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Assessment and Competency-Based Training: A Case Study of Richmond College of TAFE

John Whiteley
John Dungan
This case study is one component of a national competency-based training pilot project focusing on assessment and competency-based training (CBT), with particular reference to teaching and learning approaches. The project was recently undertaken by the Office of the Vocational Education, Training and Employment Commission, Queensland, and received funding assistance from the Department of Employment, Education and Training.

One research strategy employed in the project involved the completion of five case studies which examined CBT and assessment issues in different 'real life' contexts. These contexts included public and enterprise providers of training, where CBT had been operational for some time. The case study reported in this paper examines CBT and assessment issues within the Richmond College of TAFE.

Setting the Scene

Map - Australia- shows Richmond in Melbourne, VicRichmond College of TAFE is located two kilometres from Melbourne's Central Business District. The College began delivering vocational training courses in a competency-based training (CBT) mode with student self-paced learning in 1975. By 1981, all apprentice courses at Richmond were being delivered in the CBT mode. The College was made the National Centre for Competency-Based Training in 1990.

Focus: Motor Vehicle Mechanics Apprenticeship Course (Light Stream)

Richmond College has a long history of teaching motor vehicle mechanics that stretches back to the 1930s. Over the last four years, an average of 650 motor vehicle mechanics per year have graduated from the College. The motor vehicle mechanics apprenticeship course is a four year traditional time-served apprenticeship that requires the student to attend college for an equivalent of 120 days of study. Because the College operates on a competency-based training (CBT), student self-paced learning system, students may complete their off-the-job training in less than the required time. However, early release from off-the-job training cannot be approved until three and a half years have elapsed. This case study focuses on a traditional time-serve apprenticeship system using off-the-job CBT and assessment.


The Motor Vehicle Mechanics Apprenticeship has three streams:

  • General
  • Light
  • Heavy
Any Victorian College of TAFE offering Motor Mechanics
Richmond College of TAFE
Batman College of TAFE

The light stream is broken into three levels:

  • Function and Identification of Systems
  • Operations - Dismantle and Reassemble
  • Diagnosis

Level 1 is a core for the general, light and heavy streams of this course and can be studied at any TAFE college. However, Levels 2 and 3 of the light stream must be studied at Richmond College of TAFE.


Richmond College of TAFE offers apprenticeship training using CBT and student self-paced learning. This represents the governing philosophy for all of the teaching and management of the entire College.


The College has adopted the following practices to enable CBT courses (with student self-paced learning) to be managed and taught:


Program development

Richmond College have developed their Motor Vehicle Mechanics Apprenticeship Course so that all modules are competency-based and self-paced. Students are therefore able to: The motor vehicle apprenticeship course was developed in accordance with a CBT model. Initially, the job of motor mechanic was analysed into sub-skills, knowledge and attitudes. Performance objectives specifying the desired performance, condition and standards were then written.


Since teaching modules are written using student self-paced learning practices, students progress through the course at their own pace. The majority of students complete their courses in the student self-paced learning style, to the required standard, in a much shorter time than in a traditional classroom-based environment with group instruction. Students who do not complete their course in the 120 days must pay seven dollars per hour for the additional time spent studying at the College to complete their course.

Under this student self-paced system, the role of the teacher has changed from the traditional lecturer/presenter to that of the 'learning manager'. Teaching occurs on a 'one-to-one' basis so that teachers can assist learners with individual learning difficulties.

Progress through the course is recorded on a computerised student management system. This provides students with an up-to-date record of their progress. At the completion of each module they are given a record of the modules they have completed and those they have still to undertake. Students are also given a record of the time they have spent on their training, which notes whether they are ahead or behind schedule.


Learning at Richmond College is driven by performance objectives. All performance objectives have three distinct parts identified for students and teachers. Students progress through self-instructional learning units, produced in a variety of formats. Modules are designed to incorporate a variety of media to maintain student interest.

Teachers produce most of the instructional units for the course. However, the College has its own Industrial Design Department which facilitates the development and evaluation of materials for the modules.

Assessment process

At the completion of each student self-paced learning unit, students are assessed to determine whether they have achieved the criterion standard stated in an objective. If they have reached the standard stated they receive a 'pass' and proceed to the next objective. If the standard has not be achieved, students undertake different training and are then retested.

