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After Career Preparation Mastery, Getting through the Digital Gauntlet to a Job Interview

Competency-based adult education and backward (curriculum) design approaches are effective ways to create curriculum content that adult learners need to prepare for careers.

Competency-based adult education is an instruction system in which intended learning outcomes and performance measures are defined and made clear in advance to students who then are given the time they need to learn and to demonstrate that they have mastered the competencies. Increasingly, some industries, post-secondary education institutions, and some adult basic skills program are moving toward competency-based education systems.

Backward design is an approach to creating curriculum that begins with what the designers want learners to know and be able to do when they have completed their curriculum, that is, when the learners have mastered the learning objectives, or have attained the learning outcomes. Curriculum designers then “work backwards,” identifying the instructional activities and resources that will enable learners to master the objectives and attain those outcomes. Developed by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, this is now a widely embraced and effective approach to curriculum design. However, do competency-based approaches and backward design curricula go far enough if the learner’s goal is to get on a career pathway leading to a family sustaining salary? Is well-designed instruction, with excellent teachers managing it, and students’ commitment to mastering the content all that learners need to get hired for jobs in their chosen career pathway?

If the adult learner has identified a career pathway to pursue, an important if, then it’s not enough to just prepare by completing a well-designed occupational training course and/or a higher education certificate or degree program. Here’s why. The way in which employers, especially large corporations, choose candidates has changed, and this is not a new phenomenon; it’s been moving in this direction for at least a decade. You may have noticed that these jobs all require submitting online applications. A major reason is that they include an applicant tracking system (ATS) a human resources database that sifts large numbers of applications for a job and organizes them into categories, ranking them by keywords (e.g. skills, competencies, titles of positions held, found, degrees, etc.) Typically this takes the software seconds at most to sort each application. Accomplished adult learners may have mastered the intended outcomes of an education or training program, but may be rejected as a candidate for a position by the Applicant Tracking System because they haven’t described themselves using words or phrases that the software understands.

To be asked to a job interview for the position, applicants need to be taught how to look at a position description and identify the key words that the ATS is likely to recognize. This implies that the applicant has access to a computer or portable digital device and the Internet, and the ability to:

  • Use an online job board such as Monster or Indeed to find the right jobs to apply for and to upload a carefully prepared resume
  • Accurately research what a position requires both from the position advertisement and also from O*NET descriptions of what position descriptions that have this or similar titles usually require
  • Select key words to include in the online application for the position
  • If possible, review the online application without completing it to understand the questions, take notes on them, and record verbatim questions not understood which may require further research
  • Accurately complete the application

These are new competencies for finding good jobs that require good research and problem solving skills as well as computer and Internet comfort and competence. These competencies include not only the required knowledge and skills for the position but also the digital literacy skills to get through the ATS digital gauntlet to a job interview in which they can demonstrate that they have the required knowledge and skills for the position.

For more information, see: What do Corporate Recruiters Want? https://www.jobscan.co/blog/what-corporate-recruiters-want/#.Wg4rlGyyqeY.facebook and Applicant Tracking System Definition https://www.jobscan.co/applicant-tracking-systems#whatisaresume

Formative Assessment Practices of a Teacher of Occupation-related Basic Math in an Integrated Education Program

This is a lightly edited excerpt from Teaching, Learning and Assessment for Adults Improving Foundational Skills, by David J. Rosen and Inge De Meyer, case studies in formative assessment in adult basic skills education in Belgium, published by OECD.[1] It is a description of an adult basic skills math teacher who teaches in a math lab, and who focuses on occupation-related math skills, using formative assessment and a learner-centered, blended learning model that incorporates some online instruction.

Formative assessment practices

The most important player in this case study is the mathematics teacher from the center for adult basic education who is out-stationed in the public employment service (VDAB). She uses several formative assessment practices to address the specific educational needs of each of her students and to help them acquire the skills they lack for their future job. Furthermore she keeps every party involved in this project informed about the participant’s progress and problems. Without such a dynamic, communicative math teacher with experience in teaching adults with basic skill needs, the program wouldn’t be as successful.

Formative assessment practices the teacher uses include:

  • Formative assessment. For each learner, the teacher assesses which of the skills needed to follow their chosen vocational training they lack, and she works with each individually towards acquiring those skills. During this process she doesn’t use the general summative approach used in basic mathematics courses. Instead, learning and assessment are carried out through individual tasks, which she discusses with the learners. This personal, informal feedback helps the learners to clarify their knowledge and proficiency level without formal testing.
  • Dialogue with the learners (individual conversations during which the individual learner’s problems are discussed). During these individual conversations she sometimes refers to other learners in the group to encourage the person she’s working with (“He/she also learned to do this. Was it very difficult to learn?”).
  • Peer learning. When learners in the math class are following the same (or a similar) vocational course and have similar mathematical needs the teacher gives them tasks they can work on together.
  • Teacher “log” – for each learner the teacher notes the learner’s progress and his/her further needs so she can adapt the tasks in the next class to each learner’s actual numeracy level.
  • Learner progress communication – in writing  – with the learner, vocational teacher (VDAB instructor) and VDAB counselor. This way everybody involved in the program can take the problems and progress for each learner into account in the activities within the individual trajectories for which they are responsible.


