Posted by: Gregory Linton | 12/13/2018

Defining Levels and Criteria for Core Competencies

Step 2 in the process of developing core competencies for the general education curriculum is to define the various levels of each competency and the criteria for determining the student’s achievement of each level. The levels describe the progression of mastery of each competency. They will enable the faculty to evaluate the curriculum to see how well each level is addressed. The faculty can then modify the curriculum so that each level is addressed intentionally and strategically in the appropriate courses.

The faculty will first have to decide what to call the three levels. Perhaps the most common labels are Beginning, Intermediate, and Advanced. Another possibility is the combination of Foundational, Developing, and Mastered. Or some may want to consider the terms Low, Medium, and High. Allen (2004) proposed using the terms Introduced, Practiced, and Demonstrated (p. 43).

The CAO should divide the faculty into teams that will focus on developing the levels and criteria for one or two of the competencies. The criteria are the components, key indicators, or standards of performance of each level. They should be observable and performable (and therefore able to be assessed). Specifying the criteria for each level will enable both students and faculty to know when a student has achieved each level of the competency. The criteria should be stated in single sentences or phrases that describe what the student can do at that level of the competency. Each level may consist of four to eight criteria. The CAO can prepare the teams for this project by providing resources that define and describe each competency.

Teams can adopt either of two strategies for determining the criteria for the levels. One option is to begin by defining the criteria for the highest level of attainment and then work backwards to define the steps that must first be achieved in the two lower levels. The other option is to work in the opposite direction: Begin by defining the criteria for the lowest level and then work forward (Allen, 2004, pp. 32-33). Most groups will probably find the first strategy the most useful. Whichever strategy is adopted, teams should think in terms of the lower levels representing awareness or understanding of the competency and the higher levels involving implementation of the competency. Alternatively, they can view the lower levels as representing partial or imperfect demonstration of the competency and the upper levels as mature mastery of it.

The CAO will collect and compile the proposed criteria and present them to the entire faculty for discussion. The table below provides an example of the criteria for critical thinking developed by the Great Lakes Christian College faculty.

Beginning Intermediate Advanced
Identifies information, ideas, and arguments from a variety of viewpoints. Compares and contrasts relevant arguments and counter-arguments. Evaluates, synthesizes, or eliminates arguments to draw conclusions.
Recognizes the logical processes necessary to solve a problem. Analyzes and appraises the premises and hypothesis relevant to the problem. Decides upon a course of action to solve the problem.
Recognizes the biases and preconceptions that affect decision making. Assembles new concepts, criteria, or theories in light of evidence and reasoning. Makes decisions based on legitimate criteria and reasoning.
Reflects on personal thinking processes and skills (thinking about how one thinks). Evaluates one’s own and others’ thinking strategies and ideas. Adjusts one’s own thought processes through continual review and reflection.


Allen, M. J. (2004.) Assessing academic programs in higher education. Bolton, MA: Anker.


A-ZSage Publications released An A-Z of Creative Teaching in Higher Education earlier this year. The co-authors are Sylvia Ashton, an independent educational consultant, and Rachel Stone of Sheffield Hallam University, UK.  As one might expect, the chapters of the book are organized by the letters of the alphabet: A is for Action, E is for Emotion, G is for Groups, etc. Through this organization, they are able to pull together research on many different topics related to college teaching with an emphasis on innovation and creativity. The authors provide case studies, practical examples, and practical suggestions along with recommendations for further reading. The 248-page book is available for $32.85 on Amazon or $26.00 in Kindle format.

On December 4, the National Center for Education Statistics published a “First Look” at provisional data collected by IPEDS during winter 2017-2018. The report focuses on five survey components: graduation rates, 200 percent graduation rates, student financial aid, admissions, and outcome measure. Here is a list of some of the interesting findings regarding graduation rates:

  • 60.4% of full-time, first-time students at 4-year institutions in 2011 who were seeking a bachelor’s degree or equivalent degree complete the degree within 6 years at the institution where they began their studies.
  • The 6-year graduation rate was 66.4% for private nonprofit institutions and 59.7% for public institutions.
  • The same rate for all institutions was 63.0% for women and 57.3% for men.
  • The graduation rate varies significantly among racial/ethnicity groups (listed from highest to lowest for private institutions): Asian (79.8%), White (69.7%), Two or more races (66.4%), Hispanic or Latino (62.8%), Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander (52.3%), American Indian or Alaskan Native (46.0%), Black or African American (43.9%).

