Instructional sensitivity in vocational education
, Esther Winther
University of Mannheim, Business School, L4 1, 68161 Mannheim, Germany
German Institute for Adult Education (DIE), Heinemannstraße 12-14, 53175 Bonn, Germany
Received 10 November 2016
Received in revised form
30 June 2017
Accepted 7 July 2017
Available online 8 September 2017
Item differential functioning (DIF)
Vocational educational training (VET)
Apprentices' performance after vocational educational training (VET) is commonly attributed to the
effectiveness of the training. This implies the assumption that learners’development of vocational
knowledge and ability is signiﬁcantly affected by vocational instruction. However, the few analyses that
have been made of instructional sensitivity within the general school-based educational system, have in
most cases shown little or no effect of instruction (time in school) on performance in assessments. The
question as to whether, and to what extent, VET in adult education is effective (in the sense that it fosters
the development of vocational knowledge and ability), as well as the related questiondwhether we are
able to track the resulting learning progress with adequate measures (i.e., assessments)dhas hardly been
investigated. In the present study, we propose modeling of instructional sensitivity via differential item
functioning (DIF), and apply this method to a sample of n ¼534 apprentices. We ﬁnd that during
vocational instruction, apprentices signiﬁcantly improved their performance in an assessment of voca-
tional knowledge and ability, and that we were able to track these changes in the quality of their abilities
over the span of a three year initial VET program: that is, the ﬁrst program of vocational study in which
apprentices become qualiﬁed to work in a given trade. Moreover, with this proposed method, it is
possible to identify items that are particularly sensitive to instruction and that appear therefore to be
amenable to the future development of vocational assessments.
©2017 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd. This is an open access article under the CC BY license
Schooling/training is commonly assumed to be responsible for
learning (Burstein, 1989; Naumann, Hochweber, &Hartig, 2014).
Somewhat surprising therefore are some empirical hints that per-
formance on assessments in general education is often little or not
at all sensitive to the effects of instruction. Diverse research (e.g.,
Chen, 2012; Court, 2013; Pham, 2009; Phillips &Mehrens, 1988;
Popham, 2007; Popham &Ryan, 2012) suggests that many
achievement tests fail to effectively reﬂect whether students suc-
cessfully receive and absorb curricular content during instruction.
This apparent paradox might result from one of two causes (or
conceivably both): (1) That learners have indeed learned during
instruction, but that the assessment applied was not able to capture
the learning progress made. For example, Goe (2007) and Polikoff
(2010) caution that the failure to detect instructional sensitivity
does not necessarily imply that no learning progress has been
made. Rather, the weak relationship between curricular instruction
and student performance could be due to the applied measurement
tools not being sufﬁciently sensitive to capture the effect of in-
struction. These measures of learning outcomes possibly indicate
what students know, but not necessarily what they learn during
instruction (Popham, 2007).
The second possible cause (2) is expressed by Wiliam (2007,12)
who, providing an insightful analysis of the relevant research
addressing instructional sensitivity, goes one step further, arguing
for a more pessimistic second order explanation:
the fundamental issue is not that tests are insensitive to in-
struction; it is that achievement is insensitive to instruction. Put
bluntly, most of what happens in classrooms doesn't change
what students know very much, especially when we measure
deep, as opposed to surface aspects of a subject.
This second explanation in turn might result from two causes:
Either students’knowledge as a latent structure is generally
insensitive to instruction, or instruction may not have been deliv-
ered (or not effectively).
E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org (V. Deutscher).
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Learning and Instruction 53 (2018) 21e33
Even without any clear indication of which of the two expla-
nations (or, conceivably, a combination) accounts for the empirical
ﬁndings, both interpretations of the instructional insensitivity of
diverse outcome measures pose a severe threatdespecially to
educational accountability. In some nations (e.g., the US), outcome
measures have been used in recent times not only to evaluate the
effectiveness of schools and teachers on the basis of their students’
test proﬁciency, but also to allocate educational resources on the
basis of test results (e.g., state tests used for the purposes of the No
Child Left Behind Act). Without a doubt, an accountability test
woulddas one prerequisite, among other aspects of validitydat
least have to be instructionally sensitive, in order to form an
appropriate basis for making decisions with potentially far-
reaching consequences. However, given unreliable and possibly
inaccurate test-based evidence, achievement or learning progress,
or even the lack thereof, instructional sensitivity cannot be accu-
rately determined; this leaves the danger that teachers and schools
will be misjudged, and even be unfairly denied resources.
Considering these potentially severe consequences, Polikoff
(2010, 34), summarizing the overall state of instructional sensi-
tivity research, comes to the conclusion that the lack of docu-
mentation of instructional sensitivity in accountability tests
constitutes a “grievous oversight”. Even more strongly, Popham and
Ryan (2012, 2) assail the current lack of empirical evidence
regarding instructional sensitivity in most educational tests,
describing it as an “intolerable state of affairs”. In view of the above,
the internationally observable trend towards test-based account-
ability systems, and political reliance on outcome measures in
making decisions affecting education, seems highly questionable.
