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6 Tips for Passing Vocational Courses


I have been delivering vocational courses for about fifteen years, and assessing and quality assuring on these courses as well. Even though most centres produce detailed guides on their assessment procedures, it is often the case that the learners get confused and consequently fail to get the grades that they potentially could, or have to resubmit the work again. In this blog, I will aim to address the issues commonly faced by the learners undertaking vocational courses.

The role of assessment in vocational courses:

Vocational courses are very practical in nature as the whole idea is to prepare the learners for real jobs. This is the reason why these courses are delivered under the tag of work-based learning. The awarding organisations, such as Pearson, NCFE and OTHM, trust the approved centres like Britannia School of Leadership and Management to take full responsibility for the assessment of the learners.

In response, approved centres hire qualified assessors with subject specific knowledge to create the assessment plans to assess the learners. Essentially, these assessors are responsible for making sure that the learner has met all the learning outcomes for each unit in the course. The learning outcomes are assessed through the assessment criteria established by the awarding organisation. It is common practice for the tutors/assessors to convert the assessment criteria into tasks, but I will refer to these tasks as assessment criteria to avoid confusion.

The learners can be assessed using a wide range of assessment methods such as assignments, projects, presentations, work observations, professional discussions, sample of work and so on. Usually, it is your assessor who would decide on which assessment method to use to cover each learning outcome or assessment criteria. However, some assessors might give you a choice over the assessment method that suits you the best, i.e., professional discussion or written quiz. The point to take is that if you are uncomfortable with a particular assessment method, it is always worth discussing with your assessor if an alternative assessment method could be used. Having said that, there could be many reasons why such a request could not be facilitated such as restrictions by the awarding organisation such as Pearson.

Key considerations for learners:

1. Pay attention to the assessment criteria

As an assessor, I am obliged to make sure that your work is good enough evidence to suggest that you have passed the assessment criteria that you have just attempted. More often than not, I find that the learners fail to understand this even; I might still judge the work to have marginally met the requirements of that assessment criteria but this does not change the fact that there is an issue. I think it helps if we discuss a specific assessment criteria to elaborate.

Let’s say you are about to submit an essay for this assessment criteria – “Evaluate the use of technology in your organisation to gain a competitive edge”. What a lot of learners would want to do is start researching or even typing up the work without fully understanding what is expected from the learner. I can’t help but quote you Albert Einstein here who said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

Let’s now do a bit of a DNA analysis of our supposed assessment criteria. What the assessment criteria is not expecting you to do but a lot of learners would try doing is one or more of the following:

  1. Approach the topic generally as if it was never about your chosen or given organisation. Learners would tend to ignore that the task is about their specific organisation, and instead talk about all the many organisations using technology to gain a competitive edge.
  2. Explain the use of technology but not evaluate. The task is to evaluate or assess the use; the learner is expected to be a bit critical and consider both the pros and cons of how their organisation is using technology to gain a competitive edge.
  3. Focus only on the use of technology as if the task is about convincing the reader that the technology is useful for your organisation. Again, the assessment criteria is assuming that it’s already established that the technology is useful so do not waste time and energy proving this point.
  4. Not understand that the entire evaluation/assessment of the organisation’s use of technology is to gain a competitive edge. This can make all the difference in the quality of your work. For example, imagine a learner wrote this, “My company uses computers so that time and labour costs can be saved. The same work, if done manually, would take much more time and we will need more people to do the work. Even though the company had to invest £5,000 in buying the computers and the relevant software, I believe that the benefits are much more than the costs”. The limitation of this argument is that the learner has not explained how this gives the company a competitive edge. Unless your company is the only one in the market using computers, you have not gained a competitive edge. The same point would make much more sense if the assessment criteria was “Evaluate the use of technology in your organisation”.
2. Pay attention to the command verbs

I have covered this point already in the part above, but worth emphasising a bit more here. You must always pay attention to the command verb (explain, analyse, evaluate, demonstrate etc) in the assessment criteria or task. Learners tend to take this for granted and mostly explain whatever the topic is. I have already explained in 2 (ii) above how that task required evaluation and not explanation. It is very obvious that if you are required to demonstrate something, then any less than demonstrating is not going to help you pass no matter how good the quality of your explanation work is. If you want to understand the command verbs more, I have found this piece of document written by OCR very useful –

3. Make use of specific examples

I have already stressed enough on how the vocational courses are very practical in nature. One of the ways in which you can massively improve the quality of your work is if you make rich use of specific and practical examples. Let’s see what a specific and practical example would be in response to our assessment criteria of “Evaluate the use of technology in your organisation to gain a competitive edge”. Let’s say a learner wrote this – “My company uses many software packages that our rivals don’t use. This means that our products and services are much better quality which gives us a competitive edge. Even though our overheads are high because of the costs of the software, we usually charge a bit higher price and still make a higher profit margin than our rivals”. What do you think about this argument?

