Liberal Education

Holding Courses Accountable for Competencies Central to the Degree

Higher education is fad-prone, and today the breakthrough of the hour is the massive open online course, or MOOC. The press breathlessly celebrates the prospect that students—any students—now can take "totally free" courses from star-studded faculty at the nation's most renowned institutions. And, with alacrity, legislators, administrators, and entrepreneurs already have seized on the prospect of offering MOOCs (and other "do-it-yourself" vendor-provided online courses) as a cost-saving option for students to complete required courses, especially general education courses, now that drastic budget reductions across higher education have made it increasingly difficult for many public campuses to offer enough courses to meet student need.

When faculty raise questions about the educational quality of courses that enroll tens of thousands of students in a single class, the response from MOOC proponents is to remind us that the content taught in these courses is, after all, fully equivalent to, and likely even "better" than, the content covered in traditional courses. Moreover, as proponents point out, the online quizzes and final exams are very similar to those offered in place-based large-enrollment courses. In sum, if these massive courses are at least as good as the big courses that have long been staples in many collegiate institutions, why not cut to the chase and let students count MOOCs toward their degree requirements?

As such arguments gain traction, especially with policy leaders and legislators, it is time to take a close look at the function of the stand-alone course in the larger arc of society's overall goals for high-quality college learning and in the particular context of college curricula designed to help students meet those goals. In this context, Dan Berrett's illuminating article on microeconomics as taught in three quite different institutions has done us all the favor of creating an opportunity to reflect on what makes a course a high-quality experience, or not.

Usefully, Berrett's reporting—based on auditing three notably disparate courses with the same shared title—reminds us that course titles and those interchangeable course credits that students "earn" for successful completion mask a huge degree of variability, both in terms of what the courses actually ask of students and, especially, in the connections between course assignments and the competencies or learning outcomes college degrees are supposed to certify.

Berrett's article further invites a more searching analysis of what we ought to expect from courses that "count" toward program and degree requirements. The key question here, in my view, is not just whether a nontraditional course is equivalent to a place-based course that already "counts" toward the degree. The key question is whether specific course experiences, and the programs with which they are aligned—digital, face-to-face, or blended—are designed in a way that helps students both practice and demonstrate high-priority learning outcomes (hereinafter, "essential competencies") that society expects in a well-prepared college graduate, both for the economy and for knowledgeable citizenship.

If some courses we already accept for credit fail to meet this competency development standard, then we ought to find ways to fix them. And most assuredly, we should not build the twenty-first-century university—digital or not—on a weak foundation of low-impact pedagogical practices.

The competency movement: Less heralded, more consequential

In this context, I want to look specifically at the connections between courses—regular bread-and-butter courses that already "count" on most campuses—and another major reform movement that is gaining steam in higher education, the effort to make competencies rather than credits central to the degrees we award in higher education.

The competency-based reform movement is less heralded and certainly less "covered" by the mainstream press than MOOCs. But we at the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) see competency-based learning as an investment in the future. The whole point of encouraging college-level study, after all, is to build the human capacities we need to tackle and solve significant problems, both in the economy and in our democracy. Competency development is just another term for capability development. Building individual and collective capabilities is a crucial part of the social contract between universities and society.

But competency development also is an arena in which higher education is falling short. As numerous national studies demonstrate, many students who successfully gained a degree did not, in fact, successfully master such essential competencies as writing, critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, ethical reasoning, or global literacy (Finley 2012). This is a problem we all need to solve, and the key to stronger competency development for students lies directly within the design of the curriculum and, especially, in what specific courses do, or do not, expect students to practice. So, if students' development of socially valued capacities or competencies is one goal of higher education, surely we need a broad educational dialogue about the standards we set for courses and other educational experiences that "count" for the degree.

Those standards need to go beyond seat time and beyond concern with the quality of course content and the course lecturer. Rather, quality standards for the twenty-first-century curriculum should directly explore the relation between course requirements and meaningful opportunities for students to actually develop competencies central to their degrees.