When we observed experienced, out-stationed mathematics teacher Heidi D’Haene working with learners at the VDAB, there were two brightly-lit rooms, one with tables where learners worked independently, and a small computer lab. On one of the tables were neatly arranged binders and resource materials for the afternoon’s learning. The binders included, for example, math for builders, metal workers, plumbers and electricians, and vocationally-specific math assessments. The materials included an original copy of each competency-based instructional module or exercise, copies that the learner could write on and keep, and an answer sheet that the learner could use to correct her or his work.

Learners in the vocational courses at the VDAB found their way to the open mathematics lab in different ways. Their vocational teachers referred some to improve specific math skills that needed to be strengthened. Some were referred after having taken a math diagnostic test as part of their seeking a vocational course, for example as plumbers, electricians, builders, or metal workers. Others found on their own that they needed to strengthen certain math skills or, placed on a job, found a work task that required better facility with certain math skills.

Typically learners come to the math lab once a week, for two hours in the afternoon, for as many weeks as they need to accomplish their goals. Most learners finish their trajectory in around three months, after approximately 30 hours of instruction. On the day we observed there were six learners, all men aged 18-25.

In our interview with Heidi we learned that her primary interest is to help learners think in math and process it – not just learn the math facts and algorithms. She said that over time she has learners in the lab who have a very wide range of abilities, and her challenge is to be able to quickly and effectively adapt to that range, to their individual needs and goals. She explained that when possible she groups learners with the same goals who are at the same level, or she uses peer-learning methods. However, since this is not always possible, she always has materials for individually-paced learning related to each learner’s goals. Furthermore she doesn’t always know in advance who will be in the open lab for a given session, and she may have only one or two learners one day, and up to 15 on another. This makes adapting to learners’ needs challenging.

When learners begin in the open lab they often plan to attend up to 10-12 times, but they have the option of attending up to 30 hours before they are placed in a job. Occasionally a learner who is placed on a job comes back to work on a particular math task. A new learner may take (the relevant parts of) a mathematics diagnostic assessment, although sometimes there isn’t time for this. Heidi also experienced that several learners find taking a test difficult; they fear that it’s “like school.” Many of the learners, she said, rely on formulas and “tricks” to do math and have no real understanding of how to think mathematically. So she relies on direct, systematic observation of their learning as they try specific math tasks. For example, she hands a learner a worksheet and says, “Try this out. It may be too easy or too difficult. We’ll see.” Afterwards she closely observes how they are doing and adjusts the kind and level of instruction accordingly.

Using computers is integrated into the instruction, usually for 15 minutes at a time. Learners use educational software from a CD-ROM or from a web page. Heidi observes what they are doing, and together she and the learner assess whether they are ready to go on. She does not use learning management tools such as those that might be found in large integrated learning system software. She prefers direct talking with learners and poses questions such as “What do you want to learn here in the lab?” “Have you seen this (module, computer instruction program, etc.) before?” “Does it look like something you can do?” “Does this look like what you need to learn in order to…?”. She considers dialogue an important part of the formative assessment process; “it captures their motivation”.

Heidi tries to incorporate project-based learning whenever possible. This way the mathematics skills are grounded in situations that the learners find vocationally relevant. One of the projects Heidi described is making a plan of a garden house. This can be done as a team or as an independent project. It involves linear and area measurement, reading the instructions for and mixing cement, planning a budget and other numeracy or mathematics, reading and writing skills.

When there are only a few learners this method of working is not difficult. However, when there are more learners, she must move quickly through the lab, and back and forth between the two rooms to stay in touch with how each learner is doing and assign new work – a model sometimes referred to as “teaching on roller skates.” It requires a high degree of expertise in mathematics knowledge, teaching strategies, and the ability to mentally keep track of how each learner is doing.

Immediately after each session Heidi takes careful notes on what each learner has accomplished and what the learner needs to do next time. She discusses her notes with the learner at the beginning of the following open math lab session. She also sends a copy of the progress notes, immediately after the session, to the VDAB instructor who teaches the vocational course the learner attends and to the learner’s counselor at the VDAB. This communication accomplishes several things. First, it keeps the VDAB instructor and counselor informed of the learner’s progress. Second, it builds and maintains good relationships between the job skills training, VDAB counseling and basic skills staff.

Heidi also sometimes suggests ways in which, in the vocational classes, the numeracy skills could be reinforced. Collaboration with the professional VDAB training instructors is also practiced as new assessments are developed. Heidi works one-on-one with the vocational instructor to assess the numeracy skills and knowledge needed for training and for the job. In some cases this includes understanding math theory as, for example, understanding the binary system is important for certain kinds of electrical work. Heidi also works with the VDAB vocational instructors to tailor the curriculum to the needs of the vocational training, and the needs of the learners. For example, often a curriculum needs to have more levels added to address a wider range of learner needs.