For this reason, some authors have demanded that the concept of
instructional sensitivity become an explicit and integral part of a
broadened conception of validity, for common standards in
educational and psychological testing (e.g., AERA, APA, &NCME,
1999). They call for this to be applied at least for the outcome
measures that are used to assess changes in learning and for those
testing system effectiveness (e.g., teacher or school effectiveness;
for example, Polikoff, 2010; Popham &Ryan, 2012).
Way (2014, 4) raises the concern that “despite these recent
imperatives for explicitly making assessments instructionally sen-
sitive, there is not agreement about how this is to be done (…).”
Naumann et al. (2014) similarly believe that the question whether
outcome measures are indeed sensitive to instruction is hardly
empirically engaged, due to the lack of a commonly accepted
deﬁnition and operationalization of the concept of instructional
sensitivity. The methodological approaches to modeling instruc-
tional sensitivity are diverse, to say the least: this has led to mainly
psychometric papers on the topic, and few practical applications
combining the proposed methods with a didactical perspective (for
one such application however, see the recent study by Naumann
et al., 2014).
Although, as we have noted, instructional sensitivity is a crucial
concept in instructional science, to our knowledge no studies have
addressed the modeling of instructional sensitivity with respect to
vocational education of adults. In Germany, about half of the pop-
ulation takes vocational educational training (VET) rather than
academic training, after their school education. Most of this VET
(60%) relates to commercial professions: for bankers, industrial
management assistants, salesmen (National Educational Report,
Hasselhorn et al., 2014). While development of measures of voca-
tional knowledge and ability for this branch of education is very
relevant, it is still in its infancy. In general, however, signiﬁcant
progress has been made in the last decade with respect to the
measurement of learning outcomes in the vocational domains of
auto mechanics (e.g., Nickolaus, Lazar, &Norwig, 2012) and ap-
prenticeships in commercial professions: for example, industrial or
logistics apprentices (e.g., Klotz, Winther, &Festner, 2015; Rausch,
Seifried, Wuttke, K€
ogler, &Brandt, 2016; Seeber, 2008; Weber et al.,
2016; Winther &Achtenhagen, 2009). More recently, there has also
been notable progress in the area of social health care (e.g., Seeber,
2015; Seeber, Ketschau, &Rüter, 2016). Therefore, the purpose of
this study is to conceptualize and model instructional sensitivity in
the area of vocational education, and to detect which item types are
especially relevant to modeling the learning progress. More pre-
cisely, we focus on the occupation of industrial management as-
sistant, and seek to explore whether instructional sensitivity is
detectable in an assessment of vocational knowledge and ability.
According to Polikoff (2010,8e9), it is impossible to say
whether a ﬁnding of low or no sensitivity in any particular study
is due to a poor-quality test that is actually insensitive to in-
struction or to poor quality instruction, so that the test results
actually reﬂect the instruction received by students. In contrast,
aﬁnding of high sensitivity indicates both effective instruction
and also a high-quality assessment sensitive to that instruction.
Clearly, the goal is always to have instruction of maximum
effectiveness, and to design a test to capture the effects of
So if we do not ﬁnd instructional sensitivity, this does not
necessarily mean that learners have not learned anything (e.g., due
to poor instruction); it may possibly mean that our assessment
failed to capture their learning (i.e., instructional insensitivity of the
assessment). However, if we ﬁnd instructionally sensitive items,
this must mean that vocational knowledge and ability are being
acquired during VET and that we are able to capture them. More
precisely, in this study, the following research questions are
1. Is the developed assessment of vocational knowledge and
ability sensitive to instruction (meaning that learning progress
is made during VET and that we are able to capture that
2. Is the learning of speciﬁc (vocational) knowledge and ability
equally sensitive to instruction as is the learning of generic
knowledge and ability?
In order to explore this matter, the paper begins by reviewing
different deﬁnitions of instructional sensitivity and different
methodological approaches to its detection. Subsequently, the item
and test design of an instrument to capture apprentices’knowledge
and ability is introduced. We then apply the IRT-DIF approach to a
vocational sample of n ¼877 industrial apprentices, and outline
and discuss the results.
2. Deﬁning and detecting instructional sensitivity
In the theoretical research into instructional sensitivity, this
term has often been used interchangeably with “instructional val-
idity”, with both terms being treated as subfacets of other, common
aspects of test validity, such as curricular validity and content val-
idity (Polikoff, 2010). Li et al. (2012b, p. 2) note that the intended
meaning of the term sometimes relates exclusively to the extent to
which the curriculum content is taught successfully (e.g., Linn,
1983). Occasionally however, it also includes the nature of the
teaching of the content (e.g., Burstein, Aschbacher, Chen, &Lin,
1990; Popham &Ryan, 2012; Yoon &Resnick, 1998). A deﬁnition
that is open to both interpretations is the originally used, more
technical deﬁnition of Haladyna and Roid (1981, p. 40), deﬁning
instructional sensitivity as “the tendency for an item to vary in
difﬁculty as a function of instruction”. This relation is then speciﬁed
V. Deutscher, E. Winther / Learning and Instruction 53 (2018) 21e3322
either by the duration of instruction only (Opportunity to Learn
[OTL] as time for learning; see, e.g, Yu, Lei, &Suen, 2006]orby
aspects referring to the quality, content and nature of instruction,
such as is often implemented in broader OTL conceptions (e.g., Kao,
1990; Switzer, 1993; Yu et al., 2006). In this study we adopt the
broader approach, as we focus on the effectiveness of VET and its
assessment as a whole, and therefore deﬁne instructional sensi-
tivity as the tendency for a test or a single item to vary in difﬁculty as a
function of the duration of vocational educational training. According
to this deﬁnition, if vocational instruction is reasonably effective,
items should be easier for instructed students and more difﬁcult
when administered to uninstructed students. Conversely, if time on
training does not change apprentices’performance on an assess-
ment to any marked degree, then that assessment must be insen-
sitive to instruction (Ruiz-Primo et al., 2012; Wiliam, 2007).
