Professional competencies: simulating research

Chalk it up to experience

11 June 2018

Recent research highlights the value of simulations and other non-traditional techniques over conventional classroom learning in acquiring professional competencies, as Martyn Quarterman explains

How do qualified graduates become fully functioning surveyors? Academic knowledge alone does not equip them to deal with uncertain conditions when critical thinking and subjective decision-making is required. This problem prompted research, as part of a doctoral programme at Anglia Ruskin University, into the effectiveness of simulations and other non-traditional learning techniques in giving graduates a better sense of professional situations.

Graduates entering the construction industry must acquire a number of professional competencies, over and above the technical knowledge they attain in their studies. The acquisition of these competencies beyond degree level is widely cited as being problematic; students quoted in Modus in 2013 remarked, for example, that 'completing a degree course does not make graduates into trained surveyors', 'work experience is essential: surveyors cannot practice on their academic knowledge alone', and 'the challenge is to train graduates how to behave like professionals, which cannot be taught by academic study'.

Competency conundrum

The traditional route into surveying was work-based training supported by part-time, day-release or distance learning, ahead of examinations set by the professional bodies; professional competencies were therefore primarily acquired by experience. With time, however, entry to the profession was almost exclusively achieved by taking a degree. Michael Eraut, Emeritus Professor of Education from the University of Sussex, argues that the effect was for professional education to become knowledge-led rather than practical, which resulted in deficiencies in decision-making, judgment and other capabilities that are essential irrespective of profession.

RICS and other bodies recognised the deficiency of academic routes that did not or could not allow entrants to the industry to develop such competencies, and acknowledged the need for them to do so before they could be certified as professionals. For RICS membership, such certification is achieved through structured APC training programmes, which require entrants to complete a minimum of 2 years’ relevant professional experience and training.

In the initial stage of the study, the research at Anglia Ruskin sought to determine which techniques are currently incorporated into such structured training. Interviews were conducted with graduate training managers at a sample of private practice firms, and these found that programmes predominantly rely on traditional learning techniques such as lectures and slideshow-led workshops. The interviews also sought to establish which competencies graduates find most difficult to achieve, and among those that were frequently cited were applying ethical standards and displaying leadership skills – that is, those requiring higher-order abilities.

Practical parallels

The research study also undertook an extensive literature search to identify training and development approaches applied in other professions and disciplines. Non-traditional learning techniques were found to be widespread, with 3 in particular identified as encouraging active, collaborative and cooperative learning and engaging learners in practical experiences.

The first was experiential learning through simulations, perhaps most evident in the fields of nursing and medicine. For example, Gemma Fletcher and colleagues at the University of Aberdeen noted the shift to simulations in training anaesthetists, especially in cognitive or mental skills such as decision-making, planning and situational awareness, and social or interpersonal skills such as teamworking, communication and leadership. Pamela Moule and associates from the University of the West of England, meanwhile, reported in their research that the nursing profession has moved extensively towards using simulations in teaching and learning methods to address shortfalls in practice.

The second non-traditional approach found was the use of accelerated learning techniques in management development programmes. This began in the early 1960s when a Bulgarian psychiatrist, Georgi Lozanov, discovered that by using music, meditation and other visual and auditory tools, students were able to learn significantly faster and more effectively. In the UK, Alistair Smith, a trainer in modern learning methods and Education Director for Frog Education, and his associates suggest that accelerated learning is widely used in business training and argue that the benefits can be significant, particularly if activities are designed to appeal to as many learning styles as possible.

The third non-traditional method identified was the rapidly growing specialism of game-based learning, in particular 'gamification'. Game thinking and mechanics engage learners, offering, for instance:

  • points for participants to earn;
  • rewards for participants to buy with their earned points;
  • badges so participants can show peers their achievements; and
  • leader boards showing real-time feedback for all participants.

Combined learning

Based on the literature review, the researchers developed a learning model that combines the benefits and applications of the 3 non-traditional techniques by encouraging engagement, being realistic and relevant, providing experiential learning, and inspiring critical thinking and higher-order behaviours.

The model combines simulations and problem-solving in an accelerated, game-based structure, shown in Figure 1.

Combined non-traditional learning techniques

Figure 1: Framework for learning model

Experimental engagement

An experiment was conducted to test the model, using a sample of new surveyors who follow the Quantity surveying and construction APC pathway. The experiment comprised a series of 4-hour workshops on the application of ethical standards.

In the workshops, a scenario is created through which participants work, addressing problems and gaining and losing points following a game-based approach. The design comprises 13 primary storyboards, each describing a scene and establishing issues and challenges faced when applying ethical standards. The storyboards are:

  1. the scenario;
  2. the players;
  3. the client;
  4. planning adviser performance;
  5. professional and ethical standards;
  6. money laundering;
  7. decision-making;
  8. advance payment and client funds;
  9. accelerating planning approval;
  10. tender lists dilemma;
  11. conflicts of interest;
  12. bribery; and
  13. errors and professional liability.

The storyboards are randomised, and participants establish their own route through them by addressing dilemmas and making decisions, in a fun and engaging scenario.

A total of 44 graduate trainees participated in the workshops, and each was afterwards asked to complete an assessment questionnaire. The same data was also collected from a control group who were learning ethics as part of their normal structured training programmes, and the results showed that workshop participants gained more knowledge more quickly than this control group. Workshops combining non-traditional learning techniques thus proved an effective and speedy way of developing higher-order professional competencies.


While the focus of the research was student members following the Quantity surveying and construction pathway, RICS pathways cover 15 further specialisations, including Building surveying, Environmental surveying, Project management and Valuation of business and intangible assets, each of which has student entry criteria and competency assessment requirements consistent with Quantity surveying and construction. As a result, the researchers contend that the learning model can reasonably be transferred to all RICS student members. They also argue that the findings could be applied more widely to new entrants in the built environment industry through organisations with student membership and professional competency development programmes.

One downside of non-traditional learning approaches, however, proved to be the increased preparation time required. This presents a challenge to wider implementation of the learning model in structured graduate development programmes, and would need the commitment of relevant stakeholders. However, larger firms that have dedicated graduate training managers could adopt the model in training programmes to cover a number of competencies, while at small or medium-sized firms, APC supervisors and councillors could support the approach, possibly with approved training providers.

The application scenario adopted in this research is also suited for future expansion on a digital platform; this must be a future direction for competency development.

Dr Martyn Quarterman FRICS is a project management and construction economics consultant

Further information