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Aligning Assignments to Leadership Competencies in an Online Master’s Program

Curriculum Planning and Development

Aligning Assignments to Leadership Competencies in an Online Master’s Program

Leadership is vital to an organization’s success. Leadership skills are in demand, both by employers looking to hire new college graduates (Gray & Koncz, 2020) and by executives identifying candidates for succession planning (Fulmer et al., 2009). A holistic approach to leadership development—which includes on-the-job learning, supervisor coaching, skills assessment, and formal education—is superior to any one tactic alone (Elmuti et al., 2005).

For many individuals, leadership development is a lifelong pursuit. I am the director of a graduate program for those who wish to include formal education in their leadership development plans: the master of professional studies (MPS) in the psychology of leadership (PSYLD), offered entirely online by Penn State World Campus. Below, I describe a project to improve the value of our program and support our students’ goals to become more effective leaders.


The PSYLD program is unique in its focus on applying research in psychology to solve practical problems in organizations, emphasizing the leader’s role. It was designed for individuals working in low- to mid-level leadership roles in their organizations and those who aspire to move into leadership roles. Students come to our program from many different fields and organizations. Adult students are intrinsically motivated to learn and are looking for programs that support their goals for career enhancement (Schiffer, 2017). The PSYLD program was designed to leverage that motivation and satisfy those goals.

The MPS degree is distinct from research-based master’s degrees (MA or MS) in its emphasis on practical application of knowledge. In our PSYLD program, students read the literature in leadership psychology, apply the literature to what they have observed in their organizations, and design interventions for addressing leadership problems. Some course assignments are traditional and academic, such as literature reviews on a given topic. Other assignments are designed to be authentic, asking students to apply what they learned to demonstrate the skills, tasks, and deliverables required in their organizations (Villarroel et al., 2018).

Continuous improvement is embedded in the way we run the program. Various assessments allow us to listen to our students and obtain actionable feedback. At the end of every course, students complete course evaluations of course and instructor quality. In the final capstone course, soon-to-be-graduates complete exit surveys on the value they derived from the program. Annually, students respond to feedback surveys with questions about courses, instructors, advising, and other aspects of the program. Themes that have emerged from those assessments over the years have driven improvements in the program. We diversified our course offerings; we improved advising and communication; and we raised our expectations on instructional practices. Two years ago, we identified another recurring theme to address: the relevance and authenticity of course assignments.

In the years since 2015 when the PSYLD program went live, the online education space has become more competitive, and programs focusing on leadership are particularly popular. Our World Campus marketing team examined IPEDS data on “organizational leadership distance programs” between 2015 and 2018 and found a nearly 40 percent increase in the number of programs. Programs differ widely in their emphases (i.e, liberal arts versus business), structure (i.e., condensed or accelerated versus a traditional semester calendar), and cost. Prospective students have more opportunities to shop around and find the programs that offer the most value for their limited tuition dollars. Given our recent student feedback and the increasingly competitive landscape, this was a good time to improve the authenticity of course assignments and increase our value proposition.

Improvement project: Assignment alignment

The literature on continuous improvement in higher education provides numerous models for conducting a curriculum improvement project (e.g., Kalu & Dyjur, 2018; Nair & Bennett, 2014). Anyone who embarks on a project like this should learn as much as they can about those models and then derive a model and plan that are appropriate to the size and scale of their program. In our case, the PSYLD program is relatively small, around 180 students. It was (and is) a solid program that did not need a wholesale revision. We framed our improvement project in the following ways:

  • Listening to student feedback: The improvement project was driven by recurring concerns about the authenticity of assignments.
  • Identifying a problem to be solved: We articulated a specific objective and narrowly scoped the plan.
  • Staying true to program learning objectives: We reviewed the curriculum from macro to micro levels, being careful not to “fix” what wasn’t “broken.”
  • Consulting with and obtaining buy-in from stakeholders: We sought support from my department chair, gathered input from faculty who taught the impacted courses, and collaborated with instructional designers.
  • Identifying what “good” looks like: We identified standards against which we would evaluate our improvements—standards that were logical and defensible.

In 2018, we launched the assignment alignment project. The goals of the project were to identify course assignments that were not as authentic as they could be and to align all assignments with the leadership competencies our students want to acquire and develop. Our definition of “authentic” was linked to those leadership competencies; learning about leadership should translate into stronger leadership competencies and skills.

We used Bartram’s Great Eight (2005) as our leadership competency model. Bartram’s model is one of several students learn about in the PSYLD program. The eight competencies and their behavioral examples are both specific enough to drive professional development and general enough to be applicable across career fields. Bartram’s model also is the basis of the leadership assessment center offered by Penn State’s industrial and organizational psychology program to selected resident undergraduates at Penn State. (See Jacobs et al., 2018, for more information about Penn State’s assessment center.)

The first step in our analysis was to examine all of our course objectives against the eight leadership competencies from Bartram’s model. The analysis found ample coverage of the following competencies: interacting and presenting, analyzing and interpreting, and creating and conceptualizing. But we also discovered insufficient coverage of the leading and deciding, supporting and cooperating, organizing and executing, adapting and coping, and enterprising and performing competencies.

