Designing Competency-Linked Courses for Critical Thinking & Workforce Readiness

Concurrent Session 3
Streamed Session

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Brief Abstract

This presentation will outline the importance of aligning competencies with courses and course assignments. Presenters will detail strategies of how to align competencies through detailing experiences of a two-year competency alignment project. Session participants will develop a draft competency alignment map of their own program or courses.  


Jessica is a Lead Instructional Designer working with Distance Education and Learning Technology Applications (DELTA) and the Department of Food, Bioprocessing, and Nutrition Sciences (FBNS). She provides instructional design and project management knowledge in order to provide solutions to instructional challenges. She works with faculty members and the new media team at DELTA to design, develop and evaluate innovative online and face-to-face courses. Before joining DELTA, Jessica taught at a private college for several years before working for a non-profit organization and as a government contractor. In her prior roles, she developed a multitude of courses, taught adults in a variety of business-related topics such as professional development and designed training programs. Jessica holds an Ed.S. in Instructional Design and Technology and a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership.

Extended Abstract

Background of the Program

The Training & Development Master of Education program within the College of Education at NC State seeks to prepare adult learners with knowledge and skills necessary to pursue entry-level, intermediate, or advanced positions within any industry as trainers, instructional designers, or e-learning administrators.  Students entering the NC State Training and Development master’s program are either preparing to enter the workforce or enhancing their skills to pursue other opportunities within their current positions.  Each course in the program emphasizes interaction, collaboration, teamwork, and reflection to aid in the adult learning process.  Upon completion, students receive a Master of Education (M.Ed.) degree that provides them the opportunity to integrate their learning and training into various industries that design, utilize, and evaluate training.  The program also ensures students meet specific industry competencies that have been incorporated into every course.

This project sought to align the program with college and departmental mission statements, assist in improving student labor market outcomes, and create community partnerships. 

Learner-Centered Course Design

Between 2017-2019, every course within the program was either completely redesigned or slightly modified to incorporate industry-specific competencies related to topics covered in each course.  Since NC State offers both a 15-week regular semester and 5-week summer semester for these courses, we broke each course into 5 modules.  These 5 modules encompass 3 weeks of material during the regular semester and a week of material during the summer semester.  Designing each course this way allowed us to locate five overarching themes throughout the courses around which to section the course material and assignments.  In most courses, students complete their module readings and discussion and have 1-2 assignments that tie in all the concepts presented in the module.  Developing the 5 modules allowed us to convert any regular semester course into a summer session course by simply compressing it into the same 5 modules that students complete in 5 weeks instead of 15.  


Strategies that Support Rigor, Outcomes, and Alignment  

As the instructional designer assigned to this project, I first laid out all the courses, their objectives, and the ATD Competency Model sections side by side.  This allowed me to see which competencies went with which course, which assignment met which competency, which course objectives needed to be rewritten, and which courses had gaps that needed to be filled.  

In order to ensure every course not only met the overall course objectives, but the industry competencies associated with the course, we completed a redesign of all courses.  This redesign involved the incorporation of competencies into each course through the revision of course activities and assignments, mapping both course objectives and competencies throughout each course to projects students completed as well as overhauling some of the course projects to ensure students walked out of every course being able to “check” certain competencies off and add them to their resumes. As a result of the redesign, each course now has a higher rigor level, we know that everything is aligned, and student outcomes are higher as a result.  

Competency Alignment to Program

Competencies related to instructional design, project management, change management, learning technologies, and other relevant topics were incorporated into course assignments, readings, activities, and final projects throughout the various courses.  Upon implementation of all newly revised courses in Fall 2019, we wanted to ascertain the benefit of adding competencies to courses and see how students felt at both the beginning and end of specific courses.  

Regardless of where it is in the course, every assignment students submit is tied into at least one course objective and an industry competency, if not several. Each program course was first aligned to an overarching specific industry competency as seen in the figure below, and all of the course assignments aligned to the competencies in that area.  