The gender gap is wider among some racial/ethnic groups than others, as the following table shows concerning private nonprofit institutions:

Race/Ethnicity Women Men
Overall 69.1% 63.1%
American Indian or Alaska Native 47.6% 44.0%
Asian 81.4% 77.7%
Black or African American 48.9% 37.5%
Hispanic or Latino 65.3% 59.3%
Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander 55.5% 48.3%
White 72.2% 66.7%
Two or more races 69.0% 62.7%


Here are a few interesting findings about student financial aid for first-time, full-time undergraduates enrolled at 4-year private nonprofit institutions in academic year 2016-17:

  • 89.5% received some form of financial aid.
  • 82.2% received institutional grants; 58.2% received federal loans.
  • The average institutional grant at 4-year private nonprofit institutions was $19,766.
  • The average cost at 4-year private nonprofit institutions was $40,552, and the average net price was $22,750.

In the previous post, I explained what core competencies are and how they can help provide coherence for the general education curriculum. Now, I want to begin describing a five-step process for developing, implementing, and assessing core competencies. I will use a personal example of how I worked with the faculty of Great Lakes Christian College to accomplish this process. Step 1 is to identify the core competencies.

The chief academic officer (CAO) should begin the process by explaining to the faculty the benefits of identifying core competencies. The CAO should also provide an outline and timeline of the process. After the faculty has discussed and adopted the project, the CAO can guide the faculty in brainstorming possible core competencies. Two kinds of lists of core competencies will help to prime the pump of the faculty’s creativity. One list consists of examples from other institutions of higher education. When the GLCC faculty began this process, I provided examples from Indiana University, Alverno College, and Southeast Missouri State University. Jones, Voorhees, and Paulson (2002) provide detailed descriptions of eight other examples.

The second kind of list consists of proposals or prescriptions by various organizations and authors that result from research conducted among employers and business leaders (Jones, 1996). Here are four examples of such proposals. First, Carnevale, Gainer, and Meltzer (1990) proposed the following list of essential skills that employers want:

  • Learning to learn
  • Competence in reading, writing, and computation
  • Communication skills
  • Creative thinking and problem solving
  • Personal management
  • Ability to work in groups
  • Leadership

Second, Evers, Rush, and Berdrow (1998) conducted a survey among corporate employers to determine the general skills that provide advanced-level workers with the flexibility to accomplish various tasks in different environments. From this research, they identified four distinct combinations of skills, or “bases of competence,” that are necessary to succeed in today’s workplace. Each base of competence has a set of skills associated with it. They describe the four clusters of skills as (1) managing self, (2) communicating, (3) managing people and tasks, and (4) mobilizing innovation and change. The first two are more likely to develop during a person’s college education, but for many people the latter two do not develop until they enter the workplace.

Third, Stuart & Dahm (1999) identified eleven “21st-century skills for 21st-century jobs,” which they grouped in three categories:

  1. Basic cognitive skills: reading, writing, computation
  2. Organizational skills: communication skills, analytical skills, problem solving, creative thinking, interpersonal skills, ability to negotiate and influence, self-management
  3. Technical skills: computer skills, information technology.

Fourth, the Greater Expectations initiative of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (2002) promoted a learning-centered New Academy that will more effectively prepare students to become “intentional learners who can adapt to new environments, integrate knowledge, from different sources, and continue learning throughout their lives” (p. xi). This report groups the essential knowledge and skills into three categories based on what students should become as a result of their education:

  1. Empowered learners: mastery of intellectual and practical skills
  2. Informed learners: knowledge about the natural and social worlds and about forms of inquiry basic to those fields of knowledge
  3. Responsible learners: honesty, integrity, ethical sensitivity

Surveys of employers about their expectations of college graduates are continually conducted and published. Here are some additional publications that may be consulted, listed alphabetically by author’s last name:

A recent book on this subject is Beyond the skills gap: Preparing college students for life and work (Harvard University Press, 2016) by Matthew T. Hora, Ross J. Benbow, and Amanda K. Oleson.

