Core Competencies

For more than 50 years, SYA has pioneered new teaching and learning methods suitable for education abroad. We continually review our practices to ensure that we are providing our students with the highest- quality education possible. SYA’s move towards competency-based assessment is part of that ongoing evolution.Traditional assessment, developed in the 20th century, is a model based on student uniformity. Every student is treated the same. In the traditional model, an individual teacher decides on an arbitrary level of perfection in the form of an A+ or 100%. The teacher’s job is to assess student work by measuring students’ inability to meet that mark.

While this traditional approach works for tasks like memorization or lower-level skills, it is not particularly well-suited to project-based learning in schools focused on interdisciplinary education. It also shortchanges high-achieving students who are often