Competencies 101: Transforming Your Course

"When you teach a course and give out As, Bs, Cs, and Ds, do all of your students demonstrate competency in all of the learning outcomes?" asks Jeff Evans, associate professor in the School of Engineering Technology and Purdue Polytech faculty fellow. "In other words, what does a C look like? Is it just average across your six or 10 learning outcomes? Does the student nail two of them but kind of do 'meh' in others? One of our goals is trying to granularize this [such that] once they get these six competencies, that's an A."

In the College of Technology Dean's Forum on October 31, 2014, Evans presented a primer to faculty and staff on transforming existing courses for new competency-based programs. He suggested that most would agree that "a course is a container of a bunch of learning outcomes. We can break the course into several different competencies, and you could potentially sum them together to equal a course. But they don't have to," Evans said.

Evans noted that Purdue's 2012 core curriculum document (find the link to the document on this Office of the Provost web page) employs knowledge depth levels named "developing," "emerging," and "proficient." These categories loosely map to the traditional course sequence: "introduction," "intermediate," and "advanced." To create a strategy for transforming existing courses for use in competency-based plans of study, an instructor could consider creating similarly-named competency levels for each learning outcome. Using the core curriculum's "oral communication" foundational learning outcome, Evans discussed these three competency level examples:

  • Developing: Central message is basically understandable but is not often repeated and is not memorable.
  • Emerging: Central message is clear and consistent with supporting material.
  • Proficient: Central message is compelling (precisely stated, appropriately repeated, memorable, and strongly supported).

Oral communication's "developing"-level competency might be handled by COM 114; students might achieve "emerging" and "proficient"-level competencies through higher-level Communication courses.

Learning outcomes which sound simple might actually be very complex, Evans said, and one competency could be dependent on another. Given that the credit hour is "the national currency, and right now there's no getting away from that," should we transform our programs around the notion of one competency per credit hour and, thus, three competencies per three-credit-hour course? That's a possibility, Evans suggested, but "this is not the idea. It's one idea. That's version 1.0, and we're already thinking about version 2.0."

Courses might have four to 10 learning outcomes, although some of the stated outcomes in a few courses which the Polytechnic Educational Research and Development team examined "read more like activities. The challenge was [to see if it's] possible to take one or more of these learning outcomes and then map them back to some kind of a competency," Evans said. To do that for a course, start with your course's activities and assessment instruments, go up to learning outcomes, and then create a competency based on that data -- or vice-versa, he said.

Evans and Amy Van Epps, faculty fellow and Purdue Libraries associate professor, also described how we're using as the mechanism for recording, managing, and assessing competencies via digital badges.

"Competency-based learning systems can, not necessarily will, [help students to] master skills at their own pace and create multiple pathways to graduation," Evans said. "It's a learner-focused kind of paradigm. Our roles are not really as instructors but more of as facilitators."

Evans' and Van Epps' presentations are available on YouTube and below: