Do maritime academies teach Competency theory

Don Vandergriff, a leading thinker in military training, asks why the military still teaches industrial-aged “competency theory” which focuses on teaching “what to think” instead of “how to think”.

With it’s emphasis on multiple choice exams do the USCG exams focus maritime academy curriculum towards facts/processes and away from critical thinking?

You know the answer to this John. Of course it does. Multiple choice exams are nonsense


It is possible to test critical thinking using multiple-choice exams, though not easy. In a volunteer organization I belong to, we changed a couple of the tests we use to measure skills & experience (in communications/electronics) to include a number of such questions. Things like “pick the BEST answer from the following” and “what is the most likely consequence of the following failure?”.

The reaction from our young members was quite positive - they found it challenging and interesting - our older members (FOGs) were apoplectic - if a question and it’s answer were not a direct quote from an applicable manual or book, it was simply unacceptable! In the end, the FOGs won, and we took those questions out… but it was fun while it lasted. Forcing people to think logically is NOT easy.


the worst thing to ever happen to the testing done for prospective officers was the end of essay questions in the examinations and use of oral presentations. it truly was the moment we went over a cliff and afterwards any idiot who could pass the multiple choice tests got licensed and when I say idiots, I mean IDIOTS!

but what the eff…everything these days for everybody is marshmallow soft and first grade easy…just look at kids graduating high school these days! They know nothing and have no ability to think!


Sounds like bad parenting

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We still do oral exams for a pilot’s license. If the examiner thinks you are weak and just memorized all the test questions for the written the oral part can get brutal.

In the mid-1960’s I went through some multiple choice tests in the Norwegian Navy. (Adopted as part of NATO standard maybe??)

The instructor checked by means of a template with “windows” cut in it to correspond with the correct answer, which he placed over the answer sheet every time somebody delivered a reply.
(An x in the “window” = correct answer given)

In the class was one guy who had a talent for remembering patterns. He watched as the instructor lifted the template and just crossed the boxes that fit the pattern of the template. He passed all tests, but understood very little of the subjects tested.

PS> He did check that there were only one X for each question though.

You pretty much do end up memorizing the nav questions even if you know the stuff cold. The FAA is famous for things like “plot a course from A to B” and measure the distance. The choices might be 49.9, 50, and 50.1 miles on a crappy graphic where the pencil line is .25 miles wide.
Thread creep, but teaching classes now my biggest issue is no one can conceive of any possible situation where the GPS won’t work…

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The multiple choice tests are just the tip of the iceberg, the larger question is are we training mariners to be able to preform assigned tasks on demand or are we training them how to solve problems, such as unexpected events and so forth?


I’d say not even close. I just went through testing for 1600 Ton, I am very happy to have it behind me because it wasn’t easy and makes for a difficult hoop to jump through…after that, I don’t feel I have anything beneficial from holding this license outside of better employment opportunities. I might use about 5-10% of this testing material going forward. The USCG testing system needs to be overhauled in my opinion. When they came out with new STCW requirements, it was a slap in the face to hawsepipers like myself with the excuse that education in the classroom is better than an education on the water. Experience on the water goes a lot further than graduating from an academy IMO. Then again, I don’t think this just a Maritime problem in this country. I don’t think universities in general are doing the current group of students much good either. I think we all need to take a sober look at it and move forward with input from everyone, the towing industry is severely overlooked in USCG testing and represents at least 50% of the jobs if you go by AWO numbers.

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In the aviation world rote learning was becoming an issue. If X do Y made a lot of good “do Y” pilots as long as X always happened.
I started doing this ages ago before it was official, but now we have “scenario based training” that tries to set up a realistic real word scenario with multiple possible solutions and outcomes and try and teach thinking your way though it when there is no one obvious answer.

It’s not just that the possibility of the whole system going down, it’s a question of how robust the entire navigation process is. Just in general we are always on the lookout for miss-matches.

If there is only one source of information there will never be a miss-match.

It’s a mindset. If the weather forecast is for northerly winds and the observed winds are south, a good navigator is going to dig a little deeper.

If the ECDIS holds me in the middle of the river I’m going to have a look to see if that matches the visual picture, buoys, ranges, distance to the bank, what have you.

In the case of the GPS, or anything really the risk matrix is a useful framework :


In the middle of the Pacific I don’t need to worry about GPS failures as much as I do while going up the river.

I know this is well understood, the issue is communicating it to others.


I fear the continuous distrust of an old time navigator is being lost. “Get off my lawn” and all that, but back in the day we NEVER knew exactly where we were when not in sight of something obvious like a lighthouse. One of my jobs as a 12 year old " jr. navigator" was working the RDF to see if the celestial and Loran lines actually made sense vs. the radio bearing.


EDIT - I see your point with the river. More than one freighter has gone aground right off the island where I live because the channel is very narrow and turns. You don’t need to miss it by much to get into the mud there and get stuck good.

Making sense, that’s it, but to tie into the main point, how are azimuths and magnetic compass corrections treated for example? If the cadet is shown as performing a task, a matter of following procedures and filling in the blanks, unconnected to anything else that misses the underlying principle.

For example heading information is (can be) critical, so we have two sources, magnetic and gyro. Also we check the gyro against an azimuth and so forth. We are using more then a single source and looking for a miss-match.

Once the task of an azimuth is understood in the context as a way to treat critical information other, similar problems can be solved.

Using an anemometer to make comparisons to other observations comes to mind although there are many other examples.

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Much lost art since the blind reliance on electronics. As basic as reading surface conditions to confirm the location of shallow depths or potentially troublesome currents comes to mind or cloud formations to indicate the direction of a land mass unseen below the horizon.

Do current academy students get any simulator training in addition to what they learn on relatively short cruises prior to graduation?

The example I used to use all the time was compare fixes to DRs which are completely independent to other sources of information but with ECDIS the example is not as relevant.

I did once discovered that a defective wheelhouse door seal was causing a inaccurate wet/dry bulb temps while the ship was in the tropics.

I was trying to verify the height of the cloud base for the NWS wx obs (clouds formed by vertical development) by using the formula in Bowditch but by eye the clouds seemed much lower than the results of the calculation. So I used the radar and a sextant to check the height of the cloud base and got a number closer to my observation by eye. Then I dug out the sling sychrometer which resulted in temps which were much closer. Looking at the bulkhead mounted thermometer more closely I discovered it was being hit by a blast of cold air from the positive pressure A/C wheelhouse.

Yea absolutely. They take a full BRM class with lots (although even more would be better) of simulator time.

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Lets collectively figure this out right now. How many people from “academies” actually go and work on the water, and what percentage of the workforce do they represent? I’d gather that 70% of the Americans employed on the water are not academy graduates but hawse pipers working on tugs. What are there, 70 US flagged ships left!? Then ask, why are we catering to the 20%-30% and not where the jobs are. BTW, I am going off AWO numbers of over 30,000 mariners working through inland tugs and Subchapter M regs.

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