Microeconomics and students' competency development

The three courses experienced and reported in Berrett's essay offer a rich case study for this kind of analysis. Microeconomics is a cornerstone of the economics major almost everywhere, including the three institutions whose courses Berrett audited: George Mason University (GMU), George Washington University (GW), and University of Phoenix (Phoenix). Students taking these three courses will fulfill a requirement for the economics major, if they wish to pursue that field of study in greater depth.

But microeconomics also is one of the courses that many students take to fulfill their general education requirements in the social sciences. It makes sense to ask, then, how—and how well—these three microeconomics courses align with the broader goals that higher education already has articulated, both for general education and for the curriculum as a whole. Or, to put it differently, beyond a general grasp of key concepts in microeconomics, what essential competencies do these three courses require students to practice and demonstrate?

As Berrett's article makes clear, these three courses are anything but interchangeable when it comes to the kinds of assignments they give students. So we can't assume—for these or most other courses offered across higher education—that the course title signals students' likely practice of any specific learning outcome or competency. Instead, we have to review these courses—just like a general education oversight committee—on a case-by-case basis. But to do this, we need to determine which competencies our campuses actually "require" for the degree.

Competencies central to US degrees

Over the past decade, AAC&U has worked with its member community to identify a set of widely endorsed goals for student learning in college that students should achieve across the educational experience, both in general education and in majors. Whether we call these "learning outcomes" or "competencies," they represent a crucial component of that capacity development that higher education promises from this nation's investment in higher education.

Readers unfamiliar with these Essential Learning Outcomes, which have been endorsed by educators and employers, can find them described in detail at In addition, the Degree Qualifications Profile, now being beta tested by Lumina Foundation (2011), shows how these outcomes can be woven into competency-based frameworks for the associate's, bachelor's, and master's degrees. Here, I focus only on a subset of these frameworks for learning, specifically, the strand that describes the intellectual and practical skills that the great majority of colleges, universities, and community colleges now describe as key goals and, therefore, as high-priority demonstrable outcomes for students completing their undergraduate programs.

Research conducted for AAC&U shows the near universal embrace of these outcomes on campus (Hart Research Associates 2009). In a survey of our member campuses that had a 48 percent response rate, we found that 80 percent of responding campuses already had identified learning goals or outcomes they required either for the degree or for general education. Of these campuses with identified learning goals, large percentages reported these essential competencies as requirements for the degree: writing skills (99 percent), critical thinking (95 percent), oral communication (88 percent), information literacy (76 percent), and quantitative reasoning (91 percent).

In setting these goals, educators effectively stand hand-in-hand with employers. Overwhelmingly, as numerous employer studies attest, employers affirm the importance of these essential competencies for success in the workplace (Peter D. Hart Research Associates 2006, 2008; Hart Research Associates 2010, 2013). In addition, by very large majorities, employers urge higher education to "place more emphasis" on these competencies, ensuring that students both practice them and arrive in the workplace ready to deploy them.

If these goals for learning are so widely endorsed, both by educators and by employers, the next question that follows is whether college courses—and the curriculum as a whole—are well designed to help students practice, achieve, and demonstrate these essential competencies. For example, if we want students to emerge "fluent" in quantitative reasoning or written communication, then we need to know which courses foster these capacities and where they are supposed to be demonstrated at the level of accomplishment requisite to the degree.

Competency requirements and course assignments

What then of the three very different courses that Berrett describes from his auditing of microeconomics at three different universities? Since these courses have been approved for the major in all three institutions, I will simply assume for the moment that each provides a sufficiently sophisticated introduction to the content of microeconomics—that is, to its core concepts and the way they are used in economic analysis and argument.

But since microeconomics also "counts" as a general education requirement, it is legitimate to ask which general learning outcomes these courses address, and how well these courses help students develop at least some of the competencies that educators and employers agree are essential.

