Initial Publication Date: July 14, 2017

Competencies and Learning Outcomes

by David Gosselin, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Competencies and learning outcomes are two related educational terms that can create confusion. Competencies and outcomes can be written to describe the learning gained by students in individual courses (course outcomes) or for the program as a whole (program outcomes). They DO NOT mean the same thing. We will follow the lead of Hartel and Foegeding (2004) and use the following working definitions:

Competency: A general statement that describes the desired knowledge, skills, and behaviors of a student graduating from a program (or completing a course). Competencies commonly define the applied skills and knowledge that enable people to successfully perform in professional, educational, and other life contexts.

Outcome: A very specific statement that describes exactly what a student will be able to do in some measurable way. There may be more than one measurable outcome defined for a given competency.

Key Distinction: A true learning outcome is written so that it can be measured or assessed. It focuses on what the student is able to do at end of a program (or course). Thus, learning outcomes are the basis for an assessment program that focuses on what a student can or should be able to do either upon completion of a course or upon graduation from a program. The term learning outcome is used more commonly in the context of a program or course of instruction. The term competency is more commonly used in relation to professional fields (i.e. dentistry, nursing).

Recommendation: Kennedy, Hyland and Ryan (opens pdf) recommend that when using the term competence, the definition be provided for the specific context in which it is being used and to ensure clarity of meaning, write competences using the vocabulary of learning outcomes, i.e. express the required competence in terms of the students achieving specific program learning outcomes or module learning outcomes.

Example 1: Holy Cross College

At Holy Cross, they have identified five core competencies for their students. One of these competencies is Critical and Creative Thinking. The specific learning outcomes for this competency are that at the end of their undergraduate program, Students should be able to:
  • apply learning in the liberal arts to everyday life
  • make connections among disciplines of study
  • read critically
  • ask relevant, detailed, and probing questions
  • recognize the differences among facts, opinions, and judgments and recognize and meaningfully respond to logical fallacies
  • express aesthetic appreciation and insight
  • solicit feedback, evaluate, and revise creative products.

Example 2: Washington University

At Washington University, St. Louis, they have defined competencies and learning outcomes for their student leadership initiative.

One competency, Self Awareness, is described as follows:
Student leaders develop a thorough understanding of themselves across multiple dimensions. Through formal and informal reflection, they will recognize how their leadership practice and beliefs are influenced by their values and experiences as well as how their personal behavior affects their ability to build trust and credibility as leaders.
Learning Outcomes: Students who demonstrate competence in self-awareness can:
a. Define and articulate their personal values
b. Discern and describe their personal leadership style, strengths, and limitations
c. Appropriately apply their learning and leadership style and strengths
d. Recognize their own multiple identities, experiences and biases and how these affect their ability to lead
e. Actively seek, evaluate, and, when appropriate, incorporate feedback
f. Evaluate and reflect on their actions and modify as necessary

Excerpt: Context of Careers, Workforce and Learning Outcomes

The following is taken from Gosselin et al. 2013.

"One of the biggest challenges that higher education faces is preparing today's students to meet future workforce demands (Zemsky, 2009; Bellanca and Brandt, 2010; Arum and Rohsa, 2011, NRC 2012). Business and political leaders are increasingly asking schools including institutions of higher education to develop skills such as innovation, creativity, problem solving, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, self-management, among others, are often referred to as "21st century skills" or 21st century competencies (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2009). Although these competencies are considered to be at the foundation of individual as well as collective success in the work place, employers report substantial deficiencies in these applied skills (van Ark et al, 2009). As a result, business leaders and educational organizations are calling for new education policies that target the development of broad, transferable skills and knowledge.

"In a recent report from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS, 2012), the Committee on Deeper Learner and Defining 21st Century Skills conducted an assessment of the literature related to the development of these skills. The committee indicated that 21st century skills are important dimensions of human competence. Furthermore, they developed an initial classification scheme for the 21st century skills consisting of three broad, but overlapping, clusters of competencies that included cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal domains. The cognitive domain involves reasoning and memory; the intrapersonal domain involves the capacity to manage one's behavior and emotions to achieve one's goals; and the interpersonal domain involves expressing ideas, and interpreting and responding to messages from others (NRC 2012). Furthermore the NRC report supports the fact that young people who both apply and develop intertwined cognitive intrapersonal, and interpersonal competencies in the process of deeper learning are better prepared for adult success. The term competency, as used in the NRC study and throughout the remainder of this paper, is consistent with its use in the professional human resources literature as a way of talking about what helps people get results in their jobs and refer to skills or knowledge that lead to superior performance. Competencies are measureable characteristics that are used to differentiate levels of performance in a given job, role, or organization. During their career in higher education, students generally focus on the development of competencies related to technical (tools, methodologies, processes) and knowledge skills (concepts, facts, theories). The assessment of the technical and knowledge components is typically measured by standard aptitude tests, the most common of which are standard examination formats. Although the importance of these 21st century competencies is recognized, the assessment of the extent to which students have acquired these competencies through their undergraduate programs on their way to being successful environmental and sustainability professionals has been virtually unstudied.

"Research on teaching and learning has begun to illuminate how intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies support learning of academic content (e.g., NRCl, 2000) and how to develop these valuable supporting skills (e.g., Yeager and Walton, 2011). These competencies are not fixed and they are developed by practice. According to the NRC (NRC 2012), research supports the fact that young people who both apply and develop intertwined cognitive intrapersonal, and interpersonal competencies in the process of deeper learning are better prepared for adult success. A primary product of deeper learning is the ability to know how, why, and when to use and transfer knowledge, including content knowledge, to answer questions and solve problems. Higher education is being confronted with a paradigm shift. Current literature supports the contention that higher education needs to improve their connection with the needs of employers. Rising educational costs and requests from the business world for graduates with far more than content knowledge is forcing higher education to reexamine their program goals and their graduate skill sets. It seems clear that a deficit exists in the extent to which higher education can track the development of career appropriate competencies. As the pace of new knowledge progresses, a four-year degree built on content acquisition is no longer adequate. Our future depends on students who possess a set of job related professional competencies including lifelong learning, problem-solving, personal effectiveness and many others."

From Exploring the assessment of twenty-first century professional competencies of undergraduate students in environmental studies through a business—academic partnership, Dave Gosselin, Sara Cooper, Ronald J. Bonnstetter, Bill J. Bonnstetter, Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, June 2013.

Competency Models from the Competency Model Clearinghouse