Professional psychology’s competency movement — its push to ensure that practitioners are fully prepared to provide psychological services — has revolutionized the counseling psychology department at the University of North Dakota.

Using tools developed by APA and the Council of Chairs of Training Councils (CCTC), the department has completely overhauled the way it assesses its students. Beginning in their first semester, students must now demonstrate mastery of a set of skills, such as problem-solving, familiarity with the scientific literature and respect for differences. The department’s evaluation of students now includes assessing portfolios students have assembled to demonstrate their clinical, research and teaching skills and grading “interventions” in which students “treat” actors playing patients with various psychological symptoms.

University of North Dakota psychology professor Cindy L. Juntunen, PhD, is convinced that the emphasis on competencies will give students and early-career professionals the confidence they need for professional practice.

“I want our new professionals to ... be able to say, ‘I know how to manage the situations I’m going to encounter,’” says Juntunen, who chairs CCTC.

That’s just the kind of reaction APA and CCTC want to see as a result of their Assessment of Competency Benchmarks Work Group. Authorized by APA’s Board of Educational Affairs in 2005, the group went on to produce a “Competency Benchmarks” document. The document sets out 15 core skill areas in professional psychology — such as the ability to relate well with individuals or groups, understanding of ethical and legal issues and mastery of diagnosis, intervention and consultation — plus specific indicators that students have acquired these skills. A separate “toolkit” highlights more than a dozen strategies for determining whether or not students are competent.

Both tools are designed for use at three levels of education and training: readiness for practicum, readiness for internship and readiness for entry to practice. The ultimate goal? Safeguarding the public.

Outlining core competencies

Competency is a very hot topic across all of higher education, says Catherine Grus, PhD, associate executive director for professional education and training in APA’s Education Directorate. In medicine, for example, the accreditation board has mandated that education and training programs infuse a competency model into what they do.

While psychology’s accreditation system does require programs to focus and report on outcomes, there is no mandate to use the “Competency Benchmarks” document. It is a resource, says Grus, not a requirement. But psychology programs are embracing the measures as a way to enhance their quality, she says, explaining that the competency movement provides a convenient way to focus on education and training outcomes and measure those outcomes.

The Competency Benchmarks document identifies several “foundational” competencies: professionalism; reflective practice; scientific knowledge and methods; relationships; individual and cultural diversity; ethical and legal standards and policy; and interdisciplinary systems. The document also lists eight “functional” competencies: assessment, intervention, consultation, research and evaluation, supervision, teaching, administration and advocacy. For each competency, there is a definition, a list of essential components for each of the three training levels and “behavioral anchors.”

Take the competency related to scientific knowledge and methods. Essential components include scientific mindedness, understanding psychology’s scientific foundations and understanding practice’s roots in science. Behavioral anchors range from being aware of the need to support assertions with evidence at the practicum level to applying evidence-based concepts in practice.

Training and education programs can use the document to clarify expectations for students and systematically assess whether they are ready to move on to the next level of training, says Grus. Programs can also use the document to identify any gaps in their offerings and enhance the quality of their programs.

Designed to be a companion piece, the Competency Assessment Toolkit offers assessment strategies that allow programs to go beyond the traditional written and oral exams. Alternatives include case presentations, client satisfaction surveys and 360-degree evaluations in which teachers glean insights about a student’s competence from multiple sources.

Collaboration with training councils to develop the Competency Benchmarks document and toolkit was essential, says Cynthia Belar, PhD, executive director of APA’s Education Directorate.

“When we collaborate with CCTC, we’re really collaborating with most of the professional psychology education and training councils,” she says. “These are the organizations whose members are on the front line of providing education and training for our next generation of professional psychologists.”

The impact will go far beyond training programs, Belar predicts. “All of us are committed to improving education and training for the same reason — to provide the highest possible quality services to the public,” she says.

Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.