Should career courses still be graded?

By Jack Goener May 28, 2019

As the leadership training model is presently being considered in Army, I would like to discuss whether there is a continuing need for grading students on career courses. I would argue that we cannot train for post-H hour decision making and combat risk management if we have not provided an environment of confidence in which to experiment. This experimentation is critical in developing the creative thinking that underpins the manoeuvreist approach. Linking our performance on our All Corps Officer Training Continuum (ACOTC) courses to a specific grade that impacts on the career prospects of officers places negative pressure on a trainee, disrupting their learning process and is a major disincentive for students to experiment.

The Problem  

The ACOTC is missing an opportunity to improve the way we develop creativity, combat risk management and post-H Hour decision making. This opportunity is not being realised due to the linkage of our performance on courses to our career prospects. This results in trainees demonstrating their current knowledge, as opposed to training to failure in order to learn from their mistakes in a safe environment and further develop their tactical acumen. As a result, it is common practice for students to plan an operation during a Tactical Exercise Without Troops (TEWT) in a doctrinally safe manner (meeting assessment criteria) to ensure that a pass mark can be achieved. We employ predictable courses of action (COAs) tailored to the wishes of the instructor just to get over the line. This environment stifles creativity, promotes risk adverse COA development and provides few opportunities to train post-H hour decision making.

Creating the Right Environment

Our current combat shooting doctrine advocates for the provision of an environment that promotes skill confidence and a mindset free of fear and anxiety to overcome the degradation of performance in combat. This degradation refers to the catastrophic effect that an increased heart rate has on our perceptual skills and cognitive processing which results in a fatal increase in reaction times. We would do well to apply this doctrine to our officer training, inoculating our decision makers to the stresses of combat through peer on peer competitive simulation, rather than negative punishment.[1] Currently trainees are motivated by the ‘negative punishment’ associated with the perceived impact that a poor result will have on their career progression. This does little to develop the creative thinking required to apply manoeuvre theory or implement the innovation that will give us a competitive advantage in the future.

Developing Creativity

A recent European study identified that an environment of psychological safety has a significant positive impact on an employee’s capability to develop new ideas. The term psychological safety refers to the consequence of taking interpersonal risk in the work environment without fear of rejection or depreciation of self-worth or status.[2] In addition it is widely recognised that the process of becoming an expert involves failure.[3] If we accept that it is better this failure occurs in a school house rather than on a battlefield, we must provide an environment in which this failure is not only encouraged, but expected. Only when we have institutions that train our decision makers to failure, will we have provided the conditions for the development of creativity. This is essential to developing our post-H hour decision making and combat risk management.

A Reflection of Performance

I have, on a number of occasions on different courses, heard instructors lament that we only spend 3-6% of our 10 years to sub-unit command in school houses. If this is the case, I therefore do not see how 3-6% of our career can be used as an accurate metric to delineate performance and suitability for career advancement. If through this argument I have sewn some doubt as to the validity of the current officer training environment then surely this too brings into question the value of the associated performance indicator. We have robust methods of assessing our officer’s performance over time. I believe that an assessment of performance of a period that reflects 3-6% of an officer’s career is neither an accurate or adequate delineating metric.  


We owe it to our soldiers to put our tactical commanders under pressure during the ACOTC to inoculate them against the impacts of combat and fatigue resident in war. However, if we are to meet the demands of a rapidly changing future operating environment we must modernise how we develop our officers. There remains a requirement to organisationally validate the trust that is given to our junior commanders. This is a vital component of mission command. I believe that current TEWT and simulation methods can achieve this. However, by grading these courses we create an environment that does not promote confidence in skill or creativity. Michael Jordan said “I’ve failed over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed”. I would argue that our training institutions are not providing sufficient room for failure nor an environment that allows it. As such we are not setting our junior commanders up for success. By simply removing the grades applied during the course, resulting in a course that provides the trainee with a qualification only, we would go a long way to solving the issue.  

End Notes:

[1] LWPG 7-7-8 Train the Battle Shot, Chapter 2, dated September 2015

[2] Ali Taha, V., Sirkova, M., Ferencova, M., The Impact of Organisational Culture on Creativity and Innovation Polish Journal of Management Studies, Vol 14, No1, 2016, p 10-13

[3] Burleson, W., Developing Creativity, Motivation and Self Actualization With Learning Systems, International Journal of Human Computer Studies,Vol 63, issue 4-5, Oct 2005, p 436-451



Jack Goener

Jack Goener is an infantry officer with a keen interest in the near region and military history.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.


