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A Best Practice Guide for implementing Liberal Arts and Sciences at European Higher Education Institutions, offered to you by EPICUR European University Alliance


Competence orientation

What is a competence-oriented approach in higher education?
“In the field of higher education, two aspects of competence orientation are particularly important. Competence orientation implies a new approach to teaching and learning that noticeably differs from the traditional, content-oriented approach (‘shift from teaching to learning’) and that enables students to cope better with the times of information overflow and accumulation of knowledge we find ourselves in. 
Competence orientation goes hand in hand with the Bologna Process, the introduction of Bachelor’s and Master’s programmes and external quality assurance (accreditation). Competence orientation is thus a modern approach to teaching and learning, aiming at providing students with competences that enable them to deal actively with new knowledge and unknown situations instead of simply conveying new contents.”
(Schröder, 2015, p.1, emphases ours).
While the development of competences is an agreed upon goal (e.g., Bucharest Communique, 2012), many higher education stakeholders may be unaware of what competences entail and how their development can strategically be fostered.
To design a study program that fosters competence development, you first need to define what it is you seek to develop. While many definitions of "competence" exist (compare Weinert, 2001), the term “competences” is often used interchangeably “knowledge” or “skills”; however, competences entail:
„[…] more than just knowledge and skills. It involves the ability to meet complex demands, by drawing on and mobilising psychosocial resources (including skills and attitudes) in a particular context. For example, the ability to communicate effectively is a competency that may draw on an individual’s knowledge of language, practical IT skills and attitudes towards those with whom he or she is communicating.”
(OECD, 2005, p. 4)
Competences are […] „the capacity to respond to individual, or societal, demands in order to perform an activity or complete a given task. They are developed through acting and interacting in both formal and informal educational or professional contexts, and require going beyond the mere reproduction of acquired knowledge. At its highest level, this conceptualization of competence implies to choose and adapt from within the acquired processes those ones necessary to solve an unknown complex task or problem.“ (Tinoca, Pereira & Oliveira, 2014)
„[…] competence is the selection and combination of relevant knowledge, skills, attitudes, values and rules that allow us to respond to a complex situation in a given context.“ (Cano & Ion, 2014, p.80,  following Perrenoud, 2004)“
In the European Qualifications Framework for Lifelong Learning, “competence means the proven ability to use knowledge, skills and personal, social and/or methodological abilities, in work or study situations and in professional and personal development.”
These definitions of competence in the realm of higher education illustrate:
  • If you want students to develop competences in your program, you need to consider not only their development of knowledge and (cognitive and/or behavioral) skills, but also their attitudes as they relate to values, motivation, and volition. Competence is the development of all of the above in combination.
  • LAS programs integrate all elements of competence development due to their goals, structure and innovative approaches to learning and teaching. See examples of competences that may be developed in LAS programs here and how to foster their development here.
In a competence-oriented approach, you start your curriculum design with your goals - that is, you use the intended educational outcomes of your study program as a starting point. In subsequent processes, you design your curriculum in consideration of and alignment with these goals (e.g., Schröder, 2015).

The competence-oriented curriculum process may be split into phases (compare Klein & Weiß, 2016). For each phase, we have prepared the main questions to answer:

0) Questions in preparation of the curriculum development process:
  • Who is involved in your curriculum design?
  • Which perspectives do they bring to the process?
  • Do you want/need to involve other stakeholders to benefit from their input and thus avoid potentially tedious revision processes at later stages of implementation (e.g., student and teaching staff representatives, administrative staff concerned with accreditation, higher education didactics professionals, …)?
Phase 1)
Choosing a competence-oriented approach to designing the curriculum for your study program may be beneficial for multiple reasons and in different stages of your study program, e.g.:
  • Curriculum development that starts with targeted student competences can help identify and structure components (e.g., modules) within the curriculum (compare, e.g., Schaper, 2012).

  • Competence-orientated curriculum design may foster co-creation. You can integrate input from different stakeholders (e.g., administrators, teaching staff, students) from the start, involving them in the identification of competences to be developed in your study program (compare, e.g., the EUA’s Vision for 2030) .

  • Accordingly, competence-oriented curriculum design can make quality assurance, including accreditation processes easier (compare, e.g., The European Qualifications Framework (European Union, 2018) and Schröder, 2015).

  • Competence-orientation may drive innovation in approaches to teaching and learning, the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning and enhance student-centred education fostering the shift ‚from teaching to learning‘ (compare, e.g., Loukkola & Peterbauer, 2019).

  • Communication (e.g., with teaching staff, external lecturers, students, on your website) will be clearer and more aligned when programs activities clearly relate to competences students will develop throughout their studies.
Targeted Competences
Developing Competences
Related Wiki pages
Further resources
Further resources to support your curriculum development process may be found here:
  • The EU Thematic Peer Group on Curriculum Design (2020) has provided components of „ideal“ curricula, crucial points to consider when deciding on policies and practices for successful implementation of that component, as well as ideas and best practice examples. While not explicitly stating it, the recommendations and hands-on advice included in this report embrace a competence-oriented approach to curricular design.
  • This practical guide by Kennedy, Hyland and Ryan may support you in „Writing and Using Learning Outcomes”
  • This brief yet comprehensive overview (Schröder, 2015) provides information on competence-oriented study programs, their development and assessment (in English).

Last edited: 26. Oct 2022, 09:48, [sr1149@uni-freiburg.de]