competencies. In CBLT, language is taught as a function of communicating about concrete tasks; learners are taught the langauge forms/skills they will need to use in various situations in which they will need to function. Scales such as the Common European Reference Framework for Languages help to break down these skills into distinct competences, whereby learners move up through the levels of mastery in each skill area, from elementary performance in a competency to proficient performance.


Competency-based Learning Outcomes

If we take scales of learning as the foundation for our planning, then, formulating statements of learning outcomes becomes quite a straightforward process. We will of course need to know the current level and needs of our students, especially in terms of competencies still to be learnt and competencies requiring further development. Associated with such learning taxonomies, we can easily find lists of action verbs which denote the skills associated with each developmental level of thinking skills. Based on the SOLO model, for example, we might find the following verbs:

Level Verbs
Uni-structural learning (knowledge of one aspect) count, define, find, identify, imitate, name, recognize, repeat, replicate
Multi-structural learning  (knowledge of several, unconnected aspects) calculate, classify, describe, illustrate, order, outline, summarise, translate
Relational learning (knowledge of aspects is integrated and connected) analyse, apply, compare, contrast, discuss, evaluate, examine, explain, integrate, organise, paraphrase, predict
Extended abstract learning (knowledge transferred to new situations) argue, compose, construct, create, deduce, design, generalize, hypothesise, imagine, invent, produce, prove, reflect, synthesise

Based on our understanding of students’ current learning levels, students’ needs, and the general framework within which our lessons/courses are taking place (in terms of contact time, resources, etc), and with these action verbs, we can then formulate realistic learning goals. In most cases, there will be a primary learning outcome we hope to reach, which may consist of several sub-goals – this should be made clear.

For example, an academic writing course aimed at C1-level students (on the CEFR) might set the main learning outcome as:

By the end of this course, students should be able to produce a coherent analytical essay following the Anglo-American conventions for the genre.

A couple of the sub-goals might include:

  • Students should be familiar with Anglo-American essay-writing conventions and able to apply these to their own compositions.
  • Students should understand various cohesive devices and employ these appropriately within their writing.
  • Students should understand the functions of Topic Sentences and Thesis Statements and be able to formulate these suitably in their own writing. 

Formulating clear learning outcomes in this way, and making them public, helps students to reflect on their own progress and may be motivating for them, and helps teachers to choose activities and materials with a clear focus, as well as helping to devise assessment tasks and grading rubrics.

Competency-based Assessment

Of course, most teachers will need to aim for economical assessment, in terms of time and resources. As far as possible, CBE advocates on-going assessment, so that students continue to work on the competency until they achieve the desired level of mastery. Competency-based assessment may thus require more effort and organisation on the part of the assessor – but it is able to provide a more accurate picture of students’ current stage of learning and performance.

Take multiple-choice tasks, for example; they can be marked very economically, but in reality they tend only to test the lower-level thinking skills, which may not have been the desired learning outcome. To test competency-based learning, we need to base our assessment tasks on the learning outcomes we have set, perhaps using the same action verbs in the task instructions. The focus is shifted to learners’ ability to demonstrate, not simply talk theoretically about, the behaviours noted in the learning outcomes. Still, especially in the realm of langauge teaching, there are some tasks we can easily set in written assignments which will also allow us to assess the higher levels of competencies more economically than oral presentations or practical assignments. If our learning outcome is the ability to apply a theory, for example, we could set a question such as ‘Describe a situation that illustrates the principles of xyz‘. Or, if we want to assess whether learners can discuss and evaluate, we might set a task like ‘Explain whether and why you agree or disagree with the following statement.‘ These kinds of tasks require learners to apply their acquired or developed competencies on a more qualitative level.

To enable objective assessments of students’ learning, we will need to devise a matrix based on the various levels of mastery of the competencies detailed in the learning outcomes. As a basis, we might start with something like this:

Grade Description
A An outstanding performance.
B A performance considerably better than the average standard.
C A performance that reaches the average standard.
D Despite short-comings, the performance just about reaches the minimum standard required.
E Because of considerable short-comings, the performance does not reach the minimum standard required.

For each sub-skill of the competencies we are aiming for students to achieve, we will need to state specifically, for instance, which ‘short-comings’ are ‘considerable’, e.g. if the students cannot demonstrate the desired level of mastery even with the tutor’s assistance. Also, it is important in CBE and CBLT that students’ performance is measured against their peers, especially to ascertain the ‘average standard,’ and not against the mastery of the tutor.

To return to the essay writing, example, a student’s composition might receive a B grade on the sub-competence of using cohesive devices if they employ several techniques to create cohesion in their work, but occasionally use one technique where another might be more effective. A student’s essay might receive a D grade on this competency if they repeatedly use the same cohesive device, or employ the techniques indiscriminately and inappropriately. An E grade might mean that the student has not tried to employ any cohesive devices. In this manner, the primary learning outcome is broken down into sub-skills, on which students’ performance can be objectively measured using a detailed grading matrix.

In a nutshell, then, CBE and CBLT aim for ‘Yes we can!’ rather than ‘We know’. Competency-based teaching and learning have become a staple in further education and language instruction in many places around the world. If you would like to implement the approach in your own classrooms, I hope this post has given you some useful insights on how to do so!


Biggs, J. & C. Tang, Teaching for Quality Learning at University (Maidenhead: Open University, 2007).