In the literature on detecting instructional sensitivity, a variety
of approaches are distinguishable, but they can be subsumed under
two basic headings: (1) Judgmental approaches are usually inte-
grated into test design and development processes (Popham,
2007), but potentially can also be applied as ex-post evaluations
of instructional sensitivity (e.g., Rovinelli &Hambleton, 1977).
Judgmental approaches rely on trained experts in a domain rating
the speciﬁed attributes of a test's instructional sensitivity. Ideally, in
such methods, only instructionally sensitive items are selected for a
ﬁnal test instrument. However, the major drawback of these ap-
proaches is that it has not yet been demonstrated that experts can
validly and reliably distinguish between tasks that are instruc-
tionally sensitive and those that are not (Chen, 2012; Polikoff, 2010;
The second approach (2) is an empirical investigation of
instructional sensitivity in learners' test outcomes, and includes a
variety of empirical methods and respective designs.
ical method, an IRT-based Differential Item Functioning approach
(DIF), has won recognition over recent years. In several studies (e.g.,
Naumann et al., 2014; Polikoff, 2010; Popham &Ryan, 2012) it has
proved to be well suited to the purpose of detecting instructional
sensitivity. This method goes back to the conceptual framework of
Masters (1988). The major ﬁnding of Masters’framework is that,
aside from the fact that high and low achieving students will
usually score differently on a test, differential instructional sensi-
tivity is reﬂected in some items being more highly discriminating
than others. So the key technical element of DIF-based studies (e.g.,
Polikoff, 2010; Popham &Ryan, 2012) is that they compare the
performance of groups on an assessment, controlling for the overall
ability of the groups. In this respect, in either longitudinal or cross-
sectional designs, DIF analyses can be run to compare instructed
students to novice students, indicating whether the items are
sensitive to the instruction experienced by the students (Polikoff,
2010, p. 17).
In this study, we seek to combine a judgmental with an
empirical approach; Ruiz-Primo et al. (2012) have offered an
example of such a triangulating approach.
3. Assessment design for VET
Especially in vocational education, where ability has to be
demonstrated in the workplace on a regular basis, the concept of
competence is more signiﬁcant than the concept of mere knowl-
edge, as a target construct of vocational assessment. We deﬁne
competence in line with Mulder, Weigel, and Collins (2006, p. 79),
as the “capability to perform by using knowledge, skills, and
attitudes that are integrated in the professional repertoire of the
individual”. A paper-pencil assessment is utilized to infer the ap-
prentices’cognitive structures by assessing how well the test takers
can do on authentic workplace-related tasks that they are expected
to master at the end of their VET. So, in this contribution we spe-
ciﬁcally consider knowledge and ability as major cognitive pre-
requisites for the capability to perform in vocational situations,
rather than attitude-related aspects of vocational competence in
terms of attitudes and beliefs.
Following the item classiﬁcation system of Ruiz-Primo et al.
(2012), our developed measure may be considered proximal to
instruction: It is designed to take a snapshot of the relevant
knowledge and skills in the curriculum. However, the exact content
(e.g., a situation in the workplace) can be different to that studied
during instruction. Our assessment was explicitly designed to align
with the intended VET curriculum for industrial apprentices, and to
be used as a paper-pencil test for the ﬁnal examination of ap-
prentices at the end of their VET (summative assessment). The
design process was inspired by recent assessment theory
(Pellegrino, , Chudowsky, &Glaser, 2001; Mislevy &Haertel, 2006;
Wilson, 2005; 2008).
In order to assure the validity of the assessment of instructional
sensitivity, we undertook several assessment phases. After (1)
deﬁning our theoretical construct (as above), we (2) undertook a
curricular analysis, in order to closely align our assessment of
vocational knowledge and ability to the intended industrial VET
curriculum. A particular feature of this phase was that in a VET
assessment, we have to pay attention to the curricula of two
learning sites: The German VET system is structured so as to equip
apprentices with practical and theoretical knowledge by a dual
system, of company-based training programs provided by the pri-
vate sector (where the apprentices work about three days per week
and are paid a wage by their employer), together with a school-
based component (about two days per week, provided by the
Consequently, not only did we analyze the ofﬁcial curriculum of
vocational schools, but we also made a survey study in the indus-
trial sector, investigating what content is commonly taught and
considered necessary by the apprentices’training companies. The
speciﬁc job analysis was guided by several questions: What content
is processed in which departments? What materials are used? How
does internal/external communication take place (infrastructure)?
All results and data were incorporated into the development of a
model of the typical business processes that occur within com-
panies (Winther, 2010). The model, which followed the process
perspective of the St. Galler Management Model (Rüegg-Stürm,
2004) includes three central processes in (industrial) companies:
value chain processes, related to quantiﬁable goods and services and
their marketing; control processes, including decision support for
management; and management processes that comprise business
management and organization concerns.