The second step in the analysis was to examine the assignments offered in all of our courses. The learning objectives of every discussion, paper, and project were evaluated against the definitions of Bartram’s Great Eight competencies. Paul Obidinski conducted this monumental task. As we expected, many assignments reflected more than one competency. Results showed that the majority of our assessments tapped the interacting and presenting competency. Our assignments also showed ample coverage of the supporting and cooperating and analyzing and interpreting competencies. The other five competencies were underrepresented.

Overall, the analysis suggested that our curriculum was strong in coverage of competencies that reflected academic skills (e.g., communicating and analyzing) but could be stronger on professional skills (e.g., adapting and innovating). After prioritizing those courses that were most in need of revision, I enlisted the help of a few faculty colleagues and our instructional design team, and we got to work.

Examples of new assessments

Our Ethics in Leadership course was the first one we revised. Paul Obidinski took the lead because of his academic expertise in psychology and law combined with his professional experience in corporate ethics. One new assignment asked students to apply various codes of ethics to a hypothetical workplace scenario, formulate arguments for and against a conflict of interest finding, and in the role of director of ethics, recommend a solution to company executives.

Our Leadership for Creativity and Innovation course was the next one we revised. Eileen Schiffer took the lead on this one with her broad expertise in adult learning, organizational psychology, and instructional design. In a semester-long project, students now create proposals for new products, processes, or services for their organizations. Students receive feedback from peers at several checkpoints, and ultimately create presentations to pitch their proposals to their leaders. Eileen revised five more of our courses after that, and I revised four courses.

We added competency maps listing the assignments with the leadership competencies they emphasized to all course syllabi. We added an introduction to leadership competencies in the first required course of the program so students would be primed to think about competency development as they progressed through the program. Finally, we added a leadership competency self-assessment to the final capstone course so students could reflect on how the program had helped them develop as leaders.


The assignment alignment project took two and a half years; we revised 11 courses. We took a program that already was strong on the academic side, and we strengthened the professional side. Originally, it was designed to focus on the application of knowledge to solving practical problems in organizations. According to feedback from students and alumni, the program accomplished that goal even before we revised it. After we revised it, we believe we improved the value of the program and strengthened our competitive position in the online program marketplace. Course evaluations, annual feedback surveys, and future enrollment trends will tell us whether we hit the mark.

The MPS PSYLD program at Penn State provides working adults with opportunities to enhance their leadership competencies and distinguish themselves in their organizations. Returning to college as an adult to earn a master’s degree exemplifies that can-do spirit and commitment to continuous improvement that organizations value. One of our fall 2019 graduates described her commitment and transformation this way:

The program challenged me in all areas of my life! There were times when I did not think that I would be able to progress, but I did it. It teaches you this unspoken truth of what perseverance and resilience look like. I think that two things happen in grad school, one is you learn the content and two you learn about who you are.

It seems fitting that we should demonstrate our commitment to continuous improvement by strengthening our curriculum and increasing our value proposition. Leadership education changes organizations and changes lives.


Bartram, D. (2005). The Great Eight competencies: A criterion-centric approach to validation. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90(6), 1185–1203. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.90.6.1185

Elmuti, D., Minnis, W., & Abebe, M. (2005). Does education have a role in developing leadership skills? Management Decision, 43(7/8), 1018–1031. https://doi.org/10.1108/00251740510610017

Gray, K., & Koncz, A. (2020, January 16). The top attributes employers want to see on resumes. National Association of Colleges and Employers. https://www.naceweb.org/about-us/press/2020/the-top-attributes-employers-want-to-see-on-resumes

Jacobs, R. R., Griswold, K. R., Swigart, K. L., Loviscky, G. E., & Heinen, R. L. (2018). From campus to corporation: Using developmental assessment centers to facilitate students’ next career steps. Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council, 19(1),125–154. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/nchcjournal/567

Kalu, F., & Dyjur, P. (2018). Creating a culture of continuous assessment to improve student learning through curriculum review. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 155, 47–54. https://doi.org/10.1002/tl.20302

Mumford, T. V., Campion, M. A., & Morgeson, F. P. (2007). The leadership skills strataplex: Leadership skill requirements across organizational levels. The Leadership Quarterly, 18(2), 154–166. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2007.01.005

Nair, C. S., & Bennett, L. (2014). Using student satisfaction data to start conversations about continuous improvement. Quality Approaches in Higher Education, 2(1), 17–22.

Schiffer, E. F. (2017, November 27). Teaching adult students with considerable professional expertise. Faculty Focus. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-and-learning/teaching-adult-students-considerable-professional-expertise

Villarroel, V., Bloxham, S., Bruna, D., Bruna, C., & Herrera-Seda, C. (2018). Authentic assessment: creating a blueprint for course design, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 43(5), 840–854. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2017.1412396

Barbara Watters, PhD, is professor of practice and the MPS psychology of leadership program director at Pennsylvania State University. She taught organizational psychology and social psychology, among others. She also worked at a Fortune 500 company teaching leaders how to improve customer service, create new products and services, and develop skills.

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