Authenticity – Fairness – Understanding

2. August 2021

The aim of the MODUS project is to enhance mobility by making educational achievements from elsewhere count better when students transfer from one institution to another. Although the rules and regulations are different for transfer within one country / education system and cross-border transfer, the principles are the same – and so are the problems for students who do not get the adequate recognition for prior learning.

I am happy to contribute to this exchange of viewpoints as part of the MODUS project. The core argument of my contribution is twofold: 

  • we need to look beyond the formal aspects of the transferable qualifications (degrees, study points, what have you) and 
  • we need to look beyond the subject-specific knowledge component of the qualification.

To look beyond the formal aspects means that we need to reassess the core question at hand. I believe that this core question needs to change from 

  • “Does the candidate possess the formal documents that we require for admission to this programme?” to 
  • “Does the candidate have the knowledge, the skills and the understanding that s/he will need to successfully complete the programme?”
    Please note that under “admission” I also understand transfer into a programme somewhere between start and finish: admission to a further stage of the programme on the basis of studies completed elsewhere.

The choice of words “knowledge, skills and understanding” is on purpose. The generally accepted definition of “Learning Outcomes” is that these are “statements of what a student needs to know, understand and be able to do at the end of a learning process”. This definition of learning outcomes is widely accepted and uncontested. It makes sense that admission of students with previous educational experience elsewhere (with recognition and transfer of study results) should be rooted in the assessment if these students have the background to be able to achieve these learning outcomes.

With this I deliberately distance myself from the viewpoint that recognition and transfer of study results is primarily a legal issue, that some documents grant a legal right of admission (or transfer) and that this right is exclusive: without the document there is no right. Although some legal and regulatory framework is inevitable, I believe that admission to a programme of studies (with recognition of prior studies) should be based on the assessment if the candidate can complete the programme successfully. If we believe a candidate has the knowledge, skills and understanding, we must interpret the rules as flexibly as we can to admit them (I acknowledge that flexible interpretation of laws is a culturally determined concept). If we believe that a candidate does not have the required knowledge, skills or understanding, it is our moral responsibility to at least warn them even if the law commands us to admit.

So, to return to the main line of my argument: recognition and transfer of study results should be based on an assessment if the candidate could successfully reach the learning outcomes. But how can we make this assessment? How can we conclude if a candidate – upon entry – has the knowledge, skills and understanding required for successful completion? This is in fact a composite question, consisting of several sub-questions:

  • What knowledge, skills and understanding do students (all students) need, let’s say halfway their programme?
  • More important still: what knowledge, skills and understanding do students (all students) need to possess at the start of the programme?
  • Assuming that this can relatively easily be expressed for (subject-related) knowledge, how is this for the “soft skills”: for the less tangible aspects of general academic (or meta-cognitive) competences and personal (non-cognitive) competences?
  • Assuming that we find a way to express – to the satisfaction of the teachers of the programme – these “soft skill” competences, how can we validly assess if students actually possess these competences at the required level?

Not all readers might immediately see the relevance of these “soft skills” for the MODUS issue of mobility, recognition and transfer of study results. But when there is hesitance – or refusal – to recognise a degree “because it is not from a research-intensive university”, the underlying assumption is often that graduates from less research-intensive universities cannot have the same academic level. And “academic level” of a student, when you dig a bit deeper, is all about concepts like “critical thinking”, “inquiry & analysis” and similar general academic competences.

In a continental university context, mentioning “soft skills” or “competences” is not without danger. Many academic professors almost immediately react against these “soft” inroads on the hard core of scientific, scholarly, academic education. But there is not really that much difference between “soft skills” or “competences’ and the time-honoured Bildungsideal articulated by Wilhelm von Humboldt.

We need a “language” to express what levels of competence students need to have at the beginning of the education programme, in the course of the programme, and at the end of the programme. We need this for the subject specific knowledge and skills of the programme (for example, Law, Medicine, History, Astrophysics) and we need this for general academic competences (like critical thinking, inquiry & analysis, quantitative literacy) and for personal competences (like teamwork, oral communication, ethical reasoning & behaviour, intercultural sensitivity).
We need a language to assess – and explain to our students – what progress in Bildung we expect from our students through their studies – and through our teaching.

This may sound very complicated and difficult to achieve, but we may have hope. In the VALUE project (VALUE in the sense of the [added] value of education, not in the sense of normative values) some 16 rubrics have been developed which can be readily used. Below I show a visualisation for one such competence: Critical Thinking, with its definition, its deconstruction into five components and four progressive performance descriptors for each component – here the example of “evidence” is shown.

I return to my double message: we need to look beyond the formal aspects and we need to look beyond subject knowledge – although both remain also relevant. Both messages relate to the final point that I want to make here. This is my take of the essence of recognition of qualifications.
I believe that smooth recognition and transfer of study results hinges on three conditions which each has to be met: Authenticity, Fairness, and Understanding. This applies to recognition and transfer of study results in a European context, in a federal system like in Germany, and globally.

Authenticity: Institutions that are asked to grant recognition or transfer of study results need to be able to trust the validity and legitimacy of the credentials that are presented. They need to be sure that the credentials are authentic: that they have indeed been awarded by the schools/universities as a testimonial of the presented results. The legal framework for recognition is designed to provide this veracity, this basis for trust. Also newer trends like the Groningen Declaration and blockchain technology (for example with micro-credentials) heavily focus on this question: “Can we trust the legitimacy and validity of the credential?”

Fairness: Institutions that are asked to grant recognition or transfer of study results need to be willing to treat the applicant fairly. They need to stay away – not only in formal statements but only in practice – from an attitude that “with us everything is better”. We have moved a long way since the times when the authoritative handbook for American credential evaluators openly stated: “A year of studies abroad is sometimes equal to a year of studies at home, often less, never more”. But remnants of this attitude are still lingering and efforts to improve recognition and transfer of study results need to heed and address these remnants. Projects of the European NARIC network that are labelled as “Automatic Recognition” can actually be understood to focus on this attitude of fairness.

Understanding: recognition and transfer of study results requires understanding of what knowledge, skill and understanding is represented by the qualification – not only what subject-specific knowledge, but also what general academic (or meta-cognitive) competence and what personal (or non-cognitive) competence. As long as the recipient of a qualification simply doesn’t understand these learning outcomes, there will be little value in having absolute trust in the validity of the qualification and in being absolutely determined to treat the applicant with 100% fairness.

With this plea to look beyond formal aspects and subject knowledge and my analysis of recognition as a three-dimensional challenge, I hope to have contributed to the MODUS debate. 

Critical thinking

is a habit of mind characterized by the comprehensive exploration of issues, ideas, artifacts, and events before accepting or formulating an opinion or conclusion.

Critical thinking components:

  1. Explanation of issues
  2. Evidence
  3. Influence of context and assumptions
  4. Student’s position (perspective, thesis <> hypothesis)
  5. Conclusions and related outcomes (implications)

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