This case is an excellent example of a multiple-partner, work-based, formative assessment model where all the elements are in place for participant success: a strong education and training skills agency partnership, an experienced and effective teacher, a well-developed competency-based curriculum that is related to participants’ goals, a well-developed formative assessment process, and basic skills learning embedded or contextualized in the highly-motivating training context.

[1] Rosen, D.J. and I. De Meyer (2008), “Case Study: Belgium (Flemish Community)”, in Teaching, Learning and Assessment for Adults: Improving Foundation Skills, OECD Publishing. 2008 http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/172017435434 Last downloaded December 22, 2017.


What can we learn about Career Preparation from Janesville Wisconsin?

Washington Post social policy journalist Amy Goldstein’s Janesville, an American Story is a book about a once prosperous Wisconsin town with a General Motors plant as its long-time major employer. In the middle of the recent great recession, without much notice, GM announced it was closing the plant. This is a readable, if often painful, narrative of how that decision affected GM workers, Janesville families and the community at large. It is also about how a town that took pride in its unity across economic class and political parties, under these difficult circumstances became politically divided and unable to meet the needs of middle class residents who, suddenly unemployed, descended into poverty. It is also about local leaders and elected officials at state and federal levels, including U.S. Congressman, and now Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan.

Goldstein describes a range of responses to the plant closing by laid-off workers and their families. She follows laid-off worker strategies such as: accepting GM jobs in other states and moving families there; becoming “GM Gypsies” in nearby states and returning home only for weekends and vacations; searching for jobs of any kind in Janesville; and enrolling in the Blackhawk community college retraining program for dislocated workers. The narrative follows the choices of several laid-off individuals and how their decisions turned out for them and their families. In the appendix, research data is provided on how one of those strategies worked out, enrolling in community college retraining.

Goldstein begins Appendix 2 this way: “Even among people who disagree about everything else about the economy, the common wisdom is that workers who lose a job, without much likelihood of finding another in the same field, should go back to school to train for a different one. The federal government spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year for the retraining of such dislocated workers. However, research into whether this policy is useful is not extensive.” To study this question in the context of the laid-off GM workers in Janesville, Goldstein collaborated with Kevin Hollenbeck, a senior economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and labor economist, Laura Dresser, Associate Director of the Center on Wisconsin Strategy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Here are some of their findings:

  • Overall, one third of the laid-off workers who went to Blackhawk Community College completed their program of study within the expected time, only a little longer than other students on their campus.
  • Laid-off workers who went back to school were less likely to have a job after they retrained than those who had not gone to the community college retraining program. “Retraining did not translate into greater success at finding a job…. Worse still, more of those who retrained were not earning any money at all.”
  • The laid-off workers who retrained earned less afterward than those who did not. Before the recession the two groups’ incomes had been about the same.
  • The dislocated workers who found steady employment after retraining had wages a little higher than those of others who retrained, but much lower than those of steady workers who had not gone to school.
  • The laid-off workers who graduated from the community college retraining program earned more money than those who didn’t finish but, because they had had higher incomes beforehand, the completers had a bigger drop in pay than the non-completers.

What are we to make of these findings? Is this an indictment of federal spending on employment and training? I don’t think so. After all, this is only one study and doesn’t necessarily indicate a pattern for training or retraining programs. Also, these are dislocated workers in an industry that did not necessarily require post-secondary education or, in some cases, even completion of high school, at least for line workers. These were people who had felt secure in their jobs with relatively good wages and benefits because of the collective bargaining of their union. Many may not have had sufficient basic skills for a retraining program in a different field. Perhaps laid-off hospital workers who had had some post-secondary training, and additional on-the-job training, might fare better in a dislocated workers retraining program. Perhaps some employers in Janesville, or surrounding towns, were reluctant to hire the laid-off GM workers assuming, as had been true in the past, that the plant would re-open, and that the retrained workers might want to return to their former work. Perhaps the community college was overwhelmed with the sudden increase in applicants for retraining, a 54% surge in the number of students, and it was not prepared to deliver high quality training to this group. It’s hard to say.

However, what happened in Janesville could happen in other cities and towns, and very likely already has. One implication for adult basic skills educators, particularly for those who are preparing adult learners for career pathways, is how to prepare them well not only for work and a career, but also for loss of work and for changing careers should that be necessary. This implies teaching not only basic and occupational skills, but also work-related resourcefulness, and good problem-solving strategies, especially for work environments that now require a range of digital literacy skills. It also implies that students and workers need to know what community and government resources can help them, and how to access these services if they are laid off. The services, for example, include unemployment insurance, and food stamps. It implies that they need to know how to shop economically; how to re-negotiate a mortgage; and how to save, especially in good times, for lay-offs and other periods of employment difficulty. Financial literacy that addresses how to save, and how to build assets, is especially important in an economy where a career with steady work with good salaries and benefits may not be secure. It is also important to be psychologically prepared for these employment upheavals.