Physics Lecture Hall

Core Competencies


In 2013 the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) revised the Handbook of Accreditation to include an expectation that each institution assess student learning and achievement in relation to five core competencies. The core competencies, intended to capture the broad spirit of liberal education, are:

  • Written communication
  • Quantitative reasoning
  • Oral communication
  • Information literacy
  • Critical thinking

WASC leaves it is up to each campus to decide how and where to assess these core competencies. Because these skill sets vary in their importance in each discipline and may also look different in the context of each discipline, UCR's current approach is to assess the core competencies in each department as part of the annual reporting process. The focus shifts from year to year such that all are accessed on a five year cycle. The first cycle was completed in AY 2016-17 and the second cycle began in AY 2017-18.

Specifically, the last section of the annual assessment report template asks about: (a) expectations for majors in terms of developing skills in the area being assessed that year (e.g., oral communication), (b) how and where in the curriculum students would acquire those skills, (c) which department level student learning outcomes are linked to the same, and (d) when the last time the student learning outcomes linked to that competency were assessed and what was found. Because each core competency may vary in importance in each discipline, it is not required that departments assess each core competency specifically in the terms used by WASC. Rather the report asks departments to articulate expectations for their majors that line up with the core competencies, provide information about what those expectations are, and, where possible, information about the extent to which students are meeting those expectations.

Below is a list of the five core competencies, a definition of each, when departments will be expected to report on each core competency, and some resources that might be useful for assessing each core competency. This is meant to be informative, and not prescriptive. Departments are encouraged to think about what each competency means in their disciplinary context; rubrics may be modified in that light and, as always, departments are encouraged to develop their own assessment methods.

  • Quantitative Reasoning (AY 2018-19)

    Quantitative reasoning was first assessed in AY 2013-14, the Office of Evaluation and Assessment will ask departments to report on quantitative reasoning again in AY 2018-19.

    WASC defines quantitative reasoning as “the ability to apply mathematical concepts to the interpretation and analysis of quantitative information in order to solve a wide range of problems, from those arising in pure and applied research to everyday issues and questions. It may include such dimension as the ability to apply math skills, judge reasonableness, communicate quantitative information, and recognize the limits of mathematical or statistical methods” (WASC Handbook 2013, p 55).

    Perhaps more than the other competencies, quantitative reasoning looks different in different disciplines and, thus, need not be understood only in the terms of WASC’s definition. It can be understood, at a basic level, as seeing mathematics as a way to think - not just a set of techniques - and some degree of confidence when thinking in a quantitative fashion. Other ways of thinking about quantitative reasoning include a habit of mind centered on “meaning-making” with numbers or an aspect of citizenship in so far as numbers are a principal component of public argument (e.g.,statistics presented by the media in relation to important issues). Quantitative reasoning also includes the ability to see the limitations of numerical data.

    Departments wishing to assess the skills of their students in quantitative reasoning may want to use, or adapt and modify, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) rubric for assessing quantitative reasoning (available here).

  • Oral Communication (AY 2019-20)

    Oral communication was first assessed in AY 2014-15 and the Office of Evaluation and Assessment will again ask departments to  focus on gathering assessment data about oral communication in AY 2019-20.

    WASC defines oral communication as “communication by means of spoken language for informational, persuasive, and expressive purposes. In addition to speech, oral communication may employ visual aids, body language, intonation, and other non-verbal elements to support the conveyance of meaning and connection with the audience” (WASC Handbook 2013, p 53). Oral communication will look very different in, say, the preforming arts and social sciences. Even where disciplines may not think of their majors as likely to "take the stage," the articulation of discipline-specific knowledge -- either in explaining important concepts to non-specialists or in the presentation of research to peers -- may be important.

    As examples of how one might assess oral communication, there are rubrics developed by the AAC&U for oral communication (here) and by the National Communication Association for competent communication (here).

  • Information Literacy (AY 2020-21)

    Information literacy was first assessed at UCR in AY 2015-16 and departments will be expected to report on expectations they have for their students in terms of information literacy again n 2020-21.

    WASC defines information literacy as “the ability to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use the needed information for a wide range of purposes” (WASC Handbook 2013, p 51). Undergraduate students today can access an amount and variety of information today that is unparalleled in human history. It is less clear if they know how best to access it, how to judge the relative quality of information from various sources, and fully understand when and how to bring evidence into a discussion. Information literacy, then, encompasses a variety of skills from making the judgment that more information is needed, to searching the academic literature and web for more information, and then documenting what information was used.

    For examples of how one might assess information literacy, there are rubrics developed by the AAC&U (here).

  • Critical Thinking (AY 2021-22)

    Critical thinking was assessed in AY 2016-17 and departments will be expected to report on expectations they have for their students in terms of critical thinking again in 2021-22.

    WASC defines critical thinking as “the ability to think in a way that is clear, reasoned, reflective, informed by evidence, and aimed at deciding what to believe or do” (WASC Handbook 2013, p 47). While the ability to think critically about particular issues and topics is a key goal for undergraduate education in every discipline, in some cases critical thinking may be directed at points beyond one's immediate social or cultural environment while in others it may be directed to process at the micro or macro-level of the physical world around us. For some disciplines imparting the ability to think critically, in the broadest sense, is the defining characteristic of their intellectual enterprise. Departments are free to assess students' abilities to think critically at any level.

    An example of how to assess critical thinking can be found in the rubrics developed by the AAC&U (here).

  • Written Communication (AY 2022-23)

    Written communication was last assessed at the campus level in AY 2012-13, and the results are available here. In AY 2017-18 the Office of Evaluation and assessment is asking departments to report on written communication. 

    Written communication is defined by WASC as “communication by means of written language for informational, persuasive, and expressive purposes. Written communication may appear in many forms or genres. Successful written communication depends on mastery of the conventions of the written language, facility with culturally accepted structures for presentation and argument, awareness of audience, and other situation-specific factors” (WASC Handbook 2013, p 58). Written communication is important in a number of disciplines and, perhaps more than the other core competencies, central to what it means to be an educated person. Effective communication of complex ideas in written form is key to exchange ideas at the center of the academic enterprise; employers state effective written communication is a key qualification for many jobs.

    Departments wishing to assess the skills of their students in written communication may want to use, or adapt and modify, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) rubric for assessing written communication (available here).