Friday, April 06, 2007

Competencies comments

Some random thoughts on Olin's competencies system. In addition to our letter grades in classes, we receive "competency evaluations" in each course where our professors tell us how we're doing with our communications, qualitative analysis, design, opportunity assessment, and so forth. Competencies don't go on your transcript. They don't get seen by anyone other than you and your prof. They're a well-intentioned implementation of a good idea to a pressing problem - the trouble is that the implementation isn't really working because the ratings don't mean anything.

When Ann, Gill, and Mark sent out a survey last week asking us about Competencies, I started writing down my thoughts, and here's what I sent them.

They break down when you try to assign numerical values to them and use them as a grading system - I feel like competencies are a qualitative holistic framework being shoehorned into a quantitative assessment metric, which completely misses the point. It's like rating your Honor Code compliance on a scale of 1-10 for each clause; it doesn't really mean anything. Since it's largely arbitrary and there's no apparent standardization across classes or professors, they're not useful metrics of feedback for us to receive.

Advantages: Competencies are a useful framework for thinking about learning, since they address meta-skills that work across disciplines and are generally good things to pick up in life (see: Woodie Flowers' Big Conversations speech, in which he talks about how we totally forget thermodynamics 30 years later, but remember teamwork skills).

Comments: I actually feel we would take competencies more seriously if they were not meant to be numerical "grades," but pervasive things to consider and discuss with our professors and advisors. The trouble is that you can't mandate meaning; you can only facilitate things that lead to reflection and meaningfulness, but that's no guarantee.


There are a number of students researching the grading and competencies system this semester in an effort to see how we got to these systems, how they're working, and how we could improve them - I know Chris and Cathy are looking at alternative grading systems at other schools, Boris and Matt are interviewing faculty on how they give grades and what they mean when they assign certain scores, Gavin and Boris are talking to employers and grad schools on what data they need to be able to meaningfully evaluate applicants, and Paul and I are looking through eons of old ABET papers to find out how competencies came about and whether they've changed anything (we can't find very much about the history of our grading system - does anyone know where to find this?) If you want to help, let these folks know (or let me know and I'll put you in touch with them.)

1 comment:

Ben Salinas said...

So there was this education case study written about Olin for a conference at Harvard Medical School. President Miller, Matt Tesch, David Boy, and Bennett Chabot recently went over there to answer questions about Olin.

Bennett relayed the following to me. The woman who wrote the case study had this to say about competencies:

Competencies aren't for the students to see how they are doing. They are for the faculty and administration to make sure the curriculum fits together well and to make sure that the classes do actually teach what they should. Think of each class fitting into a few categories (such as Quantitative Analysis, Design, Opportunity, etc.). A good Olin curriculum should have a good mix of all the categories. The numbers attached to them make sure that a class actually does teach that competency (and that it isn't the E Program Group saying: "Well, we need another class that teaches opportunity... Mat Sci it is!"). They are useful on an institutional level.