There is a growing movement within higher education to seek more specific statements about learning goals of courses. Faculty are encouraged to write syllabi that describe what outcomes they seek to attain in the course. Some of these are knowledge domains (e.g., know the major battles in World War II, their sequence, and impact on the progress of the war). Some are job-related skills (e.g., be able to program in the Python language by writing effective and efficient code). Some are cognitive abilities (e.g., be able to analyze particular moral problems by applying principals of alternative ethical theories).
There is a movement afoot that places learning outcomes and assessments in a more central role within the higher education enterprise. This asks of the creators of degree programs (and courses within them) very explicit statements of the knowledge and skills they wish to impart in the course. Simultaneously, they grant flexibility in how the knowledge and skills are attained.
This is not completely new to Georgetown. For example, the School of Foreign Service has for years required their BSFS students to pass a proficiency examination for a modern language other than English. The student is free to take the proficiency examination with a variety of different course experiences. They demonstrate their competency in a language to a set of examiners to gain the certification required for the degree.
Competency-based education programs force very rigorous definitions of the assessment tools to measure mastery of a field. The route to attaining that mastery might vary among students. Some may demonstrate competency more quickly than others by absorbing the same material at a faster rate. Some may require more time to demonstrate the same level of understanding and facility with the knowledge domain. Thus, competency-based programs do not require the same “seat” time of all students.
As part of the Designing the Future(s) of the University, many are contemplating which domains might successfully use such a pedagogical approach. Success might be more easily achieved in domains where there are clear right and wrong answers. Such a field makes the construction of flexible assessment tools more feasible. Just as the GRE examination offers almost each student a different path of questions, adaptive to their answers to earlier questions, the assessment tools in competency-based programs need to have a very large number of alternative editions. This prevents the temptation merely to “study for the exam,” rather than comprehensively absorbing the field.
One can imagine that an effective way of designing such programs is to build them backwards — first define the outcomes and their assessment measurement techniques; then, design the presentation of materials and intermediate exercises to attain the requisite knowledge.
The second interesting attribute of such programs is their “business model.” Some competency-based programs are experimenting with monthly tuition, paid as long as one needs to take to demonstrate the requisite mastery. Once the assessment is successfully passed, all tuition costs stop. Certainly, such programs require new thinking on the part of universities.
Competency-based programs are one of the pump-priming ideas at Designing the Future(s) of the University: Experiments. Which areas of learning are best suited to these at Georgetown?