As faculty members use a brainstorming process to list all of the possible competencies that college students should acquire, they should keep this question in mind: “What do our constituents expect our graduates to be able to do?”

When the brainstorming process is completed, the faculty can begin the process of narrowing down the list. During this process, four criteria should guide the selection:

  1. Is the competency broad enough to encompass the entire curriculum and all the professional programs?
  2. Can this competency be taught? Can faculty influence student development of this competency?
  3. Can this competency be observed? If it can be taught and is observable, then it can be assessed.
  4. Is this competency essential for graduates to succeed in their chosen field of service?

A helpful process for narrowing down the list is to allow each faculty member to vote for eight of the competencies on the master list. Through a process of discussion and voting, the faculty should narrow the list to no more than eight core competencies. After the faculty has reached consensus on the core competencies, the CAO or an appointed person can write one-sentence definitions of each one and propose them to the faculty for discussion. The faculty should tweak the wording until everyone is comfortable with the final result.

The faculty of GLCC used this process in the fall of 2003 to identify the following eight core competencies with their one-sentence definitions:

  1. Information Literacy: Graduates will be able to research, locate, accumulate, and evaluate information necessary to sustain lifelong learning.
  2. Critical Thinking: Graduates will be able to apply reason and reflection (including quantitative analysis and scientific reasoning) to information, ideas, and arguments in order to solve problems and make decisions.
  3. Communication Skills: Graduates will be able to organize and present their conclusions, ideas, opinions, feelings, and beliefs to others in both oral and written forms.
  4. Interpersonal Skills: Graduates will be able to interact with other people one-to-one and in groups by applying skills in conversation, listening, conflict resolution, collaboration, and consensus-building.
  5. Respect for Cultural Diversity: Graduates will be able to understand, analyze, and appreciate the historical development of the knowledge, traditions, literature, values, and beliefs of human cultures around the world.
  6. Resource Management: Graduates will be able to manage resources of time, finances, individuals and groups, possessions, and the environment.
  7. Self-Understanding: Graduates will be able to recognize, evaluate, and improve their weaknesses, strengths, gifts, and values.
  8. Christian Maturity: Graduates will demonstrate Christian beliefs, values, conduct, and servant-leadership in their participation in the Christian community and engagement with the world.

Next Post: Defining the levels and criteria for core competencies

Works Cited:

Association of American Colleges and Universities. (2002). Greater expectations: A new vision for learning as a nation goes to college. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Carnevale, A. P., Gainer, L. J., & Meltzer, A. S. (1990). Workplace basics: The essential skills employers want. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Evers, F. T., Rush, J. C., & Berdrow, I. (1998). The bases of competence: Skills for lifelong learning and employability. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Jones, E. A. (1996, Winter). National and state policies affecting learning expectations. In E. A. Jones (Ed.), Preparing competent college graduates: Setting new and higher expectations for student learning (New Directions for Higher Education 96, pp. 7-18). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Jones, E. A., Voorhees, R. A., & Paulson, K. (2002). Defining and assessing learning: Exploring competency-based initiatives (NCES 2002-159). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education.

Stuart, L., & Dahm, E. (1999, January). 21st century skills for 21st century jobs: A report of the U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Department of Education, U.S. Department of Labor, National Institute of Literacy, and the Small Business Administration. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

NOTE: A version of this post appeared in Biblical Higher Education Journal 4 (2009).

When faculty members examine their curriculum, they often think primarily in terms of what students should know rather than what students should be able to do by the time they graduate. Consequently, they design the general education portion of the curriculum as a distribution (or perhaps even a hodgepodge) of subjects that covers the essential fields of human knowledge. But how those subjects interrelate and build on one another may not be clear to either faculty members or students.

