The professional discussion is a widely used assessment method in End-point Assessment and, while this is not a new assessment method (NVQs and Frameworks frequently deployed this technique), it has been relatively common that professional discussions have been more akin to question and answer sessions.
Guidance on conducting professional discussions usually focuses on what it is, and what the assessor needs to do – both critical elements of the assessment methodology. Equally as important is how apprentices can prepare for End-point Assessment and how on-programme delivery interventions can help the apprentice to succeed in their synoptic assessment.
What is it?
Professional Discussion is an In-depth, planned, two-way discussion pitched at the relevant standard level. It is not a chat or a question and answers session. Typically the professional discussion is an opportunity for the apprentice to describe their apprenticeship journey and explain how they have applied their learning and developed their professional behaviours.
Professional discussions are designed to assess the breadth of understanding of the standards. The assessor’s questions will be formulated to extend the apprentice’s critical thinking, getting them to evaluate previous performance, alternative actions and identify learning and changes they have made to improve their performance.
Professional discussions can also be used to plug gaps in projects presentations, assignments and practical assessments.
The timing of professional discussions?
Where it features as a component of End-point Assessment, the duration of the professional discussion will be specified in the assessment plan. EPAOs will time such discussions based on this guidance to ensure fair and consistent assessment decisions.
How is it conducted?
A professional discussion typically works from an agenda shared in advance with the person being assessed and is facilitated by the assessor. It is expected that the apprentice will take the lead in the discussion, particularly with the higher level standards. The questions the assessor asks should be thoughtful, relevant to the standards and evidence being presented by the apprentice, and pitched at the appropriate level for the standard.
The professional discussion is a graded assessment and assessors need to make consistent and unbiased assessment decisions. To do this, they will use agreed semi-structured questions and detailed assessment criteria based on the assessment plan requirements. There is a level of personalisation in a professional discussion, and this can mean greater emphasis may be placed on particular subject areas, but for consistency and comparability of assessment decisions, professional discussions follow a format.
What does professional discussion cover?
A professional discussion can be holistic covering a wide range of knowledge, skills and behaviours. However, in most cases, specific aspects of the standard are targeted for assessment, which will be detailed in the relevant assessment plan.
Professional discussions are useful in assessing applied knowledge, behaviours and reactions to particular situations and circumstances. They can be utilised to support the validity and authenticity of apprentice’s evidence and confirm competence. Frequently, professional discussions are the last element of the end-point assessment; this means they can consolidate and establish capability.
Regarding behaviours, as pointed out by Jacqui Molekenthin in her LinkedIn article on the same subject, some standards list 3 to 4 overarching behaviours, others list up to 30 behaviours. Some assessment plans detail which assessment method is used for each behaviour, others simply state the EPA tools, and it is for the EPAO to determine their use.
What are behaviours in the context of standards?
The IfA states:
“Behaviours are mindsets, attitudes or approaches required for competence, generally across the entire occupation. While these can be innate or instinctive, they can also be learnt, so they are effectively a subset of skills. Behaviours tend to be very transferable meaning that, at any one level, they may be more similar across apprenticeship standards than knowledge and skills.”
Professional discussion agendas can be framed to assess the apprentice’s ability to reflect and critique their performance, surface assumptions, ascertain levels of self-awareness and evaluate specific reactions to events.
What skills must the assessor have?
Assessors conducting professional discussions must be proficient at planning agendas; adept at listening and responding to apprentice’s comments and, most importantly, assessors have to be able to put the apprentices at ease, cognisant that many apprentices find this aspect of assessment daunting.
What bearing does a professional discussion have on an EPA outcome?
The professional discussion can be the difference between a pass and fail or influence higher grading, and it is crucial that all apprentices, where the professional discussion is a required component of end-point assessment, are adequately tutored and prepared to articulate their knowledge and experiences during this assessment element.
How can the on-programme provision support apprentices prepare for professional discussion?
Training Providers can help their apprentices prepare for professional discussions, by using this assessment format on a regular basis. However, simply replicating the assessment method will not necessarily support the apprentice to do well. Performance reviews, self-assessment, seeking and responding to feedback, reflective learning, need to be encouraged from programme commencement.
On-programme delivery should incorporate such activities into formative assessment, and utilise coaching techniques to aid the apprentices to devise suitable goals and measure their progress against these aims, thereby bringing focus to their personal development plans.