The phase of item construction (3) was implemented according
to three guiding principles, the ﬁrst of which was a) authenticity of
the vocational assessment (e.g., Achtenhagen &Weber, 2003;
Shavelson &Seminara, 1968). In order to secure maximum
authenticity, we modeled a simulated company that produces
ceramic products such as tableware, bath tubs or sinks (see
Appendix). All assessment items developed were implemented
within the simulated company framework, together with addi-
tional realistic material, and information with which respondents
For a comparison of different approaches of an empirical investigation of
instructional sensitivity see Li, Ruiz-Primo, and Wills (2012a).
However, such aspects presumably also inﬂuence task solutions during the
assessment and therefore are in all likehihood integrated in our measurement
approach to some (unknown) extent.
V. Deutscher, E. Winther / Learning and Instruction 53 (2018) 21e33 23
were to solve the items (e.g., product lists or e-mails; see
Appendix). With respect to the design of the single items, the
assessment tasks were designed to measure economic knowledge
and skills in the commercial sector by representing job-related
skills in the industrial sector. For this purpose, the item format of
all tasks was open-ended.
In order to attend to b) the varying cognitive demands of
vocational practice, the items were developed on three cognitive
levels, according to the conceptual framework of Greeno, Riley, and
Gelman (1984), which represents an action schema for performing
vocational tasks. On the ﬁrst level, conceptual competence implies
an understanding of the principles in the domain. It corresponds to
factual knowledge that can be translated into an action schema. At
the second level, procedural competence takes the form of
knowledge in action, such as dealing with facts, structures and
knowledge nets. At the third level, interpretational competence
refers to strategic decision making that reﬂects the cognitive pro-
cess of grounded interpretation of the ﬁndings obtained, through
conceptual and procedural knowledge. To assess these different
types of cognitive process, we modeled six conceptual items, seven
procedural and three interpretative items.
The third principle of item construction refers to c) the admin-
istration of tasks of varying speciﬁcity. In line with Gelman and
Greeno (1989), we distinguish between domain-linked and
domain-speciﬁc item content in the business domain. The former,
decontextualized aspect is generally relevant to the business
domain, while the latter is highly situational and reﬂects the spe-
ciﬁc aspects, guidelines, and action maxims of a particular occu-
pation. More precisely, domain-linked aspects refer to basic
knowledge and skills that are generic but are nonetheless relevant
prerequisites for solving vocational problems (Klotz, Winther, &
Festner, 2015). In business domains, concepts such as literacy and
numeracy are examples of this type of general preknowledge
(OECD, 2003; Winther &Achtenhagen, 2009). Domain-linked
knowledge and ability is needed, for example, to perform simple
exchange rate calculations in the workplace. Such calculations do
not require any speciﬁc vocational knowledge or ability, but can be
dealt with simply by applying the general mathematical concept of
the “rule of three”, with which learners were already familiar from
their general school education. Domain-speciﬁc knowledge and
ability, on the other hand, entails job- or enterprise-speciﬁc
knowledge and skills (Oates, 2004). In a business domain, an
example of this kind of knowledge and ability might be rules that
are newly acquired during vocational educational training: for
example, for preparing a balance sheet in accounting. Both aspects
of vocational knowledge and abilityddomain-linked and domain
speciﬁcdare prerequisites for solving workplace-related tasks (for
sample items see Appendix). For the study at hand, we modeled 10
domain-speciﬁc items and 6 domain-related items.
In the (4) test assembly phase (see e.g., Mislevy &Haertel, 2006),
an important principle of assessment design for vocational edu-
cation relates to the assembly of single tasks into one coherent
business-process (Klotz, 2015). The test therefore starts as a
simulated typical event in the company (e.g., an e-mail from a
potential client) demanding certain responses from the test takers,
which in turn lead to further events and tasks (see Appendix).
The ﬁnal step of our assessment design process included (5)
validating our test design. We asked 24 vocational experts (12 ex-
perts for each item) to rate all tasks in terms of authentic item
design (relevance of content and realistic situational setting), as
well as to rate the items as either domain-linked or domain-
speciﬁc. Items that received an average value below 3.5 on the
ﬁve-point Likert scale, in respect of workplace relevance, were
excluded from the instrument. Moreover, we used the expert
judgments of the items as being either domain related or domain
speciﬁc, as a basis for the empirical analysis. The experts mostly
agreed, in relation to their categorization of each item; this is re-
ﬂected in the high degree of inter-rater reliability (Intraclass-Cor-
relation-Coefﬁcient [ICC) ¼0.940).
4. Theoretical assumptions about instructional sensitivity in
As Ruiz-Primo et al. (2012, 693) note, most research studies
concerned with instructional sensitivity focus on evaluating
assessment instruments already developed and used, but are silent
on how to construct instructionally sensitive assessments. In our
research, in contrast, we implemented theoretical design princi-
ples, ex ante, into the assessment, that could be manipulated sys-
tematically to model items of varying instructional sensitivity. With
respect to Research Questions 1 and 2, we are interested not only in
whether the assessment is instructionally sensitive, but also, if so,
why. Often, item attributes causing difﬁculty in tasks, also reﬂect
sources of instructional sensitivity. Detection of instructional
sensitivity therefore requires strong familiarity with the vocational
area and its theoretical difﬁculty, or gleaning the necessary attri-
butes through interaction with vocational experts. Ideally, both
circumstances would apply, to enable determining which voca-
tional activities are complex, and for what reason, and how the
capacity to achieve them might develop over time, with instruction.