A major concern about general education among educational theorists is that the courses are fragmented and unrelated to one another (Johnson & Ratcliff, 2004). Many colleges and universities respond by tightening the course requirements. The result is a more restricted core curriculum that forces students to be exposed to subjects that they might otherwise avoid if given the choice. Nevertheless, even a narrowly restricted core curriculum can appear incoherent to students who fail to see what Algebra has to do with World Literature.

Another concern about the coherence of the curriculum involves the connection of the general education courses with those of the professional major. Too often, the general education courses and the professional courses seem to belong to two separate compartments in the curriculum. The Association of American Colleges and Universities (2004) lamented that “a balkanized approach to general education still prevails among most faculty members, students, and advisors” (p. 11). In contrast to this normal state of affairs, the entire curriculum should reinforce the lifelong skills that graduates need to succeed. The majors should focus not only on developing the specialized skills of their fields but also on extending and strengthening the general skills established in the general education program.

To remedy the problem of incoherence in the curriculum, faculty members may tack on an interdisciplinary capstone course at the end to encourage students to create in their own minds the coherence that seemed to be lacking during their previous four years of study. The Association of American Colleges and Universities (2004) is highly critical of programs that require a demanding capstone experience at the end but provide few integrative experiences along the way to prepare students for it. A better approach would be to undertake an intentional, strategic process of identifying, defining, and assessing the core competencies that students should acquire during their course of study.

“Core competencies” are the abilities and skills that students should develop by graduation regardless of their major or minor. They are the gains or changes that students should acquire as a result of their education. They are not the only skills that the faculty intends to develop in students, but they are the highest priorities; hence, the term “core” is used. They are the abilities that are essential for success and excellence in any field of service.

These competencies are not subject-specific or discipline-specific; rather, they are the central qualities that are necessary for students to utilize effectively the knowledge that they have gained in each subject area. Jones (1996) suggests that “the acquisition of knowledge is important as a foundation, but the real issue is whether an undergraduate can use that knowledge to make reasoned judgments and can apply it to a range of contexts and issues” (pp. 2-3). When subject-oriented objectives are supplemented with skill-oriented learning outcomes, faculty members will experience a shift from seeing themselves as teachers of subject areas to seeing themselves as teachers of students (Barrowman, 1996, p. 104).

Jones, Voorhees, and Paulson (2002) describe three benefits that accrue when postsecondary institutions define, teach, and assess competencies across the curriculum. First, clearly-formulated competencies will facilitate the task of assessing student learning. Second, all the stakeholders of a college (including faculty, students, donors, employers, and government agencies) will understand and accept the learning goals of the curriculum. Third, specific competencies will guide the design of the overall curriculum, specific courses, and learning experiences within courses so that students will practice using and applying these competencies in various contexts.

For most colleges, the general education courses lay the foundation for the core competencies. The advanced courses in general education and the professional courses build on this foundation by extending and reinforcing the core competencies. In this way, the core competencies serve as threads that run through all parts of the curriculum, tying it together as a coherent whole. Barrowman (1996) observes that “this kind of coherence enhances students’ abilities to transfer their learning from one course to another” (p. 110).

In following posts, I will describe a five-stage process for developing core competencies. As an example, I will use the experience of the faculty of Great Lakes Christian College in Lansing, MI, who undertook this process from the fall of 2003 to the spring of 2006. Since this is one of the most important decisions a faculty can make, the entire faculty of a college (depending on the size, of course) should participate in this process. This participatory process will enable each faculty member to see more clearly how his or her piece of the puzzle fits into the entire picture. As a result, faculty members will be better equipped to explain and defend the curriculum to students and other constituents.

To determine whether your college needs to undertake this process, look at your college catalog and answer the following questions. If your answer to any question is “yes,” then your college would benefit from this process:

  • Does your catalog neglect to state explicit learning outcomes for the entire curriculum (for example, institutional learning goals)?
  • Are the learning outcomes stated in your catalog vague or unclear?
  • Are the learning outcomes focused more on what students should know than on what students should be able to do?
  • Does your catalog state learning outcomes for only part of the curriculum (for example, general education) rather than for the entire curriculum?
  • Does your catalog fail to describe graduated levels of achievement for each learning outcome?
  • Does your catalog neglect to explain how the design of the curriculum achieves the stated learning outcomes?

