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What is a Unit Standard In Education and Training?

A Unit standard is an individual component of a qualification. Think of qualification as a wall. The unit standards are the bricks creating that wall. What are unit standards worth? This post unpacks unit standards for you.

A unit standard is like a brick in a wall. It is a component of something bigger.
A unit standard is like a brick in a wall. It is a small part of something much bigger.

The Importance of Unit Standards As A Measure Of Education And Training

What is a unit standard?

Think of a wall. A wall is made up of bricks, right? Each brick is a small but important part of the whole structure. Similarly, a qualification is made up of unit standards – each unit standard being a small but important part of the whole qualification.

A unit standard is a useful document clearly defining the specific knowledge, skills, and competencies required for a particular task or job role. It outlines the learning outcomes and performance criteria that are expected to be met in order to reach a specific unit of competency.

What is the purpose of unit standards?

  • Helps measure your progress and performance. When you complete a unit standard and submit your portfolio of evidence for assessment, you demonstrate that you have the necessary knowledge and skills to perform a particular task or job.
  • Provides a clear and consistent framework for assessing and recognizing competence in a specific area.
  • Guides the development of a curriculum. Unit standards give training programs and qualifications a benchmark for the required learning outcomes.
  • Unit standards are used in vocational education and training as they compact the necessary skills and knowledge to meet industry standards.

The History of Unit Standards: How Did They Come About?

Unit standards have been around for a while now. In fact, they were first introduced in South Africa in the late 1990s as part of the National Qualifications Framework (NQF). The NQF was developed to provide a standard framework for all qualifications in South Africa, ensuring that they meet certain quality standards.

Unit Standards Connect to Society and Economy

Unit standards are the bricks that broke the barriers to education and skills development in South Africa. A unit standard is not just another brick in the wall! Ever heard of the iconic 1979 song by the British rock band Pink Floyd “Just Another Brick in the Wall?” Like equal education, the song was banned by the apartheid government for its association with anti-authoritarianism and resistance to oppression. Of course.

The message of individualism, critical thinking, and rebellion against oppressive authority is as relevant today as it was when the song was first released. Unit standards represent a new democratic era coupled with a new education system in South Africa. Unit Standards fit into a system that is intended to reverse the impacts of Apartheid on society and the economy.

Who develops unit standards?

Unit standards are typically developed by industry or professional bodies in collaboration with educational institutions, training providers, and subject matter experts. These standards are designed to align with industry best practices and reflect the skills and knowledge needed to perform specific tasks or functions within a particular field.

My experience writing unit standards and designing qualifications

In the late 90’s, when SETAs first started up, I was approached by CreateSA (under the auspices of the former MAPPPSETA) to convene a standards-generating body (SGB) for Art, Craft and Design. I was a teacher and active in education change management and community development at the time. The SGB we established wrote many of the Art, Craft and Design qualifications that contributed to industry development, particularly for crafters. It was a real privilege to contribute in this way and gain a deeper understanding of how education changes not just lives, but our country.

How Are Unit Standards Used in Education and Training?

  • A unit standard defines a specific set of learning outcomes or competencies that learners must achieve.
  • Stipulates how assessors assess a learner’s knowledge and skills so that the process is fair and measurable.
  • Ensures that learners are equipped with relevant skills necessary to succeed in the workplace.

These standards ensure that learning outcomes are clearly defined and understood by facilitators, assessors and learners. Unit standards create a consistent approach to assessing and verifying learning.

Unit standards are used to Build a Qualification

  • Let’s use our imaginations, shall we? If bricks are used to build a wall, unit standards are used to build a qualification.
  • If your course is divided into modules, each module studied could contain one unit standard or more. Each unit standard targets a specific part of a qualification. When you’re on a full qualification programme, you’ll always find that some of the unit standards overlap and appear to have similar elements. This is normal and it is why qualifications are divided into modules that integrate groups of unit standards. When you sign up for a full qualification, the training provider or institution combines the unit standards into an integrated learning programme so that specific repetition of the same learning points can be minimized.
  • The National Qualification Framework (NQF) was designed to be portable and have accessible entry points throughout. Some people have an education wall made up of full qualifications, others prefer to pursue a range of short courses based on unit standards instead. The NQF structure allows more people to opt for study as it is a seamlessly integrated entity that allows people to select small bites (unit standards) or full qualifications on the same or different NQF levels. At #KeepClimbing, we say the NQF is beautiful!