All students undergo a computer readiness test prior to assessment, and test results are recorded on their assessment record cards. Computer tests must be completed satisfactorily before students are allowed to be assessed by the teacher. These tests therefore, assist students in monitoring their own achievement and stop students from seeking assessment before they are ready. Consequently, they save time for both teachers and students. Computer tests are being improved constantly, with the use of better graphics and voice synthesisers. However, their development is a time consuming process. Students are also randomly retested by the computer throughout their course on units they have completed as a form of retention testing.

Although there are no written guidelines on testing, teachers refer to computer tests as a guide to the depth of questioning they should pursue with students. As a general rule, students who achieve a 100 per cent score on a computer test will receive less oral questioning by a teacher than students who pass with the bare minimum.

Assessment involves virtually no written work for students. Almost all assessment is teacher-centred. This usually involves a teacher watching a student conduct a practical demonstration and orally questioning the student throughout the demonstration. However, there are no set questions written for this assessment. No question banks are used and teachers are not provided with sample questions or given any set guidelines on the number of students that should be asked. Instead, all assessment is based on a questioning technique developed by the individual teacher. Teachers new to the College or new to a competency-based system are taught this assessment method by 'shadowing' a teacher for a week.

This assessment method, while meeting the requirements of the course, has its drawbacks.

"It's a great system. It allows me to progress at my own rate, and I'm already 15 days ahead. The only trouble is having to hang around waiting for a teacher to assess you. Sometimes you can waste a few hours in a day just waiting." - Student
Because teachers have to assess orally, as well as check students' work as they progress through modules, bottlenecks of students waiting for a teacher are not uncommon. Students identified the time spent waiting for teachers as their biggest criticism of the system.

Records are held in various ways so that students and teachers always have ready access to a student's progress within a module or the course. These records are kept in:

Any query about a student's location or progress can be answered immediately. This can be particularly valuable when responding to inquiries about students from employers.

While there is no actual on-the-job assessment in this apprenticeship, the College has a system which partially addresses this issue. At the end of each block release, a list of the competencies gained by students are sent to their employers. The employer can then check if students are able to perform tasks on the-job. If there is a problem with a student not being competent on-the-job, the College and the employer meet to discuss where the problem has arisen.

Other Considerations

Standards in some of the modules are written in a subjective form. In these cases, the students and teachers are not completely certain what is expected of them in the assessment process. Some students can use this uncertainty to pressure teachers to 'pass' them when there may be some doubt about the student's competence. This should not happen if standards are clearly identified.

CBT at Richmond College used the teacher as the assessment expert. However, the shadowing system used to induct new teachers into the student assessment method employed at Richmond College, would appear to have potential problems. The main problem is that while this system can teach good assessment techniques, it can also perpetuate poor assessment practices. While not totally abandoning the shadowing system, the College should investigate other ways to induct teachers.

CBT at Richmond College allows students to progress through their training at their own pace. However, on-the-job they are still working with a time-based system. Consequently, apprentices' pay is still linked to the time they have served rather than to their abilities on-the-job.

CBT at Richmond College works well and the staff and students appeared generally happy and enthusiastic with the training, learning and assessment system.

Emerging Issues

Several key issues emerged from this case study: Further details concerning the program operating at Richmond College of TAFE can be obtained by contacting Mr David Garner on (03) 429 5011.

Other case studies in the series are
  • Australian Paper Manufacturers, Petrie Queensland
  • Box Hill College of TAFE, Melbourne, Victoria
  • Marine Engineering Training Research Centre, Williamstown, Victoria
  • Stanwell Skills Development Program, Rockhampton, Queensland
Further details can be obtained from the Office of VETEC on (07) 237 0337.

Please cite as: Whiteley, J. and Dungan, J. (1992). Assessment and Competency-Based Training: A Case Study of Richmond College of TAFE. Queensland Researcher, 8(1), 21-28. http://www.iier.org.au/qjer/qr8/whiteley.html

[ Contents Vol 8, 1992 ] [ QJER Home ]
Created 21 May 2006. Last revision: 21 May 2006.
URL: http://www.iier.org.au/qjer/qr8/whiteley.html