In our assessment the item design characteristics potentially
causing difﬁculty were the level of cognitive processing and the
degree of speciﬁcity of the learning content. However, we believe
that only the later attribute plays a predominant role in generating
instructional sensitivity. In line with Billett (1994), we argue that
most often, vocational novices do not lack cognitive ability. Rather,
in most instances, apprentices lack the speciﬁc knowledge and
experience within a vocational domain (Glaser, 1990) that would
otherwise enable them to conceptualize and categorize workplace-
related problems and to deploy their cognitive structures more
effectively (Billett, 1994, p. 4). Similarly, Dreyfus and Dreyfus (1980)
describe vocational learning as an expansion of novices’generic
preknowledge, which develops with relevant knowledge about
aspects, speciﬁc guidelines, and action schemes, such that it
transforms into an increasingly organized form, as speciﬁc knowl-
edge and ability. The newly acquired speciﬁc knowledge is then
storeddin addition to general knowledge and ability (domain-
linked)dto provide the learner with a broad knowledge base from
which to act in similar vocational situations.
The existing theoretical and qualitative research offers support
for the idea of vocational learning as acquirement of speciﬁc
knowledge and ability (see research on the expert-novice paradigm
in diverse vocational domains: e.g., Dreyfus &Dreyfus, 1980;
Benner, 2004; Worthy, 1996; Ryan, Fook, &Hawkins, 1995;
Campbell, Brown, &DiBello, 1992; Chmiel &Loui, 2004). We
therefore assume that instructional sensitivity in vocational do-
mains is determined by the extent of content speciﬁcity of items in
an assessment. More precisely, two hypotheses can be formulated
in reference to the above-stated research questions:
1. Advanced vocational learners improve signiﬁcantly, compared
to novices, in respect of their performance in the assessment
2. Items that are domain speciﬁc are signiﬁcantly more strongly
instructionally sensitive than are items that relate to domain-
related generic contents (Hypothesis 2).
The tasks were scored with 0 for “none”or a wrong solution, 1 for a partially
correct answer and 2 for a fully correct answer.
V. Deutscher, E. Winther / Learning and Instruction 53 (2018) 21e3324
5. Data acquisition and method
A cross-sectional design was used for the acquisition of data.
This design was sufﬁcient for our purpose of detecting instructional
sensitivity in an assessment, as we did not seek to estimate or
explain individual differences within the cohort, but only to
ascertain whether items were instructionally sensitive at the
aggregate cohort level. Moreover, longitudinal data would have
caused test repetition effect issues (e.g., Hoffman, Hofer, &
Sliwinski, 2011; Salthouse &Tucker-Drob, 2008). The cross-
sectional data were gathered in 2013 as a non-random sample
from visits to vocational schools in locations spread widely across
Germany (Munich, Hanover, Bielefeld, and Paderborn). For eco-
nomic efﬁciency, schools with a large proportion of industrial ap-
prentices were selected. Access was initiated by the German
Chamber of Industry and Commerce (IHK). Within these schools all
students enrolled in industrial apprentice programs were selected,
and all agreed to participate. Table 1 presents the sample, sub-
divided into the two groups of vocational novices (n
advanced vocational learners (n
¼398), and the basic character-
istics of these groups. Even though the data were gathered as a non-
random sample, the two groups were remarkably similar in regard
to the distributional characteristics of all collected variables, and
showed no differences with regard to gender (T ¼0.748;
p¼0.455), educational career paths (T ¼0.169; p ¼0.866) and
migrational background (T ¼1.011; p ¼0.313). The two subsets
(group 1 and group 2) only differed signiﬁcantly with regard to the
average time spent on vocational educational training (years spent
in vocational training) and average age (T ¼8.630; p ¼0.000).
Moreover, the distributions of the two collected subsamples are
comparable to the general population of industrial apprentices in
Germany (Table 1).
During test taking we observed, in regard to test motivation,
that the students engaged very well with the instrumentdmost
probably because it had been represented to them as a useful
preparation for their ﬁnal examination, and because we had
assured them of individual feedback. This also likely explains the
low rate of missing values (1.68%). The solutions to the items were
corrected and coded according to a detailed scoring guide (Wilson,
2008). Two independent raters randomly corrected 16% of all 534
tests, in order to estimate the accuracy of the scoring process. The
Intraclass-Correlation-Coefﬁcient (ICC) proved a satisfactory degree
of scoring objectivity (ICC ¼0.914).
To analyze the open-ended items, we used a multidimensional-
random-coefﬁcient-multinomial logit-model (Adams, Wilson, &
Wang, 1997) and analyzed the polytomous database of varying
scaling with the program ConQuest (Wu, Adams, &Wilson, 1997).
