Conceptions of Professional Competence

  • Martin MulderEmail author
Part of the Springer International Handbooks of Education book series (SIHE)


Professional and practice-based learning is a process which manifests itself in many different forms. It differs by personal characteristics of the learners, levels of their professions, fields of practice, intentionality of their learning, and formalisation of the learning activities. Notions of competence have entered this diverse practice in many ways. The question is whether conceptions of professional competence have helped the practice of professional and practice-based learning. In this chapter it is argued that this is indeed the case. Although various attempts to implement competence-based professional learning programmes were heavily criticized, later developments in competence theory and research gave new insights which emphasized the integrative meaning of competence within professional practice. It helped in mapping professional fields from a domain-specific as well as a generic behavioural perspective. This chapter goes into the roots of the competence movement, and evaluates the contributions of these to the field of professional and practice-based learning. This is further illustrated with examples of different professions in which competence models have been and still are an effective means to map requirements for professional practice and to guide the evaluation and development of professional and practice-based learning programmes. What worked and did not work is then explained by distinguishing three approaches of conceptualizing competence which have been used in different contexts, and which have wide implications for professional and practice-based learning. The chapter concludes with the claim that current competence conceptions help mapping, focusing and assessing professional and practice-based learning.


Competence Competency Competencies Competent Competence theory Competence research Competence profile Job profile Competence model Competency framework Professional competence Competence development Professional development Motivation Intelligence Performance Performance improvement Education Management Human resource development Medical profession Purchasing profession Behavior Training Management education Management training Management development Behavioral functionalism Integrated occupationalism Situated professionalism Extension Open innovation Entrepreneurship Environmental education Consultancy Purchasing Competence motivation Performance motivation 


  1. Alake-Tuenter, E., Biemans, H. J. A., Tobi, H., Wals, A., Oosterheert, I, & Mulder, M. (2012). Inquiry-based science education competencies of primary school teachers: A literature study and critical review of the American National Science Education Standards. International Journal of Science Education. 34(17), 2609–2640.Google Scholar
  2. Anderson, J. R., Reder, L. M., & Simon, H. A. (1996). Situated learning and education. Educational Researcher, 25(4), 5–11.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84(2), 191–215.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Barrick, M. R., & Mount, M. K. (1991). The big five personality dimensions and job performance: A meta-analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44, 1–26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bartram, D. (2005). The great eight competencies: A criterion-centric approach to validation. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90(6), 1185–1203.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Beers, P. J., Sol, J., & Wals, A. (2010). Social learning in a multi-actor innovation context. Paper presented at the International Farming Systems Association conference, Vienna, Austria.Google Scholar
  7. Berg, I. (1970). Education and jobs: The great training robbery. New York: Praeger.Google Scholar
  8. Biddle, B. J. (1986). Recent developments in role theory. Annual Review of Sociology, 12, 67–92.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Biemans, H., Nieuwenhuis, L., Poell, R., Mulder, M., & Wesselink, R. (2004). Competence-based VET in The Netherlands: Backgrounds and pitfalls. Journal of Vocational Education and Training, 56(4), 523–538.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Biemans, H., Wesselink, R., Gulikers, J., Schaafsma, S., Verstegen, J., & Mulder, M. (2009). Towards competence-based VET: Dealing with the pitfalls. Journal of Vocational Education and Training, 61(3), 267–286.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Blömeke, S., Zlatkin-Troitschanskaia, O., Kuhn, C., & Fege, J. (Eds.). (2013). Modeling and measuring competencies in higher education. Tasks and challenges. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.Google Scholar
  12. Boyatzis, R. E. (1982). The competent manager: A model for effective performance. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  13. Brinkman, B., Westendorp, A. M. B., Wals, A. E. J., & Mulder, M. (2007). Competencies for rural development professionals in the era of HIV/AIDS. Compare: A Journal of Comparative Education, 37(4), 493–511.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, S. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Canale, M., & Swain, M. (1980). Theoretical bases of communicative approaches to second language teaching and testing. Applied Linguistics, 1, 1–47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Childs, W. M. (1910). Agricultural education. Report of a deputation appointed by the Council of University College, Reading, to visit selected centres of agricultural education and research in Canada and in the United States. Reading: University College.Google Scholar
