Principles of CBTE: Holistic Assessment

February 15, 2021

by Greg Henson, President

At the close of last week’s post on integrated outcomes, I wrote, “How then, one may ask, does the seminary ensure students develop and display proficiency of each outcome with the level of specificity needed for a particular context?” It is a question I am commonly asked. Sometimes people are not always pleased with my answer because I usually respond with the question, “How does that happen in conventional systems of education?”

The short answer to both questions is “through assessment!” While competency-based theological education (CBTE) is many things, it is most definitely a system of assessment. Where CBTE, and especially the type of CBTE practiced in Kairos, differs from conventional education is in how the work of assessment is understood and therefore practiced. We will dive into some of those things today as we close out our discussion on the six principles of competency-based theological education. In case you missed them, the others are collaborative missionmentored teamwork , contextualized discipleshipcustomized proficiency, and integrated outcomes.

As we have said in previous posts, CBTE begins with the end in mind. That is to say that “each program in Kairos has a set of outcomes (i.e. integrated learning goals) that have been developed and refined over the course of many years through conversations with a wide range of people, contexts, and Christian traditions.” All participants are held accountable to these outcomes while the path people take toward demonstrating proficiency of them might vary. As many have said over the years, “You measure what matters.” In Kairos, what matters are the outcomes.

To revisit the question we started with, how then do we ensure that students develop and display proficiency of each outcome with the level of specificity needed for a particular context? In our experience, that happens through holistic assessment.

We define holistic assessment as integrated or comprehensive assessment that requires demonstration of how students integrate learning across domains (i.e., learning outcomes) and categories (i.e., content, character, and craft). This type of assessment invites students to demonstrate not only proficiency of content, character, and craft within a particular domain but also the ability to integrate each of those categories within an outcome and across multiple domains. Lack of character can nullify one’s proficiency of content or the quality of one’s craft. Even students of exceptional character need to gain the necessary skills. It is hard to imagine any competence in craft could be achieved without the requisite grasp of content or practice of character. An effective assessment system must integrate all three.

Holistic assessment is a lot to ask. The student and mentors, clearly, will need to adopt a submissive spirit, showing a willingness to be assessed to a degree that might not be possible or even appropriate without consent (more on this later). But as a school that stewards a system like this, we must also submit ourselves to assessing the effect of own efforts. Poor student performance might reflect more upon the school than it does upon the student. To know the degree to which this might be the case is itself a reason to engage in robust assessment.

To better understand the nuances of holistic assessment, we talk about six aspects of holistic assessment: Ongoing and All-Encompassing Evaluation, Longitudinal Engagement, General Rubrics, Relational Authority, and Multi-Faceted Evaluation. In the paragraphs that follow, I will describe briefly each aspect. Obviously, much more could be said about each.

Ongoing and All-Encompassing Evaluation
For holistic assessment to work, everyone and everything that is part of the assessment process must be evaluated in some sort of systemized fashion. Students, mentors, faculty, technology, institutional structures and practices, staff, facilities – everything – needs to be part of a commitment to continuous improvement. As a result, this means that organizations submit themselves to a life of ongoing and unending change. For CBTE to work, schools cannot live with a “fix it and forget it” mindset.

Longitudinal Engagement
Assessment produces the best and most reliable results when it happens over a period of time that aligns with 1) the vocational goals of the student, 2) the pace the student wishes to move, and 3) the credential being pursued by the student. In some cases, this may be several years and in other cases it may be several months. In all cases, it must be done in the context of a community that can observe one’s learning and development over time. It is this point that requires the development, training, and empowerment of mentor teams. With a view into the life of a student from multiple angles, the mentor team can watch students make progress over time as they develop toward proficiency.

Generalized Rubrics
When coupled with longitudinal engagement, generalized rubrics not only encourage deeper but also more integrated learning. Task-specific and analytical rubrics have their place, but they are not useful tools for assessing integrated outcomes. In addition, generalized rubrics create space for a diverse learning community. Whereas task-specific and analytical rubrics impose one way of viewing a particular task or concept, generalized rubrics provide space for students and mentor teams to develop the personal, communal, and theological identity required of them in their context. Customized proficiency and contextualized discipleship are not possible without generalized rubrics that guide the assessment of integrated outcomes.

Alasdair MacIntyre’s argument that traditions only grow as they face a crisis is instructive for us in how learning is always about solving problems that arise in the context of community. General assessment practices invite students to identify problems that arise in the context of their communities, to address those problems through a generative action-reflection process, and to assess learning related to that process in the context of a diverse community. Task-specific assessment, on the other hand, forces students to solve a problem that may not even exist in their context, to address that problem using language that meets a particular theology which may also be foreign, and often assumes that assessment of learning does not require a relationship with the student.

Relational Authority
The very nature of the triune God is relational. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that God works in and through relationships. We must do the same. Human beings are designed to be in relationship with God and others. It is in and through these relationships that one is formed into the likeness of Christ, made aware of who God is and what God wants to do through her or him. It is also through these relationships that we are invited to reflect God’s wise stewardship into this world.

The primary relationship is the one that students have with their mentor teams. Because mentors are in relationship with a student over a period of years, they develop a well-rounded view of the student and earn the privilege to provide feedback to the student as they develop competency within a given program’s outcomes. The relational fabric that connects mentors and students strengthens positive feedback and opens the door to authentic and deep constructive feedback. If a faculty mentor first builds a relationship with a student, when the time comes to give feedback that might be difficult for a student to hear, the faculty mentor’s voice will be heard through the filter of relational trust rather than through the filter of positional power. In short, mentors can speak truth because they have earned trust through a relationship and not because they have been given power through a particular role.

Multi-Faceted Evaluation
Evaluation of student learning invites mentor teams to evaluate students from multiple angles, thereby enhancing the quality and reliability of assessment. Specifically, it requires mentor teams to gather information about learning and development by 1) evaluating artifacts produced by students, 2) observing students as they perform tasks, and 3) having conversations that encourage students to articulate what they are thinking. By gathering information through each of these means, mentors gain a more holistic impression of the student’s proficiency of content, character, and craft.

Holistic assessment is a big ask. It requires time, integrated thinking, humility, and relationships rooted in trust. We believe, however, that it is worth the investment of time and energy because it has a greater potential to produce reliable results.

As we close this review of the six principles of competency-based theological education, we move into a new series focused on the six organizational practices that create fertile soil for CBTE. See you next week!

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