Assessing Skills in Context: Behavioural Marker Systems

The most common, and highly effective, method for assessing nontechnical skills is through the use of a behavioural marker system. A behavioural marker system can be defined as a framework that sets out observable, non-technical behaviours that contribute to superior or sub-standard performance within a work environment.1 The first behavioural marker systems were developed to support formal assessment of the outcomes of crew resource management training in aviation. Today, behavioural marker systems form the foundation of the assessment of non-technical skills in an extremely diverse array of high-risk work environments.

Key Characteristics of Behavioural Marker Systems

Although used in diverse industries, behavioural marker systems share a set of common characteristics. These are as follows:

Observable Behaviours: The first characteristic of a behavioural marker system for non-technical skills is that they are constructed to identify and rate actual observable actions of individuals and teams. They do not focus on attitudes or personality traits, but rather, pivot around aspects of performance that can be objectively observed during normal operations or in training activities. They use word-pictures to describe examples of optimal and sub-optimal performance for a given non-technical skill in context.

Related to Safe and Efficient Operations: Non-technical skills are defined as skills that contribute, positively or negatively, to safe and efficient operations in high-risk work environments. Accordingly, the focus of any behavioural marker system is primarily on behaviours that have been established as critical to safe and efficient operations.

Taxonomic Structure: Most behavioural marker systems are structured as a taxonomy of skills and exemplar behaviours.2 From a top-level broad domain such as communication, several constituent skills are defined, such as assertiveness, communication environment, and sharing information. Performance in each of these constituent skills is then defined using a set of behaviours that describe both good and poor performance. Figure 5.1 illustrates the generic hierarchical structure used in non-technical skills behavioural marker systems such as anaesthetists’ non-technical skills (ANTS)2 and NonTechnical Skills for Surgeons (NOTSS),3 where the term category is used to describe a domain of non-technical skill, such

Generic structure of a behavioural marker system

Figure 5.1 Generic structure of a behavioural marker system.

as communication, and element is used to describe a specific skill, such as assertiveness.

Cognitive and Social Skills: Most behavioural marker systems describe a set of both cognitive and social skills. While cognitive skills, such as maintaining situation awareness, are sometimes difficult to observe, the behavioural marker system must describe observable actions that can be shown to be evidence of the underlying cognitive skill. For instance, information acquisition strategies and a trainee’s descriptions of system state are examples of specific behaviours relating to the underlying cognitive skill.

Provide a Common Vocabulary: One of the most important aspects of behavioural marker systems is that they provide a common vocabulary for an organisation to use with respect to non-technical skills.1 By naming areas of skill that are deemed critical for performance, it is possible to achieve alignment between the training syllabus, competency assessment and normal everyday operations. Moreover, the behavioural marker system effectively sets out standards of expected performance by describing exemplar behaviours.

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