What are the fruits of a liberal arts education? There is growing recognition that graduates are uncertain of what they have learnt. Students completing a degree in history, as I did many years ago, seem unable to express not only a mastery of the content of that degree, but also of the bundle of competencies often referred to as soft skills that have been acquired. These typically include communication, rational analysis, critical thinking and problem solving. These and other competencies combine to build good citizens and strong employees.
Perhaps as a result of this failure to explain what learning happens in universities, we see emerging rhetoric about the failure of universities to graduate citizens who are literate, skilled and ready to ‘fill the skills gaps.’ This has quickly devolved into a debate pitting colleges against universities against training programs as we lament the persistent sluggishness of our economy.
Why, until recently, has the college sector been the home of competencies-based programming? That is where students seek, and are expected to gain, an identified set of skills that lead to a specific job. Often, the outcomes set in the college sector include not only relevant content but also the acquisition of generic skills such as team-based problem solving. Defining, teaching and assessing based on a set of competencies associated with a particular job has worked well for the colleges. For universities, however, the strong resistance to this model stems from a belief that the role of the university is of a higher order, with faculty guiding learning in unique and unfettered ways.
Yet, having studied and taught law in several Canadian law faculties, I know that competency-based curricula are not strangers to the university. Provincial law societies require specified standards be met in order for the graduates of a given school to be eligible for admission to the local bar. We see similar models across health education, whether it be nursing, dietetics or medicine. But should we apply this thinking to education in the liberal arts and sciences? Is it reasonable to say that a student graduating with a degree in biology should have mastered a specific set of abilities in addition to the content that they have acquired? Some potential obstacles come to mind.
It makes sense that the Institute for Chartered Accountants of Ontario is well placed to define, with input from its members, the competencies of a university accounting program. How might we come to a similar consensus around the standard competencies that a graduate in geography should have?
How does a commitment to academic freedom dovetail with the imposition of program-wide or even institution-wide competencies? I’m envisioning a long and painful series of university senate meetings before that idea is firmly abandoned.
Further, as we shift from the language of learning objectives to that of learning outcomes, can we assume that an instructor can guarantee that learning occurs by providing the tools? How do we account for missed outcomes due to, for example, insufficient learning capacity to achieve mastery? The language or outcomes may be challenging in some situations.
And how do we legitimately measure learning in areas that are not naturally demonstrable? If we have established as a core competency “the development of a global perspective,” how do we articulate what that looks like across various disciplinary programs and how do we develop instruments to accurately measure acquisition? Completing my program in dental hygiene, I will either be able to adequately scale a tooth, or I will not. Assessing my ability to think critically at the completion of my psychology degree is arguably a process so subjective as to risk illegitimacy.
Despite these and other real concerns, they are outweighed by the benefits of moving toward an outcomes-based model of university education. Universities continue to benefit from significant citizen investments, both through public taxes and private tuition fees, as families ‘make do’ with less to educate their children.
It behooves us, in the academy, to graduate students who are able to articulate to friends, family and potential employers, the fruits of their labours. Yes, I have an undergraduate degree in history. As a direct result of that work, I have become a strong communicator, an excellent problem solver and an effective team player. I am able to think strategically and to manage situations of conflict between underlying values. I also happen to know who fought in the War of 1812. All of this leads me to be a valuable citizen, a potential leader and an excellent candidate for your organization.
Only by articulating the outcomes, and then teaching and measuring to those outcomes, will we be able to support our students in fully benefiting from postsecondary education.
Dr. Colleen M. Hanycz is the principal of Brescia University College, which is affiliated with Western University. A version of this article appeared on It’s Not Academic, the blog of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.