When I first saw the title of the course Berrett selected for analysis, I reflexively assumed that each of these courses would, among other things, include quantitative reasoning as an expected course competency. Economics has become a highly quantitative field; microeconomics is a required foundational course for the major; surely these required core courses would foster quantitative competence. However, as Berrett reports, two of these three courses do not involve quantitative exercises at all. Introductory courses in a discipline often are "enticement" courses, and the faculty members at GMU and Phoenix say directly that they don't want to make these foundational courses too technical for students. This choice makes practical sense, if we think about the entering quantitative competencies of today's college students. Despite years of so-called school reform, the average entering college student isn't really ready to tackle advanced quantitative reasoning. (Indeed, on many campuses, the great majority of students place directly into remedial levels of math education.)

In this context, the GW course stands out for its determination to tackle the quantitative reasoning challenge directly. By Berrett's account, the course devotes extensive time and effort to teaching students the techniques of mathematical modeling and problem analysis. But the results seem to illustrate the difficulty that faculty face in teaching math-intensive subjects to students who lack sufficient preparation. As Berrett reports, students struggle with the homework and on the examinations. As a result, when their raw scores are determined, many students have, for all practical purposes, failed the course. However, the faculty member's generous grading "curve"—nearly twenty points, according to Berrett—moves students' final grades to much higher levels. An online math tutorial is available to help students get up to speed, but students' raw scores on course tests suggest either that the tutorial was not enough, or that students didn't actually do enough of the recommended extra study.

Thanks to the professor's curve policy, students don't fail and their grade point averages are "protected." But what about these students' development of quantitative competency—a goal that 91 percent of AAC&U member campuses with articulated learning goals say they have set for students? For students who continue in economics, or another quantitative field, there will be further opportunities to work on sophisticated quantitative skills. But what about students who took economics only to meet a general education requirement, or even just out of general interest?

Essential competencies require more than a single course for achievement

Here, the GW course illustrates a basic rule of thumb about any of the essential competencies that colleges seek to develop. To be succinct, it takes more than a single course to develop any significant cross-cutting learning outcome. Whether we're talking about quantitative reasoning, writing, information literacy, or any other sophisticated intellectual skill, students need many opportunities across the curriculum to develop these essential competencies. For the great majority of students, as for the GW students whose struggles Berrett describes, one competency-intensive course alone will never be enough.

Soberingly, however, for students not majoring in a quantitative field, the curriculum is rarely organized to foster demonstrable competency in quantitative reasoning, despite the value that educators and employers both attach to this learning outcome. Most campuses require students to take at least one course in mathematics, and the three campuses Berrett studied follow this pattern. (Phoenix requires two math courses.) But these math courses are almost never sequenced with other general education requirements. For the most part, required math courses are really stand-alone course requirements. And, for all but the most outstanding students, stand-alone course requirements are insufficient to develop a demonstrated competency.

The result of this disconnect, according to ETS, is that only 10 percent of college seniors are actually proficient in mathematics, with many students' competence in mathematical reasoning effectively declining in the period from entrance to exit (Finley 2012). As Derek Bok (2005) reported in Our Underachieving Colleges, even at highly selective campuses, students demonstrably lose ground in mathematical competence when they major in fields where math is not expected.

Quantitative reasoning is an area where well-designed online studies can indeed address a challenging problem of systemic underperformance. But no single digital quantitative tutorial—no matter how brilliantly conceived—will itself be sufficient to help students achieve and sustain competency in quantitative reasoning. If we want students to take this essential competence with them from college, then the curriculum as a whole will have to provide multiple places where the competence is built into expected assignments.

For competency development, the assignments are crucial

If competency development is the goal, then courses need to signal which general competencies they help students practice, and whether those competencies are at the entry, intermediate, or graduation level when it comes to students' assignments and demonstrated achievements. This is a general principle for any program that aims at developing and certifying students' achievement of competencies. But it is also a principle that ought to apply to new providers, including the MOOC providers, as well. The question to ask about any course is not how good the lecture was, but how well designed and on-target the student assignments were.

