How do we know our students are competent?


Here is one basic question that may not have an easy answer: How do we know we graduate competent students from our professional degree programs? Perhaps, the common answer to this question would be that the curriculum is “mapped” to the competencies, therefore, “successful completion” of the program is the indication of the attainment of competencies. If that is an accurate and satisfactory answer to this basic question, then it should be easier to answer the follow-up questions.

  1. Can you provide the evidence of the attainment of a selected competency from the competency model that the curriculum is based on?
  2. Can you assure that each graduate student attained every competency by graduation in the competency model that the curriculum is mapped on?

If you can answer the two questions, you have done a terrific job as a curriculum designer! If you are struggling to answer these questions, you may need to revisit your curriculum design strategy. Here is neither unique nor complicated curriculum alignment process I have followed in the last five years with multiple graduate degree programs which helped me to provide answers to the questions above. I declare that my curriculum alignment approach is not unique to the fact that it has been described multiple times in the literature. The backward design, the constructive alignment, the outcome-based or competency-based education are to name a few. It is not complicated since all it requires is aligning your instructional components such as competency, instructional objective, assessment, and preferably instruction. Once this is accomplished, then it will be possible to answer the questions above.

With this approach, you may end up with hundreds of instructional objectives aligning with tens of competencies in the entire curriculum depending on the competency model you use. Every instructional objective ends up being assessed without any exception. The individual assessment results become more helpful than the final course grade to evaluate your course and the individual student achievement. Achievement of an individual learning objective becomes an indication of the attainment of the corresponding competency. If we approach competency as either capacity or ability (which the literature tends to divide into two camps), of course, the question becomes how many corresponding instructional objectives need to be accomplished to confirm student’s competency. I do not think there is a common answer yet. But at least with this alignment approach, it is possible to demonstrate direct evidence for the certain competency attainment as a result of the accomplished course objective(s).

The second question becomes easy to answer since the performance in individual courses directly relates to competency attainment. If students are failing to demonstrate competency attainment in any given time, independent studies, capstone courses, an internship could be provided with personalized assessments that will expect students to demonstrate attainment of certain competencies which they failed to demonstrate at that point. This is where I believe my proposed strategy is better than the common summative competency assessments done in many degree programs. Although passing those assessments like final comprehensive exams could be a good indication, failing those exams does not leave enough room for the degree programs for any personalized support to assist students. Instead, the backward design also allows programs to set milestones and monitor student performance and provide custom feedback before it gets too late in the journey.

Two things are critical to accomplishing this process. First, this process could not effectively benefit the stakeholders if monitored through paper or electronic spreadsheets. The degree programs need to utilize dedicated learning analytics systems. Second, additional time need to be protected by the program administration for this kind of effort.

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