The Role of Unit Standards in Industry and Workplace Settings

Unit standards also play a critical role in the workplace. They provide a benchmark for the knowledge and skills required for a particular job, and they help to ensure that employees are competent and capable of performing their duties.

Assessing Unit Standards: Best Practices and Methods

Assessing unit standards is an important part of the learning process. There are many different assessment methods that can be used, depending on the type of unit standard and the industry it relates to. The key is to ensure that the assessment is fair, valid, and reliable.

Achieving Certification for a Unit Standard: What You Need to Know

Certification is an important part of the unit standard process. It ensures that the learners completing the unit standard meet the necessary quality standards that are recognised by employers and other institutions. If you found a unit standard that you want to train on or embark on Recognition of Prior Learning for, find a training provider and meet the requirements.

If you’re a training provider and want to become accredited, contact the author. You absolutely do not become accredited for stand-alone unit standards if you intend to run a successful training business with diverse market strengths.

Training and Implementation of Unit Standards: Tips for Success

Training and implementation of unit standards can be challenging, but there are some tips and best practices that can help to ensure success. These include setting clear goals, providing adequate resources, and ensuring that learners are engaged and motivated.

Staying Compliant with Unit Standards: Challenges and Solutions

In certain sectors, particular unit standards are compulsory. For example, to become an assessor to work on SETA training such as learnerships, you must complete unit standard 115753 ‘Conduct Outcomes Based Assessments’ or 7978 ‘Plan and Conduct Assessment of Outcomes-Based Learning Outcomes.’

Staying compliant with unit standards can be a challenge, especially as industries and technologies evolve. However, there are many solutions available, including ongoing training and development, regular assessment, and staying up-to-date with industry developments.

Unit Standard Architecture

Each unit standard is laid out like a recipe

The key ingredients of a learning unit are the SKAVs; skills, knowledge, Attitude and Values.

Skills Knowledge Attitude Values

A unit standard structures how a particular skill, knowledge area, attitude and value can be covered and assessed. These ‘ingredients’ are given structure by the specific outcomes and related assessment criteria

If you are trying to select a unit standard, don’t just look at the title of the unit standard. Look at the specific outcomes. These outcomes direct you to what must be specifically covered in that unit.

A unit standard typically consists of a title, a level, a credit value, and a set of learning outcomes with related assessment criteria. The title describes the specific topic or area of learning, while the level indicates the level of complexity or difficulty of the learning outcomes. The credit value reflects the amount of time that learners are expected to spend on achieving the learning outcomes, and is usually expressed in terms of notional hours.

What are unit standards worth?

Unit standards are credit-bearing, meaning that you can earn credits toward a qualification. They can range from 3 to around 15 credits.

Unit Standard Credits

Each unit standard is weighted with credits and is ranked on the National Qualifications Framework levels. A unit standard will always state how many credits it is worth and the NQF level that it is on. Once you know how many credits a unit standard is worth, you can multiply it by 10 to gain an understanding of how many hours you might spend on it. For example, if a unit standard is 4 credits, you can expect to complete the training and all associated assessment tasks within a 40-hour time frame. For occupational training, the bulk of the time is spent practising the skills and knowledge at the workplace and logging these events on a time sheet.

A full qualification starts at 120 credits and increases as you move up the NQF.

How long does it take to complete a unit standard?

Credits tell us about notional time. Since unit standard credits vary, the time taken to complete one unit standard can be different to many others.

We all learn differently and at different speeds. A unit standard is weighted by its content, the more one is required to learn and demonstrate competency, the more that unit standard will be worth.