This does look like a good argument and the learner has avoided all the mistakes that I highlighted in point (1) above. But there is great room for improvement. The main issue with this point is that there is no mention of what software the organisation uses that its rivals don’t, and how exactly the use of the additional software has helped the company in improving the quality of the products and services. I have tried to create a specific example below that does not make that mistake – “My company uses an artificial intelligence package namely AI7 to track online prices and availability of products similar to ours. This helps us to charge the optimum prices for our products that would result in maximising the overall profitability of our company. Our rivals have not yet subscribed to this package because of the costs involved, and this is a great competitive edge for our company.”

4. Make use of facts and figures

One of the best ways to add weight to your argument is to search for some facts or statistics. Saying that “Doctors in the UK do not generally have faith the in the UK Government’s role in dealing with the challenges that the country faces following the BREXIT” does not read as authentic as saying “A 2018 survey conducted by BMA shows that less than 25% doctors in the UK have faith in the UK Government’s role in dealing with the challenges that the country faces following the BREXIT”. Thanks to the search engines such as Google, it is actually very easy to gather information on relevant statistics and case studies.

5. Proof read your work

In my experience, many learners would accept criticism of their work once you have highlighted their mistakes. This makes me wonder why learners would submit work without first proof reading the work themselves. If you are already proof reading your work before submission, well done. If not then please do thoroughly check your work before submitting for assessment. Firstly, do check that your work satisfies the requirement of the learning outcomes and assessment criteria as I have explained above. Once satisfied, do check your work for spelling, grammar, alignment and other presentation mistakes. If English is not your first language, there is absolutely no harm in asking a friend to have a look if they have better English language proficiency. Alternatively, use free tools such as Grammarly to see what improvements could be made to your work.

6. Plagiarism and referencing your work

I do intend to write a detailed blog on this issue as it has troubled more learners than there needs to be. If your centre has produced a guide on the topic, please do go through it. If not then I will try to summarise the key points here.

Plagiarism is the practice of using someone else’s work as your own. Following are one of the few ways in which this could happen:

  1. Quoting something word by word without using quotation marks (“”) or indentation.
  2. Rephrasing the work but not referencing and giving credits to the original source/author. Rephrasing with the intention that no-one would catch the plagiarism will also fall in this category.
  3. Collusion whereby work of a fellow student was shown as your own. The risk of this happening in group studies and projects is very high if you are not careful enough in citing the work.
  4. Asking friends, family members or professional writers to do your work.
  5. Inaccurately citing the work, probably because you wanted to wrongly exaggerate the accuracy of the information or authenticity of the work.
  6. Using your own work again without citation is also plagiarism. There is nothing wrong with using a previously submitted work, but you must still reference it.

Always remember the bigger picture:

I am aware how important it is for learners to pass their assignments in the first attempt and to achieve their desired grades. However, I will try to emphasize on the long-term use of the skill of researching and report-writing. Your completion certificate and grades will make you eligible to apply for certain jobs and perhaps help you secure a job too. But your ability to pay attention to what is required of you, to do the practical research accordingly and to summarise your findings in a written piece of work is what will keep you at that job and also provide opportunities to prosper.

Some might find the above a very obvious point. But I thought it was worth highlighting as I have seen many learners taking assignments as either a burden or an unwanted test, either way something with just a short-term impact in the shape of their assessment results. Therefore, learners very often do not pay attention to how they could improve their research, analysis and presentation skills as they feel that this is not essential to achieve their desired grades.

The ultimate effect of this short-sighted approach to dealing with coursework is not hard to notice when dealing with colleagues and subordinates at work. It is depressing at times to notice people struggling to extract information using search engine. Basic search features such as using quotation marks and hyphen sign is something unknown to a lot of people. This limits the amount and quality of information one could extract on the topic at hand, so the ultimate analysis and conclusion would also be impaired. Another area where I have seen professionals struggle is to present information in a way that effectively delivers the core of the message.

If you do not invest time today in perfecting this skill of researching, analysing and presenting information, you will struggle in your professional career. Always keep this bigger picture in mind and avoid short-cuts when attempting your coursework.


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