Designing a competency-based program? Throw out the rulebook

Purdue deans share their insights on building a competency-based program from scratch

Forget everything you think you know about designing a competency-based program and start from scratch, say two deans at Purdue University.

The university's new Purdue Polytechnic Institute is a "bold experiment in educational transformation," says founding dean Gary Bertoline. The institute relies on a competency-based model that credits students based on what they have learned, rather than the amount of time they have spent in the classroom.

  1. Think big and start fresh. Administrators encouraged the team designing the project to "forget about constraints” and think abstractly about what they wanted to accomplish. This helped free them from the limitations of existing programs. In this vein, Mili also recommends creating a new team, independent from any existing programs, so participants feel more empowered to take risks and try creative approaches.
  2. Accept ambiguity in both program design and students' progress. Avoid oversaturating courses with subject matter expertise, Mili suggests. Instead, promote critical thinking skills that will equip students to meet a variety of challenges in the workplace. Go one step further by allowing students to move through the material at their own pace.
  3. Harness student motivation to create valuable learning paths. Recruit students that are highly self-motivated, then let them follow their own curiosity through the material. This approach results in students learning more overall, says Mili. Plus, their diverse skillset prepares them for a rapidly changing industry. “If you backtrack 15 years from now, nobody had a clue what the jobs that exist today would be,” Mili points out.
  4. Break through traditional coursework silos. In competency-based education, a skill (or a group of related skills) that would normally be taught across several courses can be taught in a single, highly concentrated seminar. For example, Purdue Poly students refine a range of communication skills simultaneously in two long sessions. The sessions involve several instructors from across disciplines and also incorporate project- and team-based activities.
  5. Encourage collaboration. Modern challenges of the working world are not individual—so  competency-based programs should not be, either, says Mili. Ultimately, Purdue Poly evaluates students on their individual expertise, but where possible, emphasizes a culture of collaboration. Teamwork is a critical skill in the workplace, and the only way to learn it is to practice it (Schaffhauser, eCampus News, 10/20).


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