TEL Mastery Standards: Designing for 21st-Century Competencies

by | Jun 6, 2019 | Featured, Learning Design

[This post is a follow-up to the two-part series I wrote in April about the upcoming release of our TEL Mastery Standards (see here and here).]


TEL Mastery Standards are a collection of competencies and outcomes related to 21st-century skills. They are a foundational component in our efforts to design learning experiences that result in the relevant application of course information and the demonstrable mastery of core skills.

Designing for 21st-Century Competencies

Now that we have published the TEL Mastery Standards on our website, I thought it might be helpful to discuss, briefly, how we use these standards in our learning design process. Not surprisingly, identifying these mastery standards as a primary learning-outcome goal for our courses has required us to rethink both the design and development processes related to our courses.

In traditional course design, instructors and instructional designers generally treat the acquisition of specific course information as the primary course goal. With this goal in mind, they focus first on defining the right general scope and sequence for presenting information in the course. Once they have decided the scope of the information to be covered, they then define specific information-acquisition outcomes. This step defines the core information students are responsible for. The final steps involve curating/creating the actual content for the course and building assignments and assessments that are consistent with the course outcomes.

The ultimate weakness of this design process is that the emphasis of a course inevitably ends up being information acquisition — demonstrating memorization of and ability to manipulate information — as opposed to relevant information application and competency mastery.

That said, the process makes sense in higher education for a number of reasons. First, information as a core course component is fairly universal and scales well across many departments and disciplines. In addition, teaching information works well aligns nicely with most institutions’ focus on faculty as the primary catalysts for teaching/learning. Faculty are information experts and, as such, should concentrate on sharing that information. Finally, information acquisition is easier to teach and assess relative to thinking and professional skills/competencies. It requires a less sophisticated approach to curriculum design, instruction, and assessment.

When we shift the focus from information acquisition to relevant information application and competency mastery, however, our design process is altered significantly. Since we are now prioritizing students’ ability to demonstrate the mastery of information and competencies in relevant ways, we must start the design process by identifying the specific knowledge application and competency areas that will be covered. The next step in the process is to identify the types of mastery assignments that are required to assess students’ competency and their ability to apply the information they have acquired. Once these steps are complete, we can proceed to create a course outline. This involves identifying and scaffolding the content and outcomes that will support the information acquisition and competency goals for the course. Only after we’ve worked through these steps are we ready to begin the content development process.

Let’s take a close-up look at how this process plays out in the development of an actual course: College Readiness. This is a 1-hour course intended to help students develop the necessary skills to be successful in their college coursework.

In this case, members of TEL’s Curriculum Development team worked with subject matter experts to identify the information application and competency areas in which students completing the course should be able to demonstrate mastery.

Once this initial map was in place, the team then moved on to outline the types of mastery assignments they might create to allow students to demonstrate their abilities.

Finally, they created a course outline, containing proposed content coverage, scaffolding, and learning outcomes, that would best promote the information and skills mastery they identified in the first two steps.

Designing TEL Mastery Standards to Scale

One of the most important considerations in the creation of TEL Mastery Standards has been the insistence on two specific criteria: (1) the competency outcomes must be measurable; (2) the competency outcomes must support close alignment with diverse subject areas and curricula.

It’s critical that students, instructors, and potential employers can see the close alignment between competency outcomes and the evidence students create to demonstrate mastery. In fact, this requirement has led to the greatest number of competency-outcome rejections in our creation process. We came up with many competency-outcome statements that looked good initially but that were too difficult to make measurable across different courses.

It is also important that our competency outcomes make sense in terms of a broad curriculum. The competencies comprised in our Essential Skills, Thinking Skills, and Professional Skills categories must be as equally applicable to English Comp 1 and American Government as they are to Economics and Physical Science.

Finally, TEL Mastery Standards must be designed to align not only with our curriculum but with curricula from other organizations, institutions, and companies. We have worked hard to create a set of competencies that can be shared and reused, and are placing them under a CC-BY license that allows anyone to use them in whatever way makes the most sense. We welcome and encourage their broad use, reuse, and remixing.

Rob Reynolds, Ph.D.
Executive Director, TEL Library

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