Comments on Competency-Based Education and Lessons Learned from LEAP and the Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP)

Monday, August 17, 2015

I was pleased to see in the recent Inside Higher Ed article by Paul Fain the variety of ways in which our member institutions are using the resources and frameworks developed by AAC&U through its LEAP initiative—especially in light of the current focus on “competency-based education” and various “alternative pathways” to learning outcomes.

AAC&U has worked since even before LEAP was launched to advance quality and equity-minded learning on many fronts.  Yet there’s an even larger story to tell about our “second century” effort to set specific goals for high-quality engaged learning through The LEAP Challenge.  See The LEAP Challenge for more information.

The key idea animating our work on The LEAP Challenge—which builds on LEAP but also on our work with Lumina Foundation’s Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP)—is that we need to prepare all students, and especially first-generation students from underserved backgrounds for long-term success as workers and effectiveness as citizens and change agents.  To do that, we need all students to experience high-quality, inquiry-rich learning that intentionally prepares them to apply their learning beyond the classroom—In the workplace, in civil society, and in their own lives. If we did this, the proof of achievement would be found within each student’s significant project—an integrative piece of significant work completed in the second year for associate’s degree students and in the senior year by bachelors’ degree candidates. 

Whether students work face-to-face or online, they need to prepare for their applied learning or “signature work” project through frequent participation in such High-Impact Practices as evidence-based writing, research, projects, collaborations, creative assignments, community-based learning, diversity and global engagement, and more. These effortful forms of learning are crucial components of a strong liberal and liberating education.  

Even as we promote The LEAP Challenge, we at AAC&U are well aware that some of the so-called new “innovative providers” completely erase these forms of empowering or “high- impact” learning from their designs for “competency-based courses.”  I want to underscore, in this context, what I said to Paul Fain about such courses: “When a program’s approach to competency assessment is built on reading assignments followed by multiple choice quizzes and tests, the programs are ill designed to build any competency graduates actually need, either in the workplace or in civil society.”

Watch for more as AAC&U works with increased determination to draw clear distinctions between high-value learning and low-value learning and to challenge those who want to provide low value—which is really no value at all—to the nation’s underserved students.  

Carol Geary Schneider