Posted by: Gregory Linton | 12/07/2018

How to identify core competencies for the general education curriculum

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.


  1. […] 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 the levels and criteria of core competencies. Now, I […]

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