Brall, S., “Kompetenzorientiert planen und prüfen”, Workshop at Trier University, 21.2.17.

Gonzalez, J. & R. Wagenaar, Tuning Educational Structures in Europe: Final Report Phase One (Bilbao, 2003)

Richards, J.C. & T.S. Rodgers, Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching (Cambridge: CUP, 2001).

“What is the CEFR?”, English Profile, Cambridge University Press, http://www.englishprofile.org/the-cefr, accessed 24.2.17


How to write effective classroom materials

ImageAt IATEFL 2014 in Harrogate last week, I went to lots of interesting talks and workshops. One stood out as immediately useful, and very practical! The talk was “More than just a worksheet: how to write effective classroom materials” by Rachel Roberts. Whilst I was sitting there, I was already convinced that the things I heard in the informative but brief session would land on my blog. For people new to teaching, or for people like me who sometimes benefit from re-visiting some things learnt a while ago on training courses, the talk was excellent, and of immediate use! So, this is my summary of her talk, peppered with my own ideas, for anyone who was unable to attend or who’d like a brief reminder of things to consider when designing materials for the EFL classroom.

(P.S. Sorry for the blurry photo … this is in fact the very first photo I’ve ever taken during a talk at IATEFL, and it seems my phone’s camera is not really up to the job. Plus I was distracted, which is an issue for an enitrely separate blog post! Anyway, you get the idea!)

To start with, it is important to note that no material can be particularly effective if it is not a coherent part of a well thought-through lesson with clear and logical progression. The lesson’s topic and the input (e.g. texts) need to be relevant to the learners’ lives, so that the learners can really engage with the content and are therefore driven to learn the language and/or skills being taught or practised. If they are truly interested in a topic, it will probably also mean that they talk about it outside of class, so they will get extra practice of the points covered. Rachel calls this the ‘water cooler effect’ … which gets the points across very nicely. (Though in my own setting it would be more appropriately termed the ‘mad rush to the coffee machine in the short break between classes effect’!)

One of Rachel’s particularly helpful hints here is to try to find a new angle or a new perspective from which you can approach the topic. One example given by an audience member was the news on new 7-a day recommendations (Yes, apparently, health experts are now recommending that people eat 7 portions of fruit & veg per day, and some even say 10! This is up on the usual 5 that we’ve been hearing about for a while now, and I wonder how many of us manage?!) But the point is, instead of taking the perennial topic of ‘obesity’ and going through the same-old-same-old motions of looking at people’s poor eating habits, listening to the news on 7- (or 10!) a-day could bring in something new and therefore be more interesting and motivating for the learners. It is also good if the topic provides scope for personalised output by the learners.

Naturally, the linguistic and cognitive abilities of the learners need to be judged fairly accurately to ensure that any input used and materials designed will be appropriate to their level. Things that are too difficult or too easy will dampen motivation. Easier said than done sometimes, though! But I’m convinced that the new English Profile and English Vocabulary Profile will be of assistance here (I heard about these in another talk, and I definitely think they deserve a mention!). And, Rachel reminds us, good materials should also include both linguistic and cognitive challenges for our learners.

Regarding language input, Rachel proposes the strategy of ‘compromising’ between authentic input and teacher-composed texts. I have the feeling that the former are often lavishly praised as motivating (which may be very true, particularly when used for skills work), but there is of course the frustrating aspect of them not including much example of the target structure and sometimes being too hard for EFL /ESOL learners. Teacher-composed texts, of course, are often (if you’re anything like me!) overly full of examples of target structures, but somehow don’t have the same appeal to learners. Rachel’s suggestion, a cunning idea, is that teachers find inspiration in authentic texts, and then merge bits of various texts with the target structures and text-book texts to form a new material, which imitates the authentic input, but where we have more control over level and completeness.

And finally, Rachel reminds us the tasks learners are set should have a concrete outcome. By including some constraints, tasks can produce better output which the learners can then justify and discuss. She gives the example task “List in order of priority five things you would miss if you emigrated”. It’s clear to see that this fulfills all of the ‘criteria’ mentioned above and could lead to some lively discussions. (I have emigrated and I miss a whole lot more than just 5 things!). When composing task questions, I find that a list of good verbs can be found by looking at explanations of Bloom’s Taxonomy. (I’m adding this, although I’m sure Rachel knows it already, even if she didn’t mention it explicitly!)

File:Bloom's Taxonomy.png

In a nutshell, then, Rachel’s talk highlighted the links between the points shown on her PPT slide in the photo (Input – Content – Language – Task, if it’s too blurry for you, sorry!). It may not be a re-invention of the wheel, but having things clearly spellt out in this way seems like a nice memory jogger for all of us!

By the way, if you’re too short of time to read this whole blog post, or too short of paper to print it all out as a reminder, the phrases highlighted in bold form a very nice summary which fits on a post-it note:

Effective classroom materials should…

  • be part of a well thought-through lesson
  • be relevant to the learners’ lives,
  • take a new angle or a new perspective on a topic
  • have scope for personalised output
  • include a compromise between authentic input and teacher-composed texts
  • have a concrete outcome


Useful links

Rachel’s full handout: https://www.dropbox.com/s/gn2dh9m7lswj6c8/More%20than%20just%20a%20worksheet%20handout%20-%20Rachael%20Roberts.docx

More information on Bloom’s Taxonomy: https://www.teachervision.com/teaching-methods/curriculum-planning/58765.html