Posted by: Gregory Linton | 12/06/2018

Core competencies promote coherence in the general education curriculum

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.



  1. […] process for developing core competencies for the general education curriculum. I have explained how core competencies promote coherence in the general education curriculum. I have explained how to identify core competencies. And I have described a process for defining […]

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