  17. Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the theory of syntax. Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  18. Chomsky, N. (1968). Language and mind. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.Google Scholar
  19. Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education. An introduction to the philosophy of education. New York: Macmillan.Google Scholar
  20. Dreyfus, H. L., & Dreyfus, S. E. (1986). Mind over machine: The power of human intuition and experience in the era of the computer. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.Google Scholar
  21. Du Chatenier, E. (2009). Open innovation competence. Towards a competence profile for inter-organizational collaboration in innovation teams. Dissertation, Wageningen University, Wageningen.Google Scholar
  22. Dubois, D. D. (1993). Competency-based performance improvement: A strategy for organizational change. Amherst: HRD Press.Google Scholar
  23. Frank, J. R., Jabbour, M., et al. (2005). Report of the CanMEDS Phase IV Working Groups. Ottawa: The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada.Google Scholar
  24. Gamson, Z. (1979). Understanding the difficulties of implementing a competence-based curriculum. In G. Grant et al. (Eds.), On competence. A critical analysis of competence-based reforms in higher education (pp. 224–258). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  25. Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  26. Gelman, R., & Green, J. G. (1989). On the nature of competence: Principles for understanding in a domain. In L. B. Resnick (Ed.), Knowing, learning and instruction. Essays in honor of Robert Glaser (pp. 125–186). Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  27. Gibson, J. J. (1979). The ecological approach to visual perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.Google Scholar
  28. Gilbert, T. F. (1978). Human competence. Engineering worthy performance. New York: McGraw-Hill.Google Scholar
  29. Grant, G., Elbow, P., Ewens, T., Gamson, Z., Kohli, W., Neumann, W., Olesen, V., & Riesman, D. (1979). On competence. A critical analysis of competence-based reforms in higher education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  30. Gulikers, J., Biemans, H., & Mulder, M. (2009). Developer, teacher, student and employer evaluations of competence-based assessment quality. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 35(2–3), 110–119.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Gulikers, J. T. M., Baartman, L. K. J., & Biemans, H. J. A. (2010). Facilitating evaluations of innovative, competence-based assessments: Creating understanding and involving multiple stakeholders. Evaluation and Program Planning, 33(2), 120–127.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Hampden-Turner, C., & Trompenaars, F. (2000). Building cross-cultural competence. How to create wealth from conflicting values. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  33. Harris, R., Guthrie, H., Hobart, B., & Lundberg, D. (1995). Competency-based education and training: Between a rock and a whirlpool. South Melbourne: Macmillan Australia.Google Scholar
  34. Hartig, J., Klieme, E., & Leutner, D. (Eds.). (2008). Assessment of competencies in educational contexts. Göttingen: Hogrefe & Huber.Google Scholar
  35. Hodge, S. (2007). The origins of competency-based Learning. Australian Journal of Adult Learning, 47(2), 179–209.Google Scholar
  36. Hofer, B. K., & Pintrich, P. R. (Eds.). (2002). Personal epistemology: The psychology of beliefs about knowledge and knowing. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  37. Houston, W. R. (1974). Competency based education. In W. R. Houston (Ed.), Exploring competency based education (pp. 3–17). Berkeley: McCutchan.Google Scholar
  38. Hyland, T. (2006). Swimming against the tide: Reductionist behaviourism in the harmonisation of European higher education systems. Prospero, 12(1), 24–30.Google Scholar
  39. Karbasioun, M., Mulder, M., & Biemans, H. (2007). Towards a job competency profile for agricultural extension instructors: A survey of views of experts. Human Resource Development International, 10(2), 137–151.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Klemp, G. O. (1980). The assessment of occupational competence. Washington, DC: National Institute of Education.Google Scholar
  41. Kurz, R., & Bartram, D. (2002). Competency and individual performance: Modeling the world of work. In I. T. Robertson, M. Callinan, & D. Bartram (Eds.), Organizational effectiveness: The role of psychology (pp. 227–255). Chichester: Wiley.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Lans, T., Biemans, H., Verstegen, J., & Mulder, M. (2008). The influence of the work environment on entrepreneurial learning of small-business owners. Management Learning, 39(5), 597–613.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Lans, T. (2009). Entrepreneurial competence in agriculture: Characterization, identification, development and the role of the work environment. Dissertation, Wageningen University, Wageningen.Google Scholar
