Liberal Education

If Competency Is the Goal, Then Students' Own Work Is the Key to Reaching It*

Even as MOOCs—the topic featured in this issue of Liberal Education— continue to fascinate, attention has now turned to competency-based learning as well. Indeed, competency approaches have gained added currency from President Obama’s call for higher education to accelerate its experimentation with both digital and competency learning as a way to reduce costs. As readers may know, AAC&U is already hard at work on both learning outcomes and competency-based reforms, and in that context, I offer here my own views on what we should expect—and what we should resist—as this particular innovation takes off.

Competency-based learning is hardly new. In the 1970s, I worked in a competency-based “university without walls” program, one of many around the country that the Ford Foundation helped establish to serve working adults. At the time, Alverno College already was celebrated for its pace-setting competency-framed curriculum. By 1980, I myself was leading a FIPSE-funded University of Chicago project to create an entire consortium of colleges and universities experimenting with ways to foster and demonstrate competency for adult learners. Students in these early programs developed learning portfolios, connected academic and field-based learning, and completed significant senior projects. They also were helped to integrate the big-picture perspectives of the liberal arts with their career-related studies and aspirations.

Lumina Foundation’s current work on the competency-framed Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP) is led by a team of scholars, myself included, who know this long history. AAC&U’s Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative also has been influenced by these earlier efforts.

Both LEAP and the DQP focus on the kinds of capacities or competencies that long have characterized college-level liberal learning at its best: a big-picture perspective on and knowledge about science, cultures, and societies; studies-in-depth in one or more fields; strong, cross-cutting intellectual skills, such as analytic inquiry, ethical reasoning, communication and information fluency, engaging diverse perspectives and problem solving; civic and ethical learning and engagement. But, echoing the history described above, these reform efforts also value and recommend applied learning—students’ demonstrated ability to connect their learning with real-world challenges, in their jobs, their communities, and their own lives.

When competency-based programs point us to these important cross-cutting goals for student learning, this movement is indeed, I believe, a potent force for good. It can help traditional and older students alike achieve the kind of education that expands opportunity and builds capacities for lifelong learning. Competency frameworks also provide needed opportunities for faculty to work—together—in mapping competency expectations and related assignments across their educational programs. If students learn what they practice, then faculty should collectively ensure that their programs sufficiently emphasize the needed practices.

Especially today, when so many teaching faculty are “contingent” rather than full-time members of departments and programs, a competency framework can help everyone both understand and take responsibility for ensuring that course work and assignments align with competency goals and expectations. I have seen in my own experience how helpful a competency framework can be both to contingent faculty and to their students. That experience builds my confidence that competency goals can—and should—provide a much needed educational compass for faculty and students alike.

While competency-based learning certainly can be a force for good, it’s also the case that not everything labeled “competency” comes even close to meeting the DQP or LEAP learning outcomes. Narrow training programs do not meet the test; they almost always shortchange both broad learning and civic learning, focusing only on job skills and not on the knowledge graduates need as citizens or for lifelong learning. Educators also need to look with a high degree of skepticism at so-called innovative programs that claim the language of “competency” but, in fact, have simply slapped new labels on certifiably underperforming practices borrowed from traditional forms of higher education.

For example, many “innovative programs” employ what we might call the “once and done” approach to competency. The student takes a course that meets a competency requirement—writing, say, or quantitative reasoning—and the competency is checked off the list. But is the student demonstrably competent? We have only to read the national studies on traditional college seniors’ weak writing and math skills to see how poorly this check-off strategy actually works. Writing, quantitative reasoning, analytic inquiry, and all the other intellectual skills LEAP and the DQP recommend need to be practiced frequently, across the entire educational experience and beyond. With very rare exceptions, students cannot expect to develop and consolidate a complex competency in a single course.

Another faux approach to competency is what we might call the “coverage is enough” strategy in which a student reads course materials and then passes one or two examinations, often consisting of short answer and/or multiple-choice questions. Borrowing this weak practice from traditional courses, many “innovative” programs now tout course-based test scores as evidence that the students are “competent.” But there is a huge disconnect between this approach to teaching and the complex competencies that educators value and the economy rewards. Bloom’s taxonomy of intellectual skills (used by educators for half a century) highlights this disconnect by distinguishing “knowledge” and “comprehension” from capacities such as “analysis,” “synthesis,” and “evaluation.”

Too many of the tests students take in both traditional and innovative programs probe comprehension only. But pretending that “comprehension” is equivalent to “competency” will do nothing to help students develop the complex proficiencies in critical inquiry, evidence-based reasoning, and problem solving that a good education should foster.

The fact is that students learn what they practice. If competency is the goal, then students’ own effortful work on projects, papers, research, creative tasks, and field-based assignments is the key to reaching it.

As innovators claim breakthrough practices, we need to ask whether their programs will help students develop high-level intellectual skills or competencies that can be adapted to new problems and new settings. Are competency goals accompanied by frequent proficiency-development assignments and practices? Do program faculty come together to assess their students’ progress and gains on the key expectations of their program?

Ultimately, we need to evaluate the “transformative” claims made for any specific innovation— whether digital, face-to-face, or blended—against the evidence of student competency that is (or is not) transparently demonstrated in students’ own portfolios of educational accomplishments. The proof of students’ competency development should be found in their actual work. A competency design for an entire program is a good beginning. But students themselves need to show us what they can do with their learning.

Carol Geary Schneider is president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

*An earlier version of this essay was published in The Chronicle of Higher Education on September 30, 2013.

To respond to this article, e-mail, with the author's name on the subject line.

Previous Issues