Competence over Compliance

In courses organized around the instructionist recitation script, the ability of students to comply with the presented knowledge and provide expected answers is the valued outcome. In deeper, active, and authentic learning environments, students who show the greatest ability to apply multidimensional capacities to propose reasonable and fact-based solutions are the most competent learners. Mehlenbacher observed of the learning environments that promote competence over compliance, 

Focus on tasks that support these processes—that is, of finding the problem, representing it, planning a problem solution, executing the plan, checking the solutions, and reflecting to consolidate learning [necessitates] tasks that move towards complex individual and social activities… (2010, 243-5).

Competence tends to be demonstrated in generalized skills that can be applied to many problems within a field of study and that can be applied to problems in other fields. Further, these skills tend to be demonstrated in products and performances rather than in testing situations. An example of these skills is the scholarly primitives (discovering, annotating, comparing, referring, sampling, illustrating, and representing) defined by John Unsworth (2000). Kozma et al. (2000) identified generating representations, accessing and navigating information, explain and analyze phenomena, and make judgments and communicate understandings as skills commonly developed by science students, and that developing competencies in these skills are more valuable than students reporting correct answers on tests. 

Bloom’s taxonomy and the language of higher order and lower order are used as a rationale to insist students demonstrate compliance with basic knowledge prior to students engaging in competency building activities. This is based on the assumption that the only appropriate point of entry into Bloom’s taxonomy is from the bottom (through the lower order skills) and teaching should progress up through the lower order skills to the higher order skills (see figure 1 on the left).

Figure 1. The traditional approach to Bloom’s taxonomy (on the left) and a more sophisticated approach (on the right)

Advocates for deeper, active, and authentic learning tend to identify multiple points of entry into the continuum of activities inside Bloom’s taxonomy; in addition, they perceive multiple and varied paths among the activities inside the taxonomy (see figure 1 on the right). Discoveries of the cognitive and learning support the approach of multiple points of entry into the collection of skills. Researchers cite improved motivation and cognitive engagement that results from this approach as factors that motivate learners to develop skill throughout the taxonomy.


Kozma, Robert, Elain Chin, Joel Russell, and Nancy Marx. (2000). The Role of Representations and Tools in the Chemistry Laboratory and Their Implications for Chemistry Education. Journal of the Learning Sciences 9(2), 105-143.

Mehlenbacher, Brad. 2010. Instruction and Technology: Designs for Everyday Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Unsworth, John. 2000. “Scholarly Primitives: What Methods do Humanities Researchers Have in Common, and How Might Our Tools Reflect This?” Paper presented at the Symposium Humanities Computing: Formal Methods, Experimental Practice, King’s College, London, May 13, 2000. Accessed August 14, 2019, http://www3 ~unsworth//Kings.5-00/primitives.html