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Competency and traditional universities

An interesting article in Higher Ed: Competency Loves Company

July 11, 2012 - 3:00am by Steve Kolowich

Inside Higher Ed

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Inside Higher Ed

FHarry made this comment

One of the more effective television commercials recently aired features a waitress at Steak and Shake talking about how customers saw their meal. She focuses on the difference between adequate, minimally acceptable, and good, tasty. Her punch line is that customers of Steak and Shake rarely say, "My, that was adequate" implying that such a response to a meal suggests it probably wasn't worth eating.

I hear the same distinction between competency and education. One can certainly become competent in any number of areas of human endeavors by simply familiarizing oneself with a set of information sufficient to pass an exam. But is there a difference between gaining a mere competency, a bottom line adequacy, in a given set of information and skills and actually becoming educated? Is the only alternative to competency incompetency? Might we want our college grads to be more than merely competent? Is there no room for insightful graduates? for skilled graduates highly conversant in a discipline? for graduates who not only can tell you what a given set of data is but might also offer some thoughts on its significance?

This trend toward bottom lining is ultimately self-defeating to any society that wishes to remain a vibrant, creative people. It sets the bar so low that mediocrity is not only insured, it is essentially mandated. Shooting for the bottom line to avoid the hard work of actually becoming educated requires a perfection rarely found in human beings. Bear in mind that the only thing below the bottom line is failure.


I would respectfully challenge the assumption that the average traditional student is getting a half hour per week of his or her instructor's time. I am sure that it is happening in some cases, but I know that in large undergraduate classes  and in many other university environments, this is NOT happening. "The emperor has no clothes!" I would also challenge the assumption that traditional universities are turning out  on average these "insightful" graduates.  What assessment are  traditional profs using to ensure that their students are all "insightful"?  Yes, we want our students to be more than merely competent, so why don't traditional universities test the competencies of their students to see that they are both competent and insightful? Or, can you be insightful without competence/? Where is the evidence that the traditional grads have the competencies unless they take a competency-based assessment? And, how do you test their ability to converse in a subject?  Can they converse (Are they competent)? Does your university do this testing? What tests are there to see if they can see the significance of data? How about a competency test?

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  • Jon Dron July 15, 2012 - 4:40pm

    This is playing with meanings (and the grammar) of 'competence', I think. If we describe a piece of work as 'competent' it is true that, informally, we might imply that it is no more than adequate. However, most of us working in the area are talking about degrees of competence in a more rigorous way. I've come across competency scales that range from 'knows nothing at all' to 'is world-recognised expert on the subject'. Competence, as used here, is not a fixed baseline of mediocrity but a range of values veering from incompetence/non-competence to creative genius. Most of us in education strive to enable people to achieve the latter, of course, though we are not always sufficiently competent to succeed.

  • Rory McGreal July 18, 2012 - 12:53pm

    Degrees of competence is a useful concept. I'd be happy with students achieving more than just competence, but not quite at the near genius level. Besides, if too many achieve whatever level is seen as "genius" then the bar for "genius" would be raised. It's a moving target.