Works Cited:

Association of American Colleges and Universities. (2004). Taking responsibility for the quality of the baccalaureate degree. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Barrowman, C. E. (1996, Winter). Improving teaching and learning effectiveness by defining expectations. In E. A. Jones (Ed.), Preparing competent college graduates: Setting new and higher expectations for student learning (New Directions for Higher Education 96, pp. (103-114). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Johnson, D. K., & Ratcliff, J. L. (2004, Spring). Creating coherence: The unfinished agenda. In J. L. Ratcliff, D. K. Johnson, and J. G. Gaff (Eds.), Changing general education curriculum (New Directions for Higher Education 125). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Jones, E. A. (1996, Winter). National and state policies affecting learning expectations. In E. A. Jones (Ed.), Preparing competent college graduates: Setting new and higher expectations for student learning (New Directions for Higher Education 96, pp. 7-18). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Jones, E. A., Voorhees, R. A., & Paulson, K. (2002). Defining and assessing learning: Exploring competency-based initiatives (NCES 2002-159). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education.


Reach EveryoneThis week, I want to highlight the book Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: University Design for Learning in Higher Education, which was released by West Virginia University Press in October. The co-authors are Thomas J. Tobin, Coordinator of Learning Technologies in the Center for Teaching and Learning at Northeastern Illinois University, and Kirsten T. Behling, Director of Student Accessibility Services at Tufts University. UDL is normally associated with designing classes to be accessible to students with disabilities, but Tobin and Behling argue in this book that UDL can benefit all students in various ways. This book would provide valuable information, guidance, and tips for anyone designing a class, either online or face to face. The 312-page book is available for $23.50 on Amazon or $22.32 in Kindle format.

Posted by: Gregory Linton | 12/06/2018

What factors cause students to choose a college?

In November, the Institute for Education Sciences of the National Center for Education Statistics released a Data Point report titled “Factors that influence student college choice.” The two-page report was based on data from the High School Longitudinal Study of 2009 (HSLS:09), which is a nationally representative study of more than 23,000 ninth-graders in 2009 who were surveyed again in spring 2012 when most of them were in eleventh grade. The survey asked about characteristics that would influence choosing a school or college after high school. Here were the three factors with the highest percentages of “very important” ratings:

  • Academic quality/reputation (74%)
  • Having a desired program of study (74%)
  • Job placement (73%)

Three other responses received “very important” ratings from more than 50% of respondents:

  • Cost of attendance (67%)
  • Graduate school placement (58%)
  • Good social life (52%)

When the responses of “somewhat important” are added to the “very important” responses for “cost of attendance,” the percentage goes up to 96%. Here are the lowest “very important” responses:

  • Sports teams/school spirit (33%)
  • Being close to home (26%)
  • Opportunity to play sports (24%)
  • Family/friend recommendations (24%)
  • Being far from home (12%)
  • Family legacy (9%)

These results may indicate which characteristics of a college or university should be emphasized in publicity materials. For example, data about job placement and graduate school placement should be provided. Any evidence that promotes the quality and reputation of the institution should be highlighted. And how the average net price compares with similar institutions may also help students make an informed decision.

Posted by: Gregory Linton | 11/28/2018

Higher Ed Resource of the Week: Why They Can’t Write

This weekWarner Book, Johns Hopkins University Press released Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities by John Warner. Warner, who taught writing at the college level for two decades, writes a column for the Chicago Tribune called the Biblioracle. He is also a contributing blogger for Inside Higher Ed. In this book, he argues that the reason college students can’t write is because we are teaching writing wrong. Students have been conditioned to perform “writing-related simulations,” which make them passive and disengaged. They have learned to follow the rules in order to pass high-stakes assessments, but they have not developed the ability to make choices and think critically. He draws on current knowledge of what works in teaching and learning combined with the enduring philosophies of classical education to provide solutions to the problem. The 288-page book is available for $25.86 on Amazon or $24.57 in Kindle format

