Competencies: It’s About What You Can Do, Not What You Know

The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) released a report titled “Scientific Foundations for Future Physicians.” The central thesis of the paper was that current pre-med and medical school curricula are stuck in an old course-centric model that relies on memorizing information that is likely to change rapidly as the science and technology of medicine changes. In its place, the AAMC advocated the development of a competency-based curriculum focused on students’ abilities to apply scientific and mathematical knowledge to a host of medical problems and challenges.

A competency can be defined as the combination of skills, knowledge and ability needed in order to accomplish a specific task. So, in a medical education context, a competency-based approach is focused more on a student’s ability to solve medical problems than it is on memorizing specific facts about the science of medicine as it is know it today.

To someone such as me, slugging it out in the eLearning trenches, the AAMC report is music to my ears. I am constantly trying to get clients to focus more on competency-based learning outcomes than memory-based outcomes. And this is not only because the half-life of knowledge is so rapidly decreasing (as noted by the AAMC), but because in the age of instant access to more information than we ever thought possible (from our phones no less), memorizing things is just not that important.

Being able “to do” is more important than being able “to know.” Content is not king; it is cheap and abundant. Real education is about helping learners develop competencies to apply knowledge and to put it into a context that allows them to solve problems and overcome challenges.

And such a competency-based approach does not only apply to scientific and technical fields. My own personal experience bears this out. Not once all my years of working in the fields of adult learning and eLearning have I been asked about my credentials, what courses I completed, or my grade point average. The questions are always “what have you done in the past” and “what can you do for me now?” In achieving two liberal arts degrees, the individual courses I completed matter not a whit, but my competencies developed in communication, research, organization, problem-solving, and managing complex projects certainly do.

I am under no illusions that it is easy to move toward a competency-based model of education. It is a real challenge defining important competencies, designing curricula around competencies, and measuring learning outcomes in terms of demonstrated competencies. However, this does not have to be a wholesale change. Even adding one or two competency-based outcomes to a course – focusing on demonstrable “doing” as opposed to passive “knowing” – is a step in the right direction. If you are unsure where to start, see if your organization has defined big-picture learning outcomes for its graduates. The University of Guelph, where I worked for a number of years, defines 10 desired attributes for its graduates: Literacy; Numeracy; Sense of Historical Development; Global Understanding; Moral Maturity; Aesthetic Maturity; Understanding of Forms of Inquiry; Depth and Breadth of Understanding; Independence of Thought; Love of Learning. Within each of these broad outcome areas are many opportunities to build learning exercises that allow learners to demonstrate competence.

Knowledge is fleeting, but competencies endure.

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