A trend in education has been the move toward competency or outcomes-based programs of study (e.g., Kuhlich, 1991 ). This trend seems to be a global initiative, as research investigating and discussing competency-based education comes from all regions of the world (e.g., Fretwell & Pritz, 1994 ; Grootings 1994 ; Hargraves, 1995 ; Stennet, 1984 ; Stevenson, 1992 ). For the purpose of this study, competency-based education is defined as or characterized by a program of study with clearly defined, concrete, measurable objectives of which every student participating in the program must have demonstrated mastery upon program completion. Often these programs also involve students working at their own rate and structuring their own method of learning in order to meet these objectives. For example, in Ontario, Canada, in 1998 the provincial government introduced a new curriculum for elementary school students. This curriculum focuses on measurable competencies that are evaluated for each student in the language arts, mathematics, and science and technology and are consistent at every school throughout the province ( Ontario Ministry of Education and Training, 1998 ).



The current study was part of a longitudinal, primarily ethnographic study of technical education in Canada. The study reported on here was informed by an earlier survey of 200 people enrolled in the educational component of various Canadian apprenticeship programs ( Bell & Goldstein, 1993 ). This larger study, including the large scale survey, informed the specific interviews conducted in the current study. That is, areas to be explored in the in-depth interviews were selected based on the preliminary information gathered in the survey of apprenticeship students. Participants in the current study took part in individual interviews held at their respective colleges, usually in the cafeteria or an empty classroom. The interviews were semi-structured in that certain broad areas of questioning were covered during all student interviews. These broad areas included language background and cultural, educational, and employment history. Other broad areas of questioning focused on perceptions of the program, including strengths and weaknesses; areas of difficulty; test taking; reading; note taking; and preferred teaching styles. Issues of classroom culture, including issues of equity, and any suggested improvements for the course were also included in the broad areas of questioning. Within these broad areas the flow and content of the interview was determined by the student responses. Interview length varied from 30 minutes to 1-hour depending on the individual. All interviews were tape recorded and later transcribed in full.


Participants were drawn from two community college, pre-apprenticeship programs in refrigerationmechanics.


Participants from the cohort-based sample were drawn from two classes of approximately 25 students each. Roughly 5% of class members were female, and the ages of participants ranged from 18 to 60 years. Students had a wide variety of educational experience. Roughly half had graduated from high school, and roughly one third had previous post-secondary education. Students also had a wide range of work experience. Not only was there variety in employment experience between the different students, but individual students often had a wide range of work experience. While some of the students had just left high school, the experience of the others included restaurant manager, architectural secretary, steam fitter, painter, teacher of Somali language, retail salesperson, furrier, and building maintenance person. Within the cohort-based sample, roughly 20% of program participants were members of visible minority groups. Approximately half of the students had a language other than English as their mother tongue, although approximately half of this group had completed all of their education in English.


The results have been organized and presented as the five most salient themes which emerged from the interview transcripts.


In the traditional, cohort-based program all students commented unfavorably on the split between the theory and the practical parts of the course. The split was profoundly felt by all students interviewed. Typically, they indicated that practical activities were valued as supporting their espoused career goals. Theory, however, was seen as an unnecessary obstacle imposed on them by "academics" who had no understanding of what it meant to be a practicing refrigeration mechanic. One student stated "teachers should teach what is done out in the field…the good teachers are those who know what it is like out in the field…we don't need those who teach like university professors." Additionally, a catch phrase voiced by several students in their interviews was "an ounce of practical is worth a pound of theory."


In addition to shaping student views of the theory and practice of their discipline, it appears that curriculum design influences what personal characteristics students deem important for program success. These identified characteristics reflect differing views about who is responsible for student learning.


Many of the difficulties expressed by the students in both the competency and cohort-based programs were in the realm of language and literacy. Despite the mother-tongue differences between the cohort and competency-based students, their literacy concerns were remarkably similar. The students had similar levels of education, and questioning about academic history revealed similar difficulties with academic pursuits in general and literacy skills in particular. Such historical and current literacy difficulties included difficulty with understanding the textbook; difficulty taking notes, both from lecture and the text; and difficulty with the tests, both in preparing the appropriate (most important) material and understanding the meaning of test questions. More than half of the students interviewed expressed difficulties in at least one of these language-focused activities.


Although both samples were generally pleased with their respective programs overall, students in both programs had many suggestions for improvement. Interestingly, the most salient comments from each program asked for more of what the other program had. Within the cohort-based program, students tended to call for more integration of theory and practice, and more variety in teaching methods. On the other hand, students in the competency-based program tended to ask for more teacher-directed lessons. These comments illustrate the need for a variety of teaching methods to address a wide range of student learning styles.


Notably, despite different program design with respect to curriculum delivery, the students in both the competency-based and traditional, cohort-based programs had very similar views about what they wanted and needed from a teacher. Both groups of students felt that a teacher needed to be very knowledgeable about what it was like out in the field. For example, "Our teacher calls a spade a spade. He knows what is happening out in the real world." And from another student, "Teachers should know what is happening in the field."


