Reading List: Competency-Based Education in a Liberal Arts Curriculum

In the report, Competency-Based Education in a Liberal Arts Curriculum, Hanover Research reviews the use of competency-based education in the context of liberal arts education. The report considers both pure competency-based education systems and more traditional programs that have incorporated "competencies," "abilities," and related concepts in designing outcomes for their students. Please contact the ENGAGE Office for a copy of the report


Liberal arts institutions are increasingly focused on student competencies and learning outcomes. Both national projects and initiatives at individual institutions show an increasing interest in clearly defining the goals of liberal education and their relationship to outcomes such as workplace skills. Nationally, projects such as the Lumina Foundation’s Degree Qualifications Framework or the LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes provide widely used touchstones for these initiatives. Additionally, among liberal arts institutions such as John Carroll University, Ithaca College, or Xavier University, recent revisions of the core curriculum show a concern to define institution-wide learning outcomes.
However, relatively few liberal arts institutions offer true competency-based education programs. Most of these programs tend to focus on adult learners, who can benefit from the flexibility offered by self-pacing, prior learning credit, and other features of "pure" competency-based education. Nationally, very few liberal arts institutions offer anything like a true competency-based program, and even those that do also tend to target adult learners, as at Lipscomb University, Alverno College, or Marylhurst University.
Many liberal arts institutions have defined core competencies, but few assess these for all students or record them in a transcript. Institutions most often assess learning outcomes, if at all, to measure program or institutional effectiveness, such as for accreditation purposes. Sarah Lawrence College’s Critical Abilities framework may represent the most innovative program for assessing student competencies in a liberal arts setting, with a simple rubric for rating each student’s ability level in each course. Some institutions, such as Ithaca College or Mount St. Mary’s University, are using electronic learning portfolios to allow students to demonstrate competencies, but this practice is not yet widespread among liberal arts institutions.
Liberal arts institutions tend to define competencies in "broad strokes" rather than as detailed skills. As opposed to a true competency-based education program, which might use as many as 50 detailed competencies, the competencies and outcomes that liberal arts institutions tend to use describe general abilities that may require further definition at the course or program level. Some of the most commonly used competencies or abilities include critical thinking, written and oral communication, quantitative literacy, or intercultural competence.


About Dr. J. Metzker

I believe in the power of a liberal education to transform individuals and society. I am currently the Executive Director of the Brown Center for Faculty Innovation and Excellence. Formerly, I led a community engagement initiative and held a full professorship in chemistry at a public liberal arts university. I am a proud product of The Evergreen State College.
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