Bumping into neighbours outside a branch public library can sometimes stimulate a lot of thought. I ran into a fellow consultant (our neighbourhood is full of them) the other day, who made the following comment:
‘Our working group is struggling with differentiating between a learning outcome and a competency. I’ve been searching for good definitions of both terms over the years and have still not found anything that offers a clear and well defined difference between the two. The lack of consistent use of the terms is frustrating.’
She would like to put this question out to the community, and I am more than happy to do so through this blog post.
To get the discussion going (and since it’s my blog) here are some of my thoughts on the topic (but hey, it’s not all about me, so please use the comment box below for your contributions).
The problem with definitions in education
Language (or at least English) is dynamic and constantly changing. There is no Academie Anglaise that sets down rules (although my high school English teacher thought he could). Also, there is a danger when dissecting language that it becomes reductionist, somewhat akin to arguing how many angels can dance on the point of a needle. But it does help if when we use a word or phrase, most of us understand and roughly agree what it means.
Three terms being used a lot in education at the moment are ‘learning outcomes’, ‘competency’, and ‘skills’ (as in 21st century or intellectual). Asking what the differences are is a good question, and forces us to think more carefully about what we are trying to achieve in teaching and learning. So let’s have a thoughtful discussion about this (and passion is good, too).
Definition: Competence is the ability to do something successfully or efficiently
Competence is thus the end state of a process. So I see a competency (in educational or training terms) as a pathway that leads to that end state of competence. Competence is something that crosses a minimum barrier of expertise, almost like an off-on switch. You can be 100% competent, i.e. do it right every time, and there’s nothing more to learn.
The essence though of a competency is that it is specific and measurable. Competencies are often determined in the context of workplace demands, the knowledge and skills needed to do a specific job or task.
(The European Union, to confuse matters, uses the term ‘competence’ to mean ‘competency’, with the plural being ‘competences’ instead of ‘competencies’. I’m just saying…..).
I like to make a distinction between competencies and skills, which makes things even more confusing, but I believe the distinction is important. In particular, I am talking about intellectual and cognitive skills, such as critical thinking, problem-solving, analysis, communication, and decision-making. I argue that these go beyond mere competence.
A good sportsperson is not just competent but highly skilled. They never stop learning and progressing in a particular skill. Competencies are short term and specific; skills are long-term and more difficult to pin down. Indeed, one important element of a skill is the ability to improve on past performance, or even to innovate, whereas competencies are usually clearly defined and limited in scope.
Being long-term and more difficult to pin down of course makes assessment of skills and skills development more difficult, but nevertheless still necessary. There are also implications for curriculum planning: how do you progress a skill such as critical thinking from year 1 to year 4, so that when students leave college their critical thinking skill is much better, and can continue to progress after graduation? A recent study by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario found no progression in undergraduate students’ critical thinking from Year 1 to Year 4, compared with gains in numeracy and literacy. This might be a consequence of the method used to assess critical thinking (you need to bed such skills within specific subject domains) but it raises a good question: what teaching methods best encourage critical thinking, and how do you measure its progression over time?
These questions become increasingly important in a digital age, when the core demands of not just the workforce but society as a whole in a digital age is the development of such skills to bridge technology and humanity (see the Royal Bank of Canada’s Humans Wanted report.)
As always in discussions of this kind, it comes down to epistemology. Competency-based learning assumes that knowledge can be codified, repeated and tested; in other words it is more objective or behaviourist in its approach. Those (like myself) who argue that skills are more dynamic and developmental, take a more constructivist approach. It should not be surprising then that the approach to intellectual skills development tends to be more open-ended, less defined and more random.
Nevertheless this should not excuse instructors from thinking more specifically about how best to develop and measure intellectual skills, and apply best practices, such as graduated steps of difficulty, regular practice for learners, expert and timely feedback, long-term development throughout a program, and authentic assessment.
Lastly, this is not an either/or argument. There will be circumstances where competency-based education is wholly appropriate, and others where skills development is more important. If we define different stages of skills development too narrowly, they may well be better described as competencies. However, transversal skills, skills that can be valuable in many different job contexts, and also in life in general, are likely to be more valuable in the long run than short-term competencies – but as Maynard Keynes said, in the long run we are all dead.
I see both competencies and skills as possible learning outcomes, but they need to be defined and measured if they are to become a learning outcome. Also, competencies and skills are not the only possible learning outcomes. For instance, knowing all the parts of a body is a learning outcome, but not really a skill or even a competency. Too often competencies are defined in terms of just knowing, when in fact they should be about being able to do something well. Too often skills are not defined in terms of a learning outcome that can be measured – or rather the measurement is decided at the time of assessment by the instructor (‘I’ll know it when I see it’) which is not much help to learners trying to develop such a skill.
Thus I make another somewhat arbitrary distinction between content and skills/competencies. Both are necessary – you need to know stuff (parts of the body) to be able to solve problems (diagnosing a fracture), for instance, but the learning outcomes are quite different.
However I would argue that overall, the balance in most higher education instruction is on mastery of content (a learning outcome) over the development of skills (or even competencies, except perhaps in professional subjects such as nursing and engineering). This balance needs to be reversed if the needs of learners in the 21st century are to be met. Intellectual skills development is in my mind the key priority (or learning outcome) for teaching and learning in the future, at least at university level, and we need to approach this is in a thoughtful and professional manner.
Over to you
What do you think is the difference (or similarity) between competencies and learning outcomes?
Do you see a difference between competencies and skills?
Do we need to change the balance of learning outcomes from content mastery to skills development?
Do you have anything else to say about these issues?
If so, please add your comments in the comment box below (scroll down until it appears) – or you can hang out outside the Kits’ branch library between 10.00 and 11.00 am, since I go to get my caffeine fix then.
Finnie, R. et al. (2018) Measuring Critical thinking Skills of Postsecondary Students. Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.
Royal Bank of Canada (2018) Humans Wanted Toronto ON: Royal Bank of Canada