When curriculum is designed and delivered in different ways, what is the impact on students? What do students enjoy and struggle with under each type of program design? What characteristics of teaching and learning remain constant despite changes in program design and delivery? In the case of competency-based and traditional cohort-based programs of pre-apprenticeship level refrigeration mechanics, students'words illustrate the different impact of program design and also some constancies in students'perceptions of their educational experiences.

Commonalities across both types of program design include a desire for a variety of teaching methods to address a variety of learning styles, as well as the importance of a teacher's practical knowledge and human qualities including caring, approachability, patience, and warmth. These latter qualities have long been valued in teachers of younger learners, but it is noteworthy that this population of primarily adult males have similar hopes and expectations.

Differences that emerged in students'perceptions between the two program types include a greater perceived integration of the theory and practice of refrigeration mechanics in the competency-based group, as well as a greater sense of student responsibility for and ownership of learning within the competency-based program design. These differences may arguably be related to a slightly more "natural" approach to learning craftsmanship that is allowed by the competency-based program design. Skills are learned as a unit of inseparable theoretical knowledge and practical skills within the competency-based program. Evaluation strategies within the competency-based program similarly do not separate theory from practice. Additionally, in the competency-based program, if a student does not sufficiently master a skill he/she does not move on to learning a more complicated skill, so the timing of student progression is more natural. To some extent, this is the way trades have been learned for centuries. It is only the logistical demands of modern educational settings that force an artificial separation of theory and practice to allow time-tabling based around convenience and efficiency rather than mastery.

It should be noted that we submit only that competency-based design may be more natural than the cohort-based program assessed in this study. It is acknowledged that splitting complex tasks and craftsmanship into discrete packages or objectives which are measurable also introduces an artificiality to learning craftsmanship ( Polanyi, 1958 ). Competency-based learning is not a true apprenticeship model which would allow for holistic integration of the various "units" of skill/ expertise that the competency-based model keeps separate.

It is also important to note that the competency-based format seems, based on students'word s and perceptions, to better accommodate adult students with relatively weak language and literacy skills. This is a particularly important observation given the relatively weak literacy skills of many students in college-level technical and/or job-retraining programs ( Bell & Goldstein, 1993 ). In many ways this finding is not surprising given that within the competency-based program each student was individually able to choose the manner in which they met each learning objective. They could choose to read a text, talk to a teacher, use a computer program, talk to other students, work in the shop, or read trade journals. Thus, if they were weak in certain academic skills they could minimize their need to use these skills for learning. However, it must be noted that in many ways the cohort-based system makes much more efficient use of practical resources and physical space. The cohort-based system was able to process roughly six times as many students with similar physical plant equipment in slightly less time.

There are of course many limitations to this study that restrict our ability to draw conclusions related to the general population of technical education students. This was a qualitative study that endeavored to reach an understanding of the issues faced by some vocational students in two particular environments. As such, the performance of the individual teachers inevitably had some impact on the comments offered. The student groups were predominantly male and were drawn almost entirely from those whose educational and workforce experiences have been somewhat unsuccessful. As acknowledged earlier, the two programs were held in different locations and comments made may reflect some of the ethnic and linguistic differences of the local populations (see Bell, 2000 , for a related discussion). Future work which examines actual measures of success on specific outcomes such as securing successful employment in the field is obviously indicated as this study was focused primarily on student perceptions of program effectiveness.

Despite these limitations, it appears that based on the words of the students in the courses, the competency-based style of technical education has distinct technical/competency, learning, and philosophical (i.e., theory/practical integration) advantages. An additional strength of competency-based programming includes the chance for students to receive credit for previous life experience.

Although the competency-based program appears advantageous from a student-learning perspective, it is less obvious which program is advantageous from a "human" perspective. Clearly, students in these types of programs value a supportive, caring relationship with the course teacher(s). One might speculate then that a close, supportive relationship amongst classmates might be similarly valuable. Perhaps a weakness of the competency-based program lies in the loss of the camaraderie and social support that is built into a cohort-based program through its design. Within the competency-based program students did not speak frequently of asking questions of one another, struggling together over common obstacles, or working informally and collaboratively together on common projects. The cohort-based program facilitated these social experiences; for example, students would regularly gather in groups before a test for last minute studying.

In addition to limited social interaction with other students and a possible lack of class cohesiveness, another more technical difficulty of the competency-based program includes the problem of tracking student progress as each student is working at different rates, and students may drop in and out of the program. That is, at a given point in time it may be unclear if student progress has stalled completely, or if the students are simply working at their own pace.

As well as potential social advantages, strengths of the cohort-based program include a mode of teaching and learning that is familiar and comfortable for most students educated in a Western culture. Students become socialized to learn a certain way and are commonly most comfortable with the familiar. Administrative advantages of the cohort-based program include ease of scheduling, allocating space, and tracking/evaluating student progress.

In summary, based on student perceptions, it appears that from the perspective of the learning of specific content, taking ownership of one's own learning, and developing an integrated view of the theory and practice of a specific discipline, competency-based programs have many advantages over the cohort-based programs. From the perspective of efficiency and possibly social/group process and camaraderie in addition to content learning, the cohort-based program may be advantageous. Commonalities, regardless of mode of program delivery, include student appreciation for a warm, caring teacher as well as a need for variety in teaching methods to meet students'learning needs.


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