  44. Lans, T., Biemans, H., Mulder, M., & Verstegen, J. (2010a). Self-awareness of mastery and improvability of entrepreneurial competence in small businesses in the agrifood sector. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 21(2), 147–168.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Lans, T., Gulikers, J., & Batterink, M. (2010b). Moving beyond traditional measures of entrepreneurial intentions in a study among life-sciences students in the Netherlands. Research in Post-Compulsory Education, 15(3), 259–274.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. McClelland, D. C. (1973). Testing for competence rather than for ‘Intelligence’. American Psychologist, 28(1), 423–447.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. McLagan, P. A. (1983). Models for excellence. The conclusions and recommendations of the ASTD training and development competency study. Washington, DC: American Society for Training and Development.Google Scholar
  49. McLagan, P. A. (1989). Models for HRD practice. The models. Alexandria: American Society for Training and Development.Google Scholar
  50. Mulder, M. (2004). Education, competence and performance. On training and development in the agri-food complex. Tijdschrift voor Sociaal wetenschappelijk onderzoek van de Landbouw, 19(2), 103–120.Google Scholar
  51. Mulder, M. (2006). EU-level competence development projects in agri-food-environment: the involvement of sectoral social partners. Journal of European Industrial Training, 30(2), 80–99.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Mulder, M. (2007). Competence – The essence and use of the concept in ICVT. European Journal of Vocational Training, 40, 5–22.Google Scholar
  53. Mulder, M. (2011). The concept of competence: blessing or curse? In I. Torniainen, S. Mahlamäku-Kultanen, P. Nokelainen, & P. Ilsley (Eds.), Innovations for competence management. Conference proceedings (pp. 11–24). Lahti: Lahti University of Applied Sciences.Google Scholar
  54. Mulder, M. (2012). European vocational education and training. In J. P. Wilson (Ed.), Human resource development: Learning, education and training (3rd ed., pp. 155–175). London: Kogan Page.Google Scholar
  55. Mulder, M., & Pachuau, A. (2011). Competence in scientific agriculture. Journal of Agricultural Education and Extension, 17(5), 393–399.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Mulder, M., Wesselink, R., & Bruijstens, H. C. J. (2005). Job profile research for the purchasing profession. International Journal of Training and Development., 9(3), 185–204.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Mulder, M., Lans, T., Verstegen, J., Biemans, H. J. A., & Meijer, Y. (2007a). Competence development of entrepreneurs in innovative horticulture. Journal of Workplace Learning, 19(1), 32–44.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Mulder, M., Weigel, T., & Collins, K. (2007b). The concept of competence concept in the development of vocational education and training in selected EU member states. A critical analysis. Journal of Vocational Education and Training, 59(1), 65–85.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Noroozi, O., Biemans, H. J. A., Busstra, M. C., Mulder, M., & Chizari, M. (2011). Differences in learning processes between successful and less successful students in computer-supported collaborative learning in the field of human nutrition and health. Computers and Human Behavior, 27(1), 309–318.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Noroozi, O., Busstra, M. C., Mulder, M., Biemans, H. J. A., Tobi, H., Geelen, M. M. E. E., van’t Veer, P., & Chizari, M. (2012). Online discussion compensates for suboptimal timing of supportive information presentation in a digitally supported learning environment. Educational Technology Research & Development, 60(2), 193–221.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Noroozi, O., Biemans, H. J. A., Weinberger, A., Mulder, M., & Chizari, M. (2013a). Scripting for construction of a transactive memory system in a multidisciplinary CSCL environment. Learning and Instruction, 25(1), 1–12.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Noroozi, O., Weinberger, A., Biemans, H. J. A., Mulder, M., & Chizari, M. (2013b). Facilitating argumentative knowledge construction through a transactive discussion script in CSCL. Computers and Education, 61(2), 9–76.Google Scholar
  63. Norton, R. E., Harrington, L. G., & Gill, J. (1978). Performance-based teacher education: The state of the art. Athens: American Association for vocational Instructional Materials.Google Scholar
  64. Oonk, C., Beers, P. J., Wesselink, R., & Mulder, M. (2011). Roles and tasks of higher education teachers in the regional atelier. In L. Deitmer, M. Gessler, S. Manning. (Eds.), Proceedings of the ECER VETNET conference 2011 ‘Urban Education’. Berlin: Wissenschaftsforum Bildung und Gesellschaft e.V.Google Scholar
  65. Osagie, E. R., Wesselink, R., Tobi, H., & Blok, V. (2012). Identification of individual competencies for sustainability and corporate social responsibility: A Review. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), Vancouver, Canada.Google Scholar
  66. Popov, V., Brinkman, D., Biemans, H. J. A., Mulder, M., Kuznetsov, A., & Noroozi, O. (2012). Multicultural student group work in higher education. An explorative case study on challenges as perceived by students. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 36(2), 302–317.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Prahalad, C. K., & Hamel, G. (1990, May–June). The core competence of the corporation. Harvard Business Review, pp. 79–91.Google Scholar