Then, thresholds for the two groups were estimated: for vocational
novices (group 1) and advanced learners at the end of their training
(group 2). A downward shift in the difﬁculty of items in a com-
parison of group 1 with group 2 would mean that the learners must
have progressed in their vocational knowledge and ability, as the
items were relatively easy to solve for them, in comparison with
vocational novices. In order to determine the difﬁculty of all items
in both groups, we used a Differential Item Functioning (DIF)
approach. DIF analyses explore whether the probabilities for the
solving of items are different for different groups, after controlling
for overall group performance (Holland &Wainer, 1993; Wilson,
2005, p. 165). For this purpose, the simple Rasch-Model was
extended by a group term, in which an interaction term interacted
with the single assessment items and therefore functioned as an
empirical criterion for the existence of differential differences be-
tween the groups.
The item statistics suggest inﬁt for all items included in the
model (0.81 wMNSQ 1.12 )
and satisfactory reliability values
(EAP/PV reliability ¼0.846).
Applying the DIF approach to our
database, we obtained the results given in Tables 2 and 3. As can be
seen in Table 2, there was a signiﬁcant difference in performance on
our assessment from the beginning until the end of VET instruction.
Given the large chi-square and p-value <0.001, we reject H
there is no difference between novices and advanced learners). The
estimated value of vocational knowledge and ability of group 2 for
the assessment was, on average, 1.446 logits higher than for group
1; this, with a large effect size,
is indicated by tasks being harder
for beginners than for advanced learners. This means that learners
acquired a signiﬁcant additional degree of vocational knowledge
and ability during training, and that we were able to capture this
with our developed assessment instrument (Hypothesis 1).
Apart from this general change on the scale of vocational
knowledge and ability, it was also possible to look at each item's
difﬁculty for the total sample and compare it to the difﬁculty in
each group. If the change in difﬁculty from group 1 to group 2 was
larger than what could be expected from the general advancement
given in Table 2 (1.446), the item must have been exposed to DIF.
Table 3 shows the item difﬁculty for the total sample, and changes
in the subsamples.
With respect to Table 3 it is important to note that the DIF
approach consists of a strictly relative analysis. That is, every item
Sample description (n ¼534).
Sample Characteristic Group 1 (n
¼136) Group 2 (n
¼398) Statistical population
Average years of initial VET 0.1 (¼beginners) 2.3 (¼advanced) Ø 0.0 years (¼beginners)
Age 19.2 21.3 19.1
Gender Female: 56% Female: 59% Female: 58%
Educational career Secondary school: 1% Secondary school: 1% Secondary school: 2%
Intermediate school: 30% Intermediate school: 33% Intermediate school: 36%
High school diploma: 69% High school diploma: 66% High school diploma: 62%
21% 19% (not available)
Numbers for the Federal Republic of Germany, according to the Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training (BIBB), of apprentices entering their initial
Migrational background was assessed in the questionnaire by asking for the language spoken at the apprentice's parental home.
Adams and Khoo (1996) advocate inﬁt for items with a weighted Mean Square
(wMNSQ) value from 0.75 to 1.33.
The Expected A Posteriori/Plausible Value (EAP/PV) reliability indicates how
much variance in a person's estimated ability is accounted for by the measurement
model on average for all testees. As a scale reliability it can be compared to Cron-
bach's alpha and should be 0.80 or preferably higher for research designs based on
correlative relations (Nunnally, 1978).
According to Paek (2002), absolute differences on the logit scale less than 0.426
are negligible. Differences up to 0.638 indicate medium-sized effects, and those
higher than this level indicate a strong effect size for a learning progression.
V. Deutscher, E. Winther / Learning and Instruction 53 (2018) 21e33 25
on the assessment shows a positive gain from beginner to
advanced, in absolute terms. However, looking at the DIF from
group 1 to group 2, it becomes obvious that all items that were
disproportionately easier for subsample 2 compared to subsample
1 (indicated by a negative sign) were domain-speciﬁc tasks (ds).
These assessment items were highly sensitive to instruction.
Domain-linked items (dl) on the other hand, underestimated
the total improvement of learners during VET. This does not mean
that learners did not improve in respect of their general abilities
during VET (the group effect that adds to the DIF analysis was 1.446
logits, and thus was always larger than the disadvantage for
advanced learners of an item being domain-linked), but that their
improvement with respect to those items was less than what we
would expect, given the total learning progress on the scale of
vocational knowledge and ability. In our assessment, 9 items
demonstrated negligible DIF, two demonstrated medium DIF (two
domain-linked items) and ﬁve items demonstrated large DIF (three
domain-speciﬁc items and two domain-linked items).
In order to further quantify this difference, it is possible to
calculate the average DIF for domain-linked and domain-speciﬁc
items. Domain-linked items demonstrated an average DIF of
0.389 as a disadvantage for advanced learners. Domain-speciﬁc
items contrarily demonstrated an average DIF of 0.648 as an
advantage for advanced learners, indicating that items that were
domain speciﬁc were signiﬁcantly more instructionally sensitive
than items that related to domain-related contents (Hypothesis 2).
Taking on an absolute view, learners progress by 1.057 when
administered domain-linked items and by 2.094 when adminis-
tered domain-speciﬁc items. So the increase in speciﬁc knowledge
and ability is on average roughly double the increase in domain-
Fig. 1 summarizes all results graphically. The IRT-Wright-Map on
the left hand side orders the items of the assessment for the total
sample from least to most difﬁcult. Items 6 or 11 are most
demanding with respect to the required quality of vocational
knowledge and ability. Items 12 or 1 were of about average difﬁ-
culty, and items 9 and 10 were the easiest items of the assessment.
