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.)