  68. Quinn, R. E., Faerman, S. F., Thompson, M. P., & McGrath, M. R. (1996). Becoming a master manager: A competency framework (2nd ed.). New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  69. Riesman, D. (1979). Society’s demand for competence. In G. Grant (Ed.), On competence. A critical analysis of competence-based reforms in higher education (pp. 18–65). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  70. Roes, G. B. (1885). Twee vragen betreffende de absolute competentie van den kantonrechter. Leiden: Somerwil. (academisch proefschrift)Google Scholar
  71. Rosier, R. (1994). Competency model handbook (Vols. I–IV). Lexington: Linkage.Google Scholar
  72. Rothwell, W. J., & Lindholm, J. E. (1999). Competency identification, modelling and assessment in the USA. International Journal of Training and Development, 3(2), 90–105.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Rychen, D. S., & Salganik, L. H. (Eds.). (2001). Defining and selecting key competencies. Seattle/Toronto/Bern/Göttingen: Hogrefe & Huber.Google Scholar
  74. Rychen, D. S., & Salganik, L. H. (Eds.). (2003). Key competencies for a successful life and a well-functioning society. Cambridge/Göttingen: Hogrefe & Huber.Google Scholar
  75. Sandberg, J. (2000). Understanding human competence at work: An interpretative approach. The Academy of Management Journal, 43(1), 9–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Shavelson, R. (2010). On the measurement of competency. Empirical Research in Vocational Education and Training, 2(1), 41–64.Google Scholar
  77. Shaw, R. E., Turvey, M. T., & Mace, W. M. (1982). Ecological psychology. The consequence of a commitment to realism. In W. Weimer & D. Palermo (Eds.), Cognition and the symbolic processes (Vol. 2, pp. 159–226). Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  78. Spelt, E. J. H., Biemans, H. J. A., Tobi, H., Luning, P. A., & Mulder, M. (2009). Teaching and learning in interdisciplinary higher education: A systematic review. Educational Psychology Review, 21(4), 365–378.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Spencer, L., & Spencer, S. (1993). Competence at work: A model for superior performance. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  80. Sturing, L., Biemans, H. J. A., Mulder, M., & De Bruijn, E. (2011). The nature of study programmes in vocational education: Evaluation of the model for comprehensive competence-based vocational education. Vocations and Learning, 4(3), 191–210.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Taylor, C. W., Smith, W. R., & Ghiselin, B. (1963). The creative and other contributions of one sample of research scientists. In C. W. Taylor & F. Barron (Eds.), Scientific creativity: Its recognition and development (pp. 53–76). New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  82. Thorndike, R. L., & Hagen, E. (1959). 10,000 careers. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  83. Tuxworth, E. (1989). Competence based education and training: Background and origins. In J. W. Burke (Ed.), Competency education and training (pp. 10–25). Bristol: Falmer Press/Taylor & Francis.Google Scholar
  84. Velde, C. (1999). An alternative conception of competence: Implications for vocational education. Journal of Vocational Education and Training, 51(3), 437–447.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  85. Viruly, M. A. M. (1890). De relatieve competentie van den kantonrechter volgens art. 97 en 98 B.R.V. Leiden: Somerwil.Google Scholar
  86. Von Bertalanffy, L. (1969). General system theory: Foundations, development, applications. New York: George Braziller.Google Scholar
  87. Weigel, T., Mulder, M., & Collins, K. (2007). The concept of competence in the development of vocational education and training in selected EU member states. Journal of Vocational Education and Training, 59(1), 51–64.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  88. Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  89. Wenger, E., McDermott, R., & Snyder, W. M. (2002). Cultivating communities of practice. Harvard: Harvard Business Press.Google Scholar
  90. Wesselink, R. (2010). Comprehensive competence-based vocational education: The development and use of a curriculum analysis and improvement model. Wageningen: Wageningen University.Google Scholar
  91. Wesselink, R., & Wals, A. E. J. (2011). Developing competence profiles for educators in environmental education organisations in the Netherlands. Environmental Education Research, 17(1), 69–90.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  92. Wesselink, R., Dekker-Groen, A., Biemans, H. J. A., & Mulder, M. (2010). Using an instrument to analyse competence-based study programmes; experiences of teachers in Dutch vocational education and training. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 42(6), 813–829.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  93. Westera, W. (2001). Competences in education: A confusion of tongues. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 33(1), 75–88.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  94. White, R. W. (1959). Motivation reconsidered: The concept of competence. Psychological Review, 66(5), 297–333.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  95. Winther, E. (2010). Kompetenzmessung in der beruflichen Bildung. Bielefeld: Bertolsmann.Google Scholar
  96. Zemke, R. (1982). Job competencies: Can they help you design better training? Training, 19(5), 28–31.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Education and Competence StudiesWageningen UniversityWageningenThe Netherlands

Personalised recommendations