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.


  1. […] 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 want to explain Step 3 in the process, which is to map the core competencies to the […]

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