opinion

The Shift Toward Competency Starts With Faculty

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The demographics of higher education are changing: Today’s degree seekers are older and more diverse than at any other point in our history. Many more work while attending college. With only 59 percent completion rates among four-year colleges, we will not achieve our shared college completion goals by promoting access or improving the odds for traditional learners alone.

A major driver of this demographic shift has been the evolution of competency-based learning, which provides nontraditional students with newfound flexibility—and potential for reduced cost and time-to-completion. In fact, when we look back on higher-ed reform early in the early 21st century, we may see the dawn of competency-based learning as a watershed moment that, like the GI Bill, forever alters our perception of the typical college student. This transformation is not, of course, without profound challenges and considerations. Among them, how should the role of faculty evolve in a competency-based learning model?

Over the last year, the university I lead has launched six programs that use a direct-assessment approach to competency-based learning. Our model allows students to progress at their own pace and, in some cases, receive credit for prior learning through direct assessment. The shift toward direct assessment initially created fear among our faculty that the experts—our faculty—were being sidelined.

How would a student’s existing knowledge, gained from prior learning and professional experience, integrate with the rigors and expectations of the college classroom? Would the student’s prior learning help or hinder student progress in a competency-based, direct-assessment model? Although the transition was not easy for some, we now have a backlog of faculty eager to embrace the new model. How did we do it, and what lessons from our experience might inform institutions considering the shift toward competency?

First, curriculum and instruments used to measure and evaluate student competency have to be developed by the faculty, who are ultimately responsible for providing feedback to students on their competency assessments. Our faculty led the development of curriculum that undergirds our competency-based, direct-assessment programs. Faculty teaching in this model must be at the center of identifying significant measures of student learning, and constructing authentic assessments that approximate real-world professional activities and work assignments. Only authentic, practice-based assessments can evaluate a learner’s mastery of complex skills—and assess the skills necessary for success in the work environment.

Our faculty expertise is also enhanced through the assignment of tutors and advisors, who help students navigate both academic concerns and non-academic aspects while enrolled in their degree program. This leaves more time and energy for faculty members to focus on the individual learner when providing feedback on the demonstration of the competencies addressed in the authentic assessment. Our faculty members see the distribution of these roles as a positive aspect of their involvement in this delivery model. At an institutional level, strong student supports ensure that learners can effectively and efficiently navigate a truly self-paced program.

Done right, direct-assessment programs provide students with tangible benefits for active engagement which, in turn, drive student demand for focused, individualized attention from faculty on their academic performance. With administrative tasks removed, instructors are able to provide robust, focused feedback on student work beyond “pass/fail.” Our faculty find that this dynamic is not only more rewarding, but one that reinforces a higher level of learning, focused on mastery of higher levels of competency demonstration and not merely regurgitating content on tests and quizzes. It’s learning that can be brought directly into the workplace, and competency demonstration that can serve a student for a lifetime.

It stands to reason that the collective knowledge and insight of our faculty holds profound potential to improve educational outcomes. All too often, however, we consider the evolving demands of students to be at odds with faculty mores and preferences. Our experience flies in the face of that conventional wisdom. The direct-assessment model is just one, but a powerful alternative to not only meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student body—but respond to the changing demands and priorities of our very best educators. Rather than marginalizing faculty, competency-based direct assessment, done well, can enable innovation from within—rewarding faculty with engagement in their subject matter and with their students.

Dr. Richard Senese is the interim university president and chief academic officer for Capella University. Previously, Senese served in leadership roles with the University of Minnesota Extension for 13 years and has taught at a number of Minnesota-based institutions, including St. Olaf College, Metropolitan State University and the College of St. Scholastica.

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