Competencies Framework Will Help Students Build Personal Narratives

Joyce Jacobsen

Joyce Jacobsen

Wesleyan has developed a competencies framework to help students describe the skills that they can develop through their academic and co-curricular experiences, according to Joyce Jacobsen, provost and vice president for academic affairs.

Certification of skills is a trend in higher education nowadays, particularly among providers of online education. While recognizing the importance of acquiring career—and life-building—skills, Jacobsen says Wesleyan’s approach also emphasizes the importance of helping students build a personal narrative about their Wesleyan experience.

“Competencies tie into current trends in higher education, regarding certification and acquisition of specific skills,” she adds. “We’re saying, however, that competencies should be acquired in a broader framework that speaks to the goals of liberal education. We’re trying to give students terms they can use to explain their liberal education to potential employers, to their families, to themselves.”

She describes the initiative as a “soft sell,” one intended to help students and their faculty advisors but neither mandatory in any way, nor reflected in course labeling.

Academic Affairs will coordinate a rollout of the four competencies over the next four semesters, starting this fall with “Mining: Quantitative Analysis and Interpretation.”

“This competency is already becoming well embedded in the curriculum,” she says.

Enrollments have surged in data-related courses, supported by an increase in full-time faculty and staff of the Quantitative Analysis Center from one to four. Any student can now get exposure to data analysis through courses in statistics or programming, as well as in other specialized courses such as data journalism and data visualization.

Wesleyan also is encouraging new students to work on skill acquisition even before they arrive on campus in the fall. Students have been offered weekly summer technology topics through Lynda.com, and new student orientation includes perspectives on successfully using digital tools. This effort will continue throughout the first year.

The spring semester will be devoted to publicizing Writing, Expressing, Communicating, a competency area that includes verbal, creative, and performance work.

“Writing is such a huge area of the curriculum,” she says, noting that the newly relocated Shapiro Writing Center on Mount Vernon Street supports this effort, along with new faculty hires planned for this year to bolster tutoring and first-year writing programs. Nor does the effort stop with undergraduates. Jacobsen points out that three faculty members have recently received NEH grants to write books for a general audience. In addition, thanks to a partnership with the non-profit news organization The Conversation, faculty also now have the option of working closely with an editor to write articles for a mainstream audience based on their research and expertise. These articles are then republished in a number of mainstream news outlets.

Next on the list for fall 2018 will be Engaging: Negotiating Intercultural Differences. The Fries Center for Global Studies will be a major locus of this competency, where again additional staff have been added to support the new Center’s programs. Two new initiatives include offering special short courses abroad led by faculty with expertise in a specific region, including in Chile, China, and Mexico (with future plans for Ghana and Ireland). Also, self-paced language instruction through Mango Languages is now available to both students and alumni.

The final semester, spring 2019, will be devoted to emphasizing Mapping: Navigating Complex Environments. Defined as the ability to examine the relationship of objects and spaces in the material and imagined worlds, mapping is a broad competency that touches on areas as diverse as the new minor in Integrated Design, Engineering, and Applied Sciences (IDEAS) to expanding students’ use of Wesleyan’s fossil and minerals collections.

“Our goal in all this is for students to develop a holistic view of lifelong learning, to make connections across areas and link competencies across courses, research, and other cocurricular activities including athletics, performing arts, and really almost everything that they do while at Wesleyan,” Jacobsen says.

Acquisition of competencies should not be confused with general education, which encourages students to gain a broad foundation before later specialization. The latter is focused on a student’s first two years, whereas competencies are a four-year arc.

Nor do the competencies stand in isolation. Wesleyan has made changes in recent years to help students navigate its famously open curriculum, most especially the addition of various clusters, certificates and minors that provide for logical groupings of courses. Among the most recent additions is a certificate in Muslim studies, and Jacobsen expects to see further additions of course group designations.

The four competencies are described on Wesleyan’s competencies webpage as follows:

Mapping: Navigating Complex Environments (NCE)
Mapping is defined as the ability to examine the relationship of objects and spaces in the material and imagined worlds. It involves developing tools to create, manipulate, and navigate constructed and natural environments and charting movement through and interactions with space and its consequences. Mapping courses can be found across the curriculum, from the arts (e.g., dance, studio art, and art history) to the natural sciences and mathematics, as well as in interdisciplinary programs, including geographical information systems (GIS) and the new minor in Integrated Design, Engineering, and Applied Sciences (IDEAS). Mapping skills include typography, computation, material science, modeling, and, of course, mapping.

Expressing: Writing, Expressing, Communicating (WEC)
Expressing is defined as the ability to express thoughts, ideas, and emotions to others effectively and concisely through a variety of media. Most expressing courses are found in the humanities, arts, and social and behavioral sciences. These courses assign written, verbal, and creative projects, and may include performance opportunities, to help you develop your ability to express your thoughts and ideas to others.

Mining: Quantitative Analysis and Interpretation (QAI)
Mining is defined as the ability to use numerical ideas and methods to describe and analyze quantifiable phenomena. It involves learning about the measurement, analysis, summary, and presentation of information, including about the natural world, as well as answering questions, solving problems, making predictions, and testing and constructing theories by employing mathematical, statistical, logical, and scientific reasoning. Most mining courses are found in mathematics, the natural sciences, and in social and behavioral sciences.

Engaging: Negotiating Intercultural Differences (NID)
Engaging is defined as the ability to comprehend and respect diverse cultural heritages and perspectives in relation to their wider historical and social contexts. It involves reading, speaking, or understanding a second or third language (contemporary or classical); gaining experience working, studying, or traveling abroad, or in other unfamiliar cultural contexts; and participating in the political and social life of local and global communities. Engaging courses are found across the curriculum, from language, literature, and culture to history, science in society, religion, government, and philosophy, among other areas.