In this context, I took note that the University of Phoenix course has fully incorporated the idea that "assignments matter" into its totally online version of microeconomics. The course Berrett audited may be math-lite, but it is notably writing and project intensive. Students each wrote several papers, an exercise that simultaneously helps them grasp the implications of course concepts and also work on their proficiency in written communication. In addition, all students took part in group projects resulting in collaboratively framed research reports, thus addressing yet another outcome that employers rank high: problem solving in groups. Moreover, since Phoenix's online courses are comparatively small, the faculty member who teaches the course is able to work directly with the students, give them feedback, and guide their various efforts. This kind of teacher-student involvement, numerous studies indicate, is a key factor both in students' persistence to a degree and also in their achievement of higher levels of actual learning.

For competency development, great lectures are not enough

Thus far, we have seen that the GW and Phoenix courses devote meaningful time to students' development of general competencies, with competency practice woven together with students' mastery of course content. The competencies students practice in these two courses are quite different, but each course is designed to help students work on specific intellectual skills that are highly valued, both in the economy and in society. But when it comes to students' development of essential competencies, the GMU course raises fundamental questions about our responsibilities to students—questions that apply both to the traditional curriculum and to the fast-progressing digital revolution.

The GMU professor who opened his course to a creative reporter is a distinguished economist in a major department at a well-regarded university. He is, according to Berrett, a dazzling lecturer. Yet, as Berrett also reports, this large-enrollment lecture course requires no homework of any kind. There are two mid-terms and a final; all three exams feature multiple-choice tests, Scantron-scoreable, with most questions offering "four options" and some only two—true or false.

The structure of this course—multiple-choice midterms and examinations; no homework; no projects; and no required writing—is anything but unusual. And pointing to the prevalence of this model across higher education, MOOCs proponents who say huge-enrollment courses, with great lecturers, can do just as well are entirely correct. Technology can score 150,000 multiple choice tests just as quickly as it can score 300, and, thanks to data analytics, technology helps professors spot almost instantly the problem areas where many students have missed key concepts. Thus informed, course designers can "fix" the presentation of concepts and drive up students' performance on the multiple-choice tests of conceptual understanding.

My argument, however, is that this design for a course—lectures plus multiple-choice exams—is wholly insufficient for high-quality college learning, either in the traditional curriculum or in the brave new world of digital innovation. Keeping in mind that the long-term goal of college is for students to develop knowledge and "essential competencies," higher education should critique as insufficient any course that does not include students' active, effortful work on projects, problems, assignments, research, or other practices that foster competency development.

The key to the future, as employers tell us and as we surely know from even modest attention to the wider world, is our collective capacity to deal successfully with complex problems and unscripted challenges. Routinized tests and "one-right-answer" examinations are simply insufficient to prepare students for a world that is characterized by complicated problems and fluid, volatile, fast-changing contexts. The world is complex, and the point of the college curriculum—and of individual courses within it—is to help students develop sophisticated competencies they will need to grapple with that complexity.

As our most recent employer study shows, employers seek and value graduates who can contribute to innovation and adaptation in the workplace and in the economy (Hart Research Associates 2013). Our democracy also needs graduates who are competent in evidence-based inquiry, analysis, and reasoning, both qualitative and quantitative.

The curriculum should be organized to foster students' development of deep, transferable learning outcomes—the essential competencies. If students have no meaningful opportunities in specific courses to work on any of these essential competencies, then no matter how interesting the course content, those courses are leaving students underprepared when it comes to key capacities that educators and employers alike consider fundamental. Different courses and different subjects will address these essential competencies in different ways. But every course should provide students with opportunities for active, guided, effortful practice on at least one of the essential competencies required for the degree.