The instructional function given in the middle of the graph illus-
trates that for advanced vocational learners (group 2), the average
difﬁculty of the whole assessment dropped from 0.723 to 0.723.
This in turn means that vocational knowledge and ability must have
improved by 1.446 logits, given the higher probability of solving
items. The last column shows the interaction of the single items
with the duration of instruction. E.g. item 9 had a DIF effect
of 1.160 logits for group 2 (9.2) compared to group 1 (9.1).
If we add the DIF effect of (for example) item 9 tothe total group
effect (1.446), we can calculate the absolute difference in difﬁculty
for this item in both groups. This value (2.606), which can be ob-
tained in Fig. 2, indicates the absolute distance of an item on the
logit scale for both groups (from 1.9 to 2.9). Here, the ﬁrst number
of an item indicates the group to which it belongs, the second, the
item name; the third number refers to the different thresholds a
polytomous item can possibly have. Looking at the graph, it again
becomes obvious that all items were easier for advanced learners
(shaded items) than they were for vocational novices.
Although it has been shown that domain-speciﬁc items were
more instructionally sensitive and therefore, advantaged advanced
learners in an assessment, in our data there was one exception to
this rule. The one item not ﬁtting into this scheme was item 6 (see
Appendix), which disadvantaged advanced learners. A possible
explanation for this phenomenon is that as learners gain in
knowledge, this leads to more intra-individual cognitive conﬂicts
(see Foster, 2011; Naumann et al., 2014; Vosniadou, 2007). As
learners gain additional knowledge, newly acquired knowledge
structures might conﬂict with existing knowledge, generating
greater uncertainty in the answering process. This explanation
becomes probable when one looks at learners’answers. Item 6
asked students whether a binding purchase contract was in place,
in respect of the business process described in the realistic scenario.
Learners new to the domain mostly followed their intuition,
arguing that no binding purchase contract was in place, as the
purchase offer had already expired by the acceptance date (correct).
Advanced learners, on the other hand, who could give a legal
deﬁnition of a purchase contract, were often less sure if a purchase
General advancement in performance on the assessment for vocational knowledge and ability.
Subgroups Z Ability Estimate Standard Error Chi-Square (df) p-Wert
Group 1 (novices) 1 0.723 0.017 1797.35 (1) 0.000
Group 2 (advanced learners) 2 -0.723 0.017
Item difﬁculty for total sample and subsamples.
Item Absolute item difﬁculty for the total sample DIF (Item*Instruction) for group 2 compared to group 1 Error Chi-Square (df) p-value
1 (dl) 0.026 0.528 0.038 698.48 (15) 0.000
2 (dl) 0.220 0.066 0.039
3 (ds) 0.793 0.986 0.046
4 (dl) 1.126 0.786 0.035
5 (ds) 0.483 0.202 0.044
6 (ds) 1.846 0.218 0.045
7 (dl) 0.603 0.058 0.038
8 (dl) 0.587 0.480 0.037
9 (ds) 0.910 1.160 0.046
10 (ds) 0.926 1.068 0.046
11 (dl) 1.201 0.160 0.044
12 (ds) 0.107 0.370 0.045
13 (dl) 0.139 0.378 0.039
14 (dl) 0.210 0.360 0.039
15 (ds) 0.343 0.102 0.037
16 (dl) 0.446 0.852 0.161
V. Deutscher, E. Winther / Learning and Instruction 53 (2018) 21e3326
contract was in place, as their theoretical deﬁnition did not quite ﬁt
the situational setting of the business scenario.
7. Conclusion and discussion
The deﬁnition and detection of instructional sensitivity is not an
isolated endeavor but rather is a matter of what is supposed to be
taught in the classroom (curriculum), what is actually taught in the
classroom (instruction), and how well tests and items align with
what is taught (assessment). Instructional sensitivity should
therefore be evaluated according to the notion of the curriculum-
instruction-assessment triad (Pellegrino, 2012). With respect to
Research Question 1, the results suggest that during vocational
instruction, apprentices signiﬁcantly improve their performance (a
large effect) and that it is possible to track these changes in the
quality of vocational knowledge and ability over the span of initial
VET via an instructionally sensitive assessment for vocational
knowledge and ability that aligns with the vocational curriculum.
The results strengthen the proposition that dual vocational
learning is a powerful system for skill acquisition (Bonnal, Mendes,
&Sofer, 2002; Grifﬁn, 2016; OECD, 2008; OECD, 2010) positioned
at the boundary between learning and working (Harteis, Rausch and
Seifried, 2014). The high exposure of almost all items to instructional
sensitivity over a relatively short period of time (about two years)
points to dual VET being an effective education system for conveying
workplace-related knowledge and ability to adults successfully.