Great observations Jack. Having spoken with many of the students undertaking courses here at ALTC they feel they don't have the licence to take tactical risk in TEWTs. They have told me that this is a learned behaviour from their time at RMC-D. We are wrestling with ways to break us out of that paradigm - including potentially removing the Summative Assessment TEWT (instead having instructors qualitatively judge competence over several iterations) and creating more CPX / post H-Hr activities. We can't afford our officers to be tactically conservative if we plan to exploit the transformative capability on its way into our Army.

Great article Jack. I agree completely in principle, as do some current and past instructors of various ACOTC courses. I think this is particularly pertinent on COAC where the tactics are the assessed component vice the process/analysis as is the focus on other courses.  Importantly, if we stifle creativity and everyone simply produces a ‘vanilla plan’ that replicates doctrine, it won’t take the enemy long to out think, pre-empt (ironical noting it’s one of our defeat mechanisms) and therefore out manoeuvre us.  I can’t speak to OTW, but I can say that SOARMD and CCW are aware of this and **may** seek to at some point, go in the direction you’re hinting at (please note this is in no way locked in and based purely on mess conversations). Again, good article mate! 

Whilst the argument regarding proving an environment to allow for failure is valid, perhaps the argument should be more about what is being graded and why the grading is required.  When in the officer’s career does Army actually compare all against the same standards? How do you push to the point of failure to truly capture the innovation, creativity and adaptability required when under the true pressure of war? The grade is not the enemy, it is part of a merit based development system. The ACOTC is not actually about competency and training.... it is about development and accepting capacity and the limits of capability..... and the only way Army can reform its promotion culture is to use the ‘grade’ construct effectively. Assess innovation, attitude, engagement and you will find the merit scale required to build a cohort from which to select the future CA.

I completely agree with your premise that the way ACOTC assesses individuals is one of the big issues within Army training. I would broaden this argument, while acknowledging the limitations of the scope of your piece being that it may have been impractical to include both officers and soldiers, to include the all corps soldier training continuum also. However, I think the problem is not in the grading per say. The problem is in the pass or fail, competent or not yet competent way in which the training outcome is assessed. Military organisations can fall victim to a propensity to impose order on chaos. It is important to acknowledge that an enduring tendency of military organisations, and I deliberately keep this broad, is to impose certainty on ambiguous, dangerous, rapidly changing and highly consequential scenarios. Military organisations prefer a bias for action over reflection of multiple solutions, whereby uncertainties are redefined and acted upon as certainties.  I have listened to many an officer in a non-specified corps with feathers in their hats talk to a need to have a 'bias for action'. However, hybrid threats, a need for a more constabulary approach and increasing civil-military cooperation have led to a need to shift from jumping at solutions to ‘embracing the chaos’. From the strategic decisions made by generals in the 1991 Gulf War to now junior commanders making decisions which have strategic consequences in contemporary operations, oversimplifying a situation to be able to have a 'bias for action' may not be what we ought to be encouraging. Embracing the chaos, and the complexities of a situation, will improve the decisions commanders make. Creating a culture of ‘embracing the chaos’ may be achieved through finding the correct balance between adaptive and creative learning. In an Army context, and I am aware I may butcher this explanation, adaptive learning is used when a specific task with a known outcome or standard is instructed to learners to achieve a predetermined standard. Adaptive learning is for dealing with certainty, whereas creative learning is for dealing with uncertainty. The ‘like this, do that’ blueprint lesson taught by a raging recruit instructor is effective in teaching recruits how to strip and assemble an EF88, even if it is taught on the thinnest rubber mat available in the depths of the Wagga winter. However, may not be best placed for teaching manoeuvre warfare, for example. It is certainly not the method we should use to assess a buddying junior officer’s ability to help solve the personal problems of our amazing women and men, of which the situations complex and the stakes high. Creative learning promotes exploration, variation and diversity and is centred on taking risks, breaking rules and thinking of solutions outside the norms. This method relies on instructors relinquishing power and authority to create open dialogue. The central premise behind this approach is acknowledging the fact that there may be no ‘right’ solution, but rather several methods to achieve the outcome. Assessing adaptive learning outcomes in a competent/not yet competent fashion has proven effective, if an individual does not check their safety catch three million times during a WTT they cannot be trusted with a weapon. The individual goes ‘round-the-buoy’ and corrects their mistake, ‘switches on’ and is deemed competent; however, we cannot assess an individual’s competency when we do not know what the outcome will be. It may be a controversial suggestion but what if we removed the fear of failure, reducing the conveyor belt like generation of safe solutions which are identical to our peers.I’m not sure grading all together needs to be removed, universities grading to motivate students amongst other reasons. But the removal of the competent/not yet competent approach in assessing creative learning should be the first step. To repeat your argument, we need to make it safer for officers and soldiers to explore, think outside the box and learn from failure through reducing the fear of failure in ACOTC.

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