Use the digital revolution to make competency development central and feasible

I understand, of course, that the tradition of academic freedom has long enabled each faculty member to make his or her own decision about whether to include effortful assignments in a particular course. The more work we give students, after all, the more work there is for the faculty and their teaching assistants. When an institution can't afford teaching assistants, faculty are much less likely to give high-effort assignments to students. Currently, many campuses lack sufficient faculty and staff capacity to help all their students develop essential competencies at high levels of demonstrated achievement. But, as Steve Ehrmann says in his discussion of the Berrett essay, this is a problem that technology can help institutions solve.

Let's imagine that campuses elect to use well-designed MOOCs not as substitutes for courses, but as backdrops and supplements to regular course readings and assignments. And let's imagine that class time is "flipped," across all course offerings and curricula, to emphasize small-group discussion, individual and group projects, technology-supported student research, writing, and problem solving. Let's imagine further that the program includes field-based learning that connects course content and scholarly analysis with collaborative problem solving done with partners in the regions where specific campuses are anchored. And, not least, let's imagine coaching for students in areas where they fall short. The coaching might include digital tutorials for students, but it would also feature opportunities for faculty to help students make direct connections between the skills students are practicing and the specific problems—economic, societal, civic, or community-based—that the course assignments help students explore. New research from AAC&U shows that students feel more highly motivated to persist in their learning when they can see the significance of what they are learning (Finley and McNair 2013).

These hands-on student assignments create additional work for faculty members, clearly. But if faculty members are freed from lecture development and "coverage" duties, it is far more feasible to expect this level of commitment to students' active development of essential competencies. With technology used imaginatively—not as a substitute way of delivering course content, but rather as a complement to the more intensive, hands-on work that competency development requires—then students would be far more likely to achieve and be able to demonstrate those Essential Learning Outcomes that educators endorse and employers urgently seek.


What then have we gained from this exploration of the connections between competency development and individual required courses such as those reported in the Berrett essay? My own conclusion from this analysis is that students' competency development is a responsibility that cuts across many courses and many levels of expected student proficiency. To put it differently, it takes a curriculum, not just a course, to foster the competencies almost everyone now considers "essential."

As we examine the value of educational innovations, we need to hold these innovations accountable to the overarching goals higher education is setting for the degree. Innovations should improve higher education's capacity to foster students' competency development. They most assuredly should not deplete it further. Perhaps MOOCs will meet this competency standard as digital innovations progress. But ultimately, no single course is sufficient, on its own, to develop the competencies society values and needs. So MOOCs and other courses need to be carefully calibrated to the educational goals, including the competency goals, of the curriculum as a whole and of programs within the curriculum.

Stringing courses together, willy-nilly, is an impoverished way to help students gain a credential, whether those courses come from elite institutions or not. But creating connections across courses, with competency development valued and expected in every course or learning experience, is surely the key to students' meaningful development of high-quality capacities.

We have entered an era of fast-paced educational innovation. But we have also entered an era of new clarity about the essential competencies that degrees need to foster and warrant. If we hold innovations accountable for competency development, students will reap the benefit they seek and deserve from college study. We really can't afford to settle for anything less.


Bok, D. 2005. Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Finley, A. 2012. Making Progress? What We Know about the Achievement of Liberal Education Outcomes. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Finley, A., and T. McNair. 2013. Assessing High-Impact Learning for Underserved Students. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Hart Research Associates. 2009. Trends and Emerging Practices in General Education Based on a Survey among Members of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

———. 2010. Raising the Bar: Employers' Views on College Learning in the Wake of the Economic Downturn. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

———. 2013. It Takes More than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Lumina Foundation. 2011. The Degree Qualifications Profile. Indianapolis, IN: Lumina Foundation.

Peter D. Hart Research Associates. 2006. How Should Colleges Prepare Students to Succeed in Today's Global Economy? Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

———. 2008. How Should Colleges Assess and Improve Student Learning? Employers' Views on the Accountability Challenge. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Carol Geary Schneider is president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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