Published on 2014/10/02

Three Roadblocks to Creating a Competency-Based Program (Part 2)

Three Roadblocks to Creating a Competency-Based Program (Part 2)
The transition to a competency-based model requires more than infrastructural investments; it requires buy-in from all stakeholders to ensure the transition to a new way of thinking about higher education is successful.
This is the conclusion of Fatma Mili’s two-part series discussing the three most significant challenges higher education leaders face when developing a new competency-based degree program. In the first part, Mili discussed the challenge of developing new tools to ensure the institution remains functional during the transition to a new model. In this part, she addresses her second two points; the downstream challenge of defining credit equivalencies and the inward challenge of developing a new way of thinking about higher education.

2. Downstream Challenge: New Currency Requires New Exchange Banks

No degree is an island, and for now competency-based degrees will live in a predominantly credit-based world.

On the surface, this is a simple mechanical process by which we map between courses and competencies. Competencies are, after all, nothing but a manifestation of the outcomes we aim to achieve in courses. Thanks to the many accreditation and assessment requirements academic curricula are subjected to, this information is widely documented. The outcomes of a calculus class, for example, can be packaged into three or four relatively independent and self-contained competencies. A student who receives an A grade in a calculus class can be assumed to have met every one of the four competencies. A student who can demonstrate mastery of all four competencies will be given credit for the calculus class.

Overall, a “currency conversion” system needs to be established so students can transfer into and from a competency-based system. It’s also necessary to enable graduates to apply to graduate schools and jobs that still require a numerical grade point average. This need will persist as long as we live in a predominantly credit-hour/grade system.

The competency-based currency is in fact a much more accurate and reliable currency because it reflects the learning attained by students rather than the quality or rigor of the class in which they have learned it. It therefore eliminates debates about whether College X’s calculus class is as good as College Y’s calculus class, or whether a B grade from College X is equivalent to a B grade in College Y.

The definition of competencies and the definition of what constitutes an acceptable mechanism to prove or document attainment become very important. The establishment of such a currency will require a considerable investment and will be a continuously evolving process. At the Purdue Polytechnic, we are engaging in a collective effort involving all units to define the currency and the conversion mechanism hand in hand and in partnership with all players.

3. Inward Challenge: New Language Requires New Thinking

One of the touted benefits of learning new languages is that they open the door to different lines of perception and thinking. Conversely, these benefits are conditional upon directly thinking in the new language rather than reasoning in the native language and translating to the new one.

The same goes for competencies. The full benefits of a competency-based system come from thinking, designing, delivering and assessing in terms of competencies. This requires that we relinquish counting variables we fully control (faculty time, student hours) and focus on things that are desired but not controlled (students’ learning). This is a cultural transformation and a leap of faith in the students’ intrinsic motivation and ability to take the lead role in their education. The role of the faculty becomes to support and coach the student; the students take an increasing role in defining the content and speed of their learning.

At the Purdue Polytechnic, the faculty who have designed the curriculum have spent half a year in faculty development, primarily through discussions and debates. The faculty development is an ongoing process. This is a very important paradigm shift.


Overall, there are infrastructural challenges and we need to make initial investments to address them. The most important investment of all is a mind shift and cultural transformation around the role of the students in learning and the role of faculty and administrators in supporting them.

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Readers Comments

Sally Kerwin 2014/10/02 at 2:51 pm

The downstream challenge is one I would put in the hands of an overarching accreditation/monitoring body. The challenge with the “currency conversion” process Mili discusses is that there are really no established standards, so each institution could come up with its own and later find it inconsistent with other institutions’. When we think about conversion, it’s not just the process of translating experience or prior knowledge into credits, but potentially having to transfer a credit from Institution A to Institution B, as students today are more likely to finish a credential after attending more than one institution. That horizontal credit translation would be best handled, in my view, by an overarching body.

    Fatma Mili 2014/10/05 at 1:09 pm

    This is an excellent point. There is no standard yet. This just means that the first institutions to come forward must do so as deliberately and thoughtfully as possible as they are helping shape the standard. Standards emerge from best practices so we need to practice, evaluate, assess, and then standardize. We were very keenly aware of the danger of having competencies defined in a inconsistent fashion. We started with a well familiar yardstick: a competency is approximately a credit hour. You rightly mention the need for transfer across institutions and interestingly mention the existing difficulty of credit-based transfer. We truly believe that competencies–when implemented well– will make that transfer much easier.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Nancy Mabee 2014/10/03 at 9:00 am

I think CE units have a mission here to educate other units on campus about the opportunities offered by competency-based learning. I know that at my institution, we’ve been practicing some form of this, along with prior learning accreditation, for quite some time, and there’s now the expectation among CE staff that we will all consider these opportunities for all students who come through the door. That means that we sit down with all new students to go over their prior learning and identify areas where they might apply for prior knowledge credit or areas where they might fast-track with our online-based competency courses. We’ve been trying for some time to encourage our non-CE partners across campus to introduce a similar process upon enrollment.

Fatma Mili 2014/10/05 at 1:10 pm

Excellent point. Thank you very much for sharing your experience.

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