Learning logs are equally beneficial at supporting professional discussions, as the independent assessor may want to hear about the apprentice’s experiences where things have not gone so well. Learning from mistakes, vicarious learning can be grist to the professional discussion mill, providing the apprentice can explain the effect of such events and how they have capitalised these experiences, to improve their techniques and approaches.
Certain standards require skills logs, or a record of tasks undertaken. In these situations it is critical that on-programme delivery encourages recording of activities from programme commencement and that regular checks are made to ensure the frequency and level of detail of the entries have sufficient depth and relevance to the assessment plan. Failure to develop comprehensive logs, where these are partners to a professional discussion assessment, will impede the apprentice’s ability to meet the pass requirements, let alone achieving the higher grades.
How can an apprentice best prepare for a professional discussion?
Firstly an apprentice needs to review the assessment plan to make sure they are aware of what the professional discussion covers. The apprentice should assert their right to receive the agenda in advance of the assessment, where this is stipulated, to give them chance to prepare thoroughly.
On receiving the agenda, it is vital that the apprentice understands it. The EPAO should provide clarification if the apprentice is unsure. If the agenda and professional discussion requirements are not understood, the apprentice cannot adequately prepare for a professional discussion; clarity and understanding are critical to a productive outcome from this assessment format.
To help the apprentice prepare for professional discussion, it is worth reading or listening to the Audible version of Brendon Burchard’s “High-Performance Habits – How Extraordinary People become that way.” In preparing for a professional discussion, Burchard advocates you consider the following, as much to get you in the right frame of mind, as opposed to having word perfect answers to these exact questions:
· What is your ideal self?
· When have you been proud of your actions and behaviours?
· When have you achieved good results?
· When have you learnt best, from your experiences?
Getting an apprentice to consider these questions and their responses promotes independent learning and challenges individuals to critique and improve their performance, thereby promoting reflective practice, which if utilised consistently, sustains and extends learning beyond the apprenticeship programme.
In end-point assessment, professional discussions sometimes want to elicit from the apprentice, how they have responded to a situation or event that did not go to plan. In some cases apprentices are reluctant to reveal weaknesses or areas of development, fearing this undermines competence claims, but if the apprentice can reflect on their mistakes and explain how they have assisted their development, such discussion topics can support higher grade awards.
When you have studied and understood your professional discussion agenda, the next step is to prepare for the assessment, even where the assessment plan does not make provisions for an advance agenda, the following actions are still pertinent.
➢ Organising your notes and evidence, in a format that works for you
➢ If the professional discussion precedes or follows a presentation, make sure you have rehearsed your presentation, checking content, timings and level of interaction required, this is something that the apprentice should work on with the employer and their on-programme advisor/trainer
Additional pointers for the apprentice, in effectively handling and taking the lead in a professional discussion adapted from Jeff Hadden’s “The motivation myth” are:
➢ What is your intention in the professional discussion, what do you want to get out of this assessment?
➢ What is essential for you to share?
➢ What is important? What do you need to say? What matters?
➢ What information do you wish to share? What image of you to you want to convey?
➢ What behaviours and actions do you wish to present?
The professional discussion is an opportunity for the apprentice to demonstrate how they are living the standards by being able to:
➢ Explain their learning and how they meet the standards
➢ Demonstrate confidence
➢ Demonstrate resilience
➢ Demonstrate constructive responses to feedback
➢ Demonstrate positivity and motivation
➢ Demonstrate organisational skills and attention to detail
The growth mindset: where does this fit into the professional discussion?
Carol Dweck and her work on the growth mindset is well known, building on the concept of ‘not there yet’. Dweck, in her mindset work, details a physiological phenomenon, brain plasticity, where it is shown how connectivity between neurons in the brain can alter as a result of developing efficacy. Learning and refining skills and knowledge cultivates new neural connections, strengthens existing ones, and builds insulation that speeds the transmission of impulses.
The growth mindset nurtures an attitude that says: I can get smarter; learning is my goal; effort makes me stronger and hard work will bring its reward. These themes can be explored in professional discussions; notably when combining professional discussion with self-assessment and learning logs, or personal development plans. On-programme coaching that develops an apprentice’s fortitude and offers appropriate challenge will simultaneously aid learning and assist with EPA readiness.
Professional assessment within independent assessment is an occasion for an apprentice to demonstrate varied aspects of the respective standard they are working on, and the experience will yield the best results where the apprentice is sufficiently practised in the assessment format and able to confidently articulate their learning journey.
Linda Martin, Managing Director of Professional Assessment Ltd
 High Performance Habits- How Extraordinary People become that way” 09/2017
 The Motivation Myth, Penguin, New York, 2018