Data Overview

We created an end-of-course survey to obtain students’ input related to, prior skill level vs. current (end-of-course) skill level, level of connection of new knowledge to prior knowledge, and the relationship of the level of connection of new knowledge to prior knowledge with perceived ability to apply knowledge in the workplace.

The data we received and analyzed indicated that students learn a lot more from a course that is linked to specific competencies and focuses on specific skills needed to pursue training positions.  Competency-based learning has been proven to be beneficial for students on all education levels.  Incorporating competencies into a master's program that is already 100% online brings about an opportunity for students to leave the program knowing they’ve achieved industry-specific competencies that are needed in the workplace.



The participants were graduate students in a fully online master’s degree program in Training and Development with a focus on Instructional Design during the Fall 2019 semester.  Data was specifically pulled from four of the 12 required courses (n=87).

Course Participants Surveyed   

We selected four courses out of the program taught in the Fall 2019 semester from which to survey students.  Student data was obtained from the following courses:

  • EAC 556:  Organization Change in HRD
  • EAC 580:  Designing Instructional Systems in Training & Development EAC 581:  Advanced Instructional Design 
  • EAC 582:  Organization & Operation of Training & Development Programs (ATD Competency Area:  Managing Learning Programs)

Workplace Application and Readiness

In order to see the connections among students’ preparedness and skill levels after completing the various courses, we created a few research questions.

Skill Attainment and Connection

When examining how students perceived participation in a graduate online competency-based course impacted their skill level, we asked students about their prior skill level of a course topic and also asked them their current (end of course) skill level.  

We found that there was a statistically significant difference in prior skill level and current skill level of online graduate students after completing a CBE designed course.

When examining how students perceive participation in a graduate online competency-based course impacted their connection of current new knowledge to prior knowledge, we asked them to score on a Likert scale of 1-5, ‘Course activities helped me make connections of new to prior knowledge’.

Relationship between Skill Connection and Workplace Application

Pulling the data together, we looked at how students perceptions of connecting new knowledge to old knowledge related to their perceptions of being able to apply their new knowledge in the workplace we found that as the connection of prior to new knowledge increased so did the ability to use new knowledge for a future career (r=.73).  We wanted to ensure that students left each course at the end of the semester with a higher knowledge level in a specific competency area than they had coming into the course at the beginning.  We also wanted to ensure students would be able to directly apply any of their new knowledge to their current or future workplace.


Recommendation #1: At a minimum, if instructors are in a field that does not have a list of competencies or don’t have the time to create a list of competencies for their field, it is beneficial to student learning for them to be able to tie the knowledge gained in a course with what is needed for a future class or skills need on the job.  This mindful connection to bridge the gap of what they are learning with prior knowledge and how to apply this to future learning or application is positively impactful to the students. 

Recommendation #2: Map each reading, deliverable, discussion forum, activity in the course to a list of competencies so that you are sure all needed competencies are addressed in the course. 

Recommendation #3: Inform students that they are in a competency aligned course and let them know the competencies covered in the course, perhaps near where you state the course learning objectives.  This helps students connect their learning with the competency and also provides narrative for students to better identify their strengths on resumes and in job interviews. In addition to stating their degree or GPA, they can state the competencies they were found to be proficient in.  

Presentation Learning Outcomes

At the end of the session, participants will be able to:

  • Determine (3) the importance of aligning competencies with courses and course work
  • Identify (4) strategies to align competencies to courses and course work
  • develop (6) their own design plan that maps the alignment of competencies to courses and course work. 

*parenthetical # is the level of Bloom’s Taxonomy order of thinking

Audience Engagement

We plan to utilize group discussions, online polling, and other audience engagement strategies to obtain audience feedback and share knowledge.  A description of each activity is provided below:

Activity #1 Description: 5 Minutes

Brainstorm activity about strategies to why the implementation of competencies in courses is important for student success and engagement. This activity will use Padlet.

Activity #2 Description: 10 Minutes 

Group activity to develop a mapping draft of how to align competencies to courses and course objectives.  This activity will use a pre-created handout.