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How competence orientation succeeds in teaching

Competence-oriented teaching focuses the entire learning process on guiding students in the actual application of their knowledge. Learning Outcomes are defined in such a way that, in addition to mere subject knowledge (knowing what), its application, further development, and use (knowing how) are also integrated into the teaching. From the beginning, fair and valid assessment as well as transparent criteria are part of the learning process and enable challenging but equal teaching.

In a nutshell: What does competence orientation in teaching mean?

Competence-oriented teaching means consistently focusing on the so-called Learning Outcomes. It is important to approach and conceptualize the entire teaching and learning process from the student’s perspective. Learning objectives must be clear and transparent. The focus is the ability to apply knowledge. Merely memorizing facts and knowledge to pass an exam is not the goal.

Step by step to competence-oriented teaching

Competence-oriented teaching emphasizes actions. The central question is: What should students be able to do at the end of a course or at the end of their studies? Learning Outcomes aim to specifically describe these abilities.

  • Specify Learning Outcomes for each course unit unambiguously.
  • Name specific competencies that will be acquired.
  • Specify how the performance will be evaluated.
  • Define the level of requirement for the exam.
  • Make sure that the exam format and tasks are appropriate to the level of requirement.
  • Identify the learning activities needed to achieve the learning objectives.
  • Take into account that students adjust their learning activities to the requirement level of the exam.
  • Assess the requirements of learning objectives, learning activities, and forms of assessment using Bloom’s taxonomy.

Constructive Alignment: Teaching and Testing hand in hand

Competence-oriented teaching is based on what is known as constructive alignment: the goal, the paths to the goal, and the examination are consistently aligned with each other. Only what is described in the learning objectives will be assessed. If, for example, students are to create a marketing concept for a company, the examination form and task must require them to create the concept and present it in a suitable form (e.g., term paper, learning portfolio, short film, etc.). Instead of memorizing technical terms or formulas, students work on various aspects necessary to develop the concept. The finished product and/or the development process are evaluated in order to learn from mistakes, if necessary.

Video: Constructive Alignment (German) by Center for Academic Development (ZLE), YouTube, Licence CC BY 4.0

Formulating Learning Outcomes clearly

Learning Outcomes describe the competencies that students are expected to have acquired at the end of a learning process. What is formulated in these intended Learning Outcomes must also be taught and tested. Learning Outcomes must be flawlessly formulated so that requirements and outcomes remain transparent and communication with students successful. Finally, this transparency serves to ensure a valid and fair examination. Also, Learning Outcomes should be formulated in a subject-specific manner.

Follow the WHAT-WITH WHAT-WHAT FOR structure to formulate the Learning Outcomes.

  • WHAT exactly will students be able to do at the end of the course?
  • What competence is being tested?
  • Describe the WHAT at the highest level you think is realistically achievable.
  • Wording: The students are able to …
  • WHAT does it take for students to achieve the competence?
  • What tools are needed to exercise the competencies?
  • Name formulas, models, plans, terms, etc., whose interrelationship is necessary for competent action.
  • Wording: …by…
  • WHAT is this competence good for?
  • For what (long-term) purpose are the competencies to be acquired?
  • Describe the next step students can take once they have confidently mastered what they have learned.
  • Wording: …to later…
Video: Learning Outcomes (German) by Center for Academic Development (ZLE), YouTube, Licence: CC BY 4.0

Designing learning spaces and exams

The more precisely the Learning Outcomes are phrased, the easier it is to design learning spaces and exams. Here it becomes clear once again how important it is to name specific actions. On the one hand, these are of practical nature, as they occur in laboratories, projects, or other specific fields of application. In terms of academic learning, on the other hand, it also refers to any cognitive action. However, mere verbs do not describe an action but rather refer to mental states. These can neither be observed nor reliably and fairly assessed in an exam.

Actions 👍Verbs 👎
Perform calculationsto be aware
Explain theories in your own wordsto understand
Develop and justify hypothesesto know
Analyze a situation according to certain categoriesto master

Looking at Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy helps to identify the verbs that match the requirements.

Types and levels of learning objectives

To progress in teaching from the simple to the difficult, from the manageable to the complex, a classification of cognitive learning objectives is helpful. Bloom’s taxonomy of cognitive learning objectives enables this classification based on different learning levels that build on each other. The taxonomy for the classification of learning objectives can be represented as follows:

  • Students have memorized a definition or formula.
  • The exam determines if the definition is accurately reproduced.
  • It remains uncertain whether students understood what they were writing.
  • Level 1 is insufficient for academic teaching.
  • Students can reproduce a definition or formula in their own words without applying it to specific situations.
  • Students have a basic understanding of what is being discussed but are unable to apply it.
  • This level is important when it comes to, e.g., technical terms.
  • Beginning of procedural learning.
  • Students have, for example, understood a math formula (Level 2) and can use it independently to solve a problem at Level 3.
  • Students use technical terms correctly in a discussion after learning to distinguish between them at Level 2.
  • Minimum level for academic learning, according to the German Qualifications Framework (DQR).
  • Students can analyze a situation that is unfamiliar to them by deciding autonomously and with reasoning which definitions or formulas are needed to do so.
  • Students develop their own hypotheses or plans to achieve a goal.
  • After an analysis of the initial situation, something new is developed.
  • Students develop criteria by which plans or hypotheses can be evaluated.

Useful Tips

Always think from the student’s point of view! Transparent wording of learning objectives and requirements enables students to actively shape their own learning process. As long as pure knowledge is the focus, there is a risk that the desired more complex thinking processes, the procedural knowledge (Knowing How), will not be didactically achieved by most students.

The competence model (KomM for short) of the TH Köln can support you here: If applied consistently, it prevents students from being divided into solely good or bad. On the contrary, it makes clear that within the model’s different dimensions, each student can show strengths, but also faces challenges in tackling study-related questions.

Header-Image: © golubovy/

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