The more credits a unit standard has, the more time is required. Three or four credits can be completed in one day, however, most unit standards include practical components which need to be practised outside of the teaching time. Each credit is associated with 10 hours of a structured learning experience i.e 1 credit = 10 hours, 4 credits = 40 hours. This time includes assessments, all course-related administration, self-study etc.

A unit standard contains specific statements of learning intentions. 

What are Specific Outcomes and Assessment Criteria?

The learning outcomes themselves describe the specific knowledge, skills, and attitudes that learners are expected to acquire through their study or training. These outcomes are typically expressed in terms of observable and measurable behaviours or actions so that they can be assessed and verified objectively.

A unit standard can have any amount of specific outcomes. These are specific skills and competencies you must master. Each outcome is associated with a portion of the credits. Some specific outcomes and assessment criteria require more time than others.

Each specific outcome usually has between 3 – 10 assessment criteria. The assessment criteria tell you how to test that each specific outcome has been reached and describes the required evidence. Unit standard-based training can ensure that relevant, targeted, creative training can be achieved.

Three Types of Unit Standards

There are three types of unit standards:

1. Fundamental Unit Standards: Communication & Mathematical Literacy

  • language and mathematical literacy
  • a second language is required at NQF Level 4
  • private providers and employers usually prefer candidates who already have Matric for NQF Level qualifications so that they save time and money when training

2. Core Unit Standards: Essential skills, knowledge, attitudes and values central to a qualification

  • essential unit standards to meet the qualification area of specialization
  • critical for competency

3. Elective Unit Standards: A selection of unit standards that are complimentary to the core unit standards

  • providers can select from a variety of electives linked to the qualification
  • strategic selection of electives can help organizations be more market competitive and responsive to market needs
  • most providers do not offer candidates a choice of electives although technically they could
  • you select electives based on the number of credits remaining after the fundamentals and core. For example:
  • If a qualification is 120 credits and the fundamentals total 30 and the core total 70 making 100 credits, then the outstanding credits are 20
  • you can select electives that result in 20 or you can exceed 20 credits.
  • there is no limit to the number of electives a provider can offer or that a learner can complete on a qualification. However, electives that total less than 20 credits cannot be selected.

Portfolios of Evidence (POE) to Support the Unit Standard Learning Objectives

Each unit standard specifies the rules for assessment and moderation and each specific outcome lists assessment criteria. Assessment must be fair and conform to all NQF principles of assessment. Once assessed, learners are offered an opportunity for remediation if they were found to be Not Yet Competent. In this way, the NQF is structured to meet the needs of both society and education integrity.

Dog ate your work and your portfolio of evidence is incomplete? You have the opportunity to fix outstanding issues within a set time frame that your institution will communicate to you. You may be required to remediate within 3 days, 3 weeks or 3 months, it depends on provider policy and the ability to negotiate effectively.

Portfolios of Evidence are simple to assess and pass judgment on if their structure follows the unit standard format. For each assessment criterion, list the pages where your relevant evidence can be found.

The Final Wrap on Unit Standards

Unit standards are often used in competency-based education and training, such as learnerships. Job competency training places the focus on the demonstration of specific skills and abilities rather than on the accumulation of credits or time spent in study. They are also used to ensure that learning outcomes are consistent across different providers of education and training and to facilitate the recognition of prior learning and the transfer of credits between different programs or institutions.

Overall, unit standards provide a clear and transparent framework for defining and assessing learning outcomes in education and training, and help to ensure that learners have the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in their chosen field.

We hope this article was useful and gave you what you want! If not, let us know below in the comments section! Good luck and have a great day!

Sing along now

We don’t need no education. We don’t need no thought control No dark sarcasm in the classroom Teacher, leave them kids alone Hey! Teacher! Leave them kids alone! All in all it’s just another brick in the wall All in all you’re just another brick in the wall.

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Leonie Hall

Leonie Hall, disruptive thinker and dynamic strategist, is an expert in education, development, quality management and innovation. She has spoken at local and international conferences; and currently works as an independent consultant and content developer. Contact Leonie for a consultation.

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