With respect to Research Question 2, we were interested not
only in whether the assessment was instructionally sensitive, but
why it proved to be so. As we have demonstrated, theoretically and
empirically, the question of instructional sensitivity is also a theo-
retical question in respect of the target construct assessed. The
more generic the assessed knowledge and ability, the less sensitive
this construct is to instruction, whereas the more speciﬁc the
assessed knowledge and ability, the more sensitive this construct is
to instruction. Hence, the results empirically support Dreyfus and
Dreyfus’s (1980) profound conception of vocational learning as an
expansion of novices' generic abilities through speciﬁc knowledge
and ability, together allowing for the solving of situational prob-
lems. In the past this theory has been supported by qualitative
research in diverse vocational domains (e.g., Campbell, Benner
2004; Campbell et al., 1992; Chmiel &Loui, 2004). The results
also point to the possibility that for adults, the acquirement of
speciﬁc knowledge and ability is less laborious and amenable than
is the acquirement of general abilities.
Fig. 1. DIF-analysis for the assessment.
V. Deutscher, E. Winther / Learning and Instruction 53 (2018) 21e33 27
However, more surprising is the ﬁnding that during VET, adults
also signiﬁcantly increase their general abilities, such as numeracy
and literacydalthough to a lesser extent. These abilities should
have been learnt already at school, but were only successfully ac-
quired during VET. This challenges the notion that vocational
learning consists solely of the transition from generic to speciﬁc
knowledge. Rather, it appears that vocational learning settings also
incidentally stimulate the acquisition of general abilities, presum-
ably through experience and/or the didactical approaches of situ-
ated or problem-based learning (as suggested e.g. by Brown,
Collins, &Duguid, 1989; Lave &Wenger, 1991; Gruber, Harteis, &
Rehrl, 2008). This suggestion is conﬁrmed explicitly by research
in the domain of management learning (Kolb &Kolb, 2009; see also
the empirical research of; Klotz, 2015).
On a practical level, the ﬁnding of different categories of voca-
tional items with varying degrees of instructional sensitivity, allows
for future assessment development to model item characteristics
that can be systematically manipulated to develop items and
assessments that prove to be instructionally sensitive. Via an ex
ante classiﬁcation of item speciﬁcity, by experts, items that are
sensitive to instruction and therefore especially valuable with
respect to the information they can impart on learning success,
could be identiﬁed.
However, this study is subject to several limitations that need to
be considered and that may inspire future research endeavors:
First, the results reported here are limited by the fact that a con-
venience sample of participants was used, and consequently the
obtained results cannot be considered strongly generalizable.
However, the two groups were remarkably similar in regard to the
distributional characteristics of all collected variables, and to the
general population of industrial apprentices in Germany. Second,
the cross-sectional nature of the data did not allow for controlling
the baseline achievement of the two subsamples. Third, as noted
above, according to Polikoff (2010,9)aﬁnding of high sensitivity
indicates both good instruction and a high quality test that is
sensitive to that instruction. However, this is true only for the
effectiveness of training, and it is possible that the test questions, or
even the learning goals set in the curriculum, were relatively un-
challenging. That is, while, on the basis of our results, the training
appears to have achieved the desired outcomes adequately, actually
more could have been achieved (see e.g., Popham &Ryan, 2012).
Therefore, on the basis of this study, we are not able to make a
statement about the efﬁciency of the VET.
Another limitation can be seen in the way we assessed the
authenticity of the assessment. For the purposes of determining
and improving the authenticity of the assessment, we only gath-
ered expert data. Authenticity howeveris in the eye of the beholder
(Gulikers, Bastiaens, Kirschner, &Kester, 2008), so future research
in the vocational domain should also gather data on apprentices’
perceptions of the authenticity of an assessment, as the perspec-
tives of experts and testees may yield different outcomes (Khaled,
Gulikers, Biemans, &Mulder, 2015).
Finally, while the data showed signiﬁcant progress in domain-
linked and domain-speciﬁc knowledge and ability, it did not
show why. So, while we know that the assessment was instruc-
tionally sensitive, we do not know which aspect or aspects of in-
struction yielded the educational outcomes. For instance, we are
yet unable to say which part of the dual educationdthe learning at
a vocational school or the working and learning at a training
companydcontributed most to this ﬁnding, given that “instruc-
tion”, for our sample, refers to the dual VET treatment as a whole.
The same applies for the respective didactical methods used by the
teachers in vocational schools and at the workplace.
Therefore, the exact causalities for the learning processes
observed here, on the boundary between learning and working,
remain hidden, and future research might adopt a broader under-
standing of the topic of instructional sensitivity, including measures
of the pedagogic quality of instruction, in order to probe the issue of
instructional sensitivity more deeply and, with respect to vocational
education, to understand more fully the qualities and potentials of
vocational training as an environment in which notmerely domain-
speciﬁc, but also broader educational goals, can be addressed.
Conﬂict of interest
The authors declare that they have no conﬂict of interest.
This research was supported by the German Research Founda-
tion, within the projects “Competence development through en-
culturation”(KL 3076/2-1) and “Competence-oriented assessments
in VET and professional development”(Wi 3597/1-2).
Fig. 2. Absolute item difﬁculty in each sample (group 1 and group 2).
V. Deutscher, E. Winther / Learning and Instruction 53 (2018) 21e3328
V. Deutscher, E. Winther / Learning and Instruction 53 (2018) 21e33 29
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V. Deutscher, E. Winther / Learning and Instruction 53 (2018) 21e33 31
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