What are the alternatives to exams in vocational education?

In the UK there has been a recent announcement that exams will be compulsory for all level 3 vocational qualifications.

Whilst the British government is wanting “rigour” to ensure courses are of a high quality, the Australian government is facing similar situations. I would argue against an academic-style exam to measure non-academic skills, knowledge and competencies.

In Australia we call them “Assessments”, however sometimes I wonder if these fit the same model as an exam.

Matt Wingfield  explains “There are many approaches that are better than written tests for assessing learning – and, crucially, they do not penalise learners who struggle with academic exams. Here are five methods of assessment that can work well on vocational courses:”

Adaptive testing

A computer-based testing model that automatically pinpoints areas where learners can improve. If the student gets a question wrong, an easier one is generated, or if they get one right, a harder one comes up. As the difficulty of each test is tailored to the student’s ability, the candidate has a vastly enhanced learning experience. Moreover, all questions come from the same item bank, so the results can be graded and standardised nationally.

This technique is already widespread in the US and Australia. It is limited, however, by the need for subject matter experts to create the item banks. Writing these questions is a specialist skill and in some niche vocations there may be insufficient experts to develop a test/assessment.

On-screen testing

Computer-based testing allows an emphasis on non-written items, such as pictures, diagrams and drag-and-drop tasks, so language isn’t a barrier.

Learners can take tests whenever they are ready, not just at the end of term, as the randomised questions mean there’s no danger of students copying each other.

All of the major awarding bodies have already adopted this method – specifically when assessing competency and capability skills, rather than knowledge. Many government-owned testing programmes use the approach, such as the theory test for learning to drive.

A great benefit of this approach is that teachers are saved a huge amount of admin and marking time. This is one of the examples of how technology has allowed us to move beyond multiple-choice exams towards other mechanisms that can be automatically marked. However, when short answers will not suffice, a human marker is still vital.


Unlike written tests, technology can be used 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.

The method is being used to great success for examining IT skills, such as database engineers, and European Union customs officers use it for frontline jobs. The approach is also ideal for many engineering and agricultural jobs, particularly as both industries are increasingly using robots and drones. Sometimes, however, there is no substitute for testing skills in a real-life scenario and, as with adaptive testing, there may be too few subject experts to create tests in niche areas.


e-Portfolios are ideal for supporting coursework and end-of-course assessments. They allow a student’s work to be assessed, verified, graded and given feedback remotely by the learning provider or a third party. They 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, such as with apprenticeships. The majority of colleges, major awarding bodies and sector skills councils use the approach.

The pros far outweigh the cons for this method, as vocational learning is all about practical skills and a portfolio is the best way to collect and display evidence of this. The only limitation is that some students may not have access to a device to create the portfolio, but this is becoming less of an issue as technology moves around the world.


Further education providers are increasingly keen to measure employability skills. Innovative, evidence-based e-assessment technologies are being used to capture and examine knowledge, understanding and practical abilities which are directly relevant to the workplace.

For example, OCR has a suite of new qualifications that focus on this area and use technologies to look at entrepreneurial and business skills. The University of Edinburgh offers all final-year undergraduates an employability focused diploma known as the Edinburgh Award, which incorporates technology for peer review. Many of the government’s work programme providers also use work-readiness methods, such as computer skills tests.

This approach directly addresses the increasing demand from employers for people to be more work-ready, but it needs to be used in conjunction with other vocational assessments.

What these alternatives to academic testing show is that the key is finding the right balance. Some areas of education will always need a more academic, exam-based approach. But when assessing practical skills we need to be open-minded in the methods we use and take advantage of the opportunities that technology offers. Industries are changing rapidly and we are never going to give people the skills needed to meet ever-changing demands if we insist on restricting ourselves to a 19th-century assessment model.


This article has adapted from Matt Wingfield’s article published inThe Guardian.

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