Robot ReadyOn November 13, a major report was released by Emsi, a labor market analytics firm, and the Strada Institute for the Future of Work titled “Robot-Ready: Human+ Skills for the Future of Work.” The report is based on analysis of more than 100 million social and professional profiles and applicant résumés and more than 36 million job postings. The thesis of the report is that “it is the integration of human and technical skills that will provide the best preparation for the future of work.” They argue that some of the high-skills work in demand today that involve mathematics, logical deduction, and encoding quantitative relationships will be automated in the future. However, “human skills” that cannot be automated will always be in demand. These human skills are primarily associated with liberal arts programs, which includes the humanities, social sciences, and interdisciplinary programs. These skills include cognitive flexibility, judgment, common sense, leadership, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, communication, emotional intelligence, and ethics. These skills will enable learners to transfer knowledge from one domain to another when jobs become obsolete in order to learn new skills in demand. The best formula for future success combines human skills with technical skills such as data analysis and digital fluency. Currently, many successful graduates stumble upon a layering of skills that fills the gaps in the workforce, but institutions should address this “translation chasm” by identifying the career outcomes of their liberal arts students and being more intentional about helping students translate what they are learning into the labor market needs and wants. For a summary of the report by Inside Higher Ed, go here.

Posted by: Gregory Linton | 11/12/2018

Higher Ed Resource of the Week: How to Run a College

How to run a collegeThe book that I want to highlight this week was released by Johns Hopkins University Press in January of this year. It is part of the excellent series titled Higher Ed Leadership Essentials, which are concise paperbacks on various topics written by respected experts in the field. The book is titled How to Run a College: A Practical Guide for Trustees, Faculty, Administrators, and Policymakers. Co-author Brian C. Mitchell was president of Bucknell University & Washington & Jefferson college, and co-author W. Joseph King is president of Lyon College.

The authors are optimistic about the future of residential colleges as long as they remain relevant by drawing on their strengths of experimentation and innovation. Faculty members will appreciate their emphasis on becoming dynamic centers of learning that focus on core educational strategies. The 216-page book is available for $25.86 on Amazon or $15.37 in Kindle format.

Screenshot_2018-11-12 soca18 pdf(1)Each year, the National Association for College Admission Counseling conducts an Admissions Trends Survey and Counseling Trends Survey. Last week, they released the results in the 2018 State of College Admission report. An article about the report in Inside Higher Ed can be found here. Here are some of the interesting findings:

  • From fall 2016 to fall 2017, applications from first-time students increased by 4% on average.
  • For fall 2016, the average selectivity rate (the percentage of first-time freshmen applicants offered admission) at four-year private colleges and universities in the United States was 63.5%.
  • The average yield rate (the percentage of admitted students who ultimately enroll at the institution) for first-time freshmen at four-year colleges and universities was 33.6%.
  • 74% of four-year, private nonprofit institutions had an application fee for the fall 2017 admission cycle, and the average was $49.
  • The recruitment strategies for first-time freshmen that had “considerable importance” to colleges were the following: email (87.5%); website (85.0%); hosted campus visit (81.3%); parents (64.4%); high school counselor (63.8%); high school visit (58.8%); and college fairs (49.7%).
  • Less than half of colleges placed considerable importance on social media, text messaging, online advertising, community-based organizations, test-optional policy, alumni, community college outreach, conditional/provisional admission program, and articulation agreements with community colleges.
  • Respondents recruited in nine countries, on average.
  • The factors in admission decisions of “considerable importance” for first-time freshmen in 2017 were the following: grades in all courses (80.9%); grades in college prep courses (70.8%); SAT/ACT scores (52.3%); strength of curriculum (51.2%); essay or writing sample (16.7%); student’s demonstrated interest (15.5%); counselor recommendation (10.8%); class rank (9.3%); teacher recommendation (7.1%); SAT II scores (6.6%); portfolio (5.4%); AP/IB scores (4.2%); extracurricular activities (3.6%); interview (3.6%); work (1.8%); and state graduation exam scores (1.8%).
  • From 2014 to 2017, grades in all courses rated as considerably important by colleges increased from 60% to 81%. By contrast, grades in college prep courses declined from 77% to 71%, strength of curriculum declined from 60% to 51%, and SAT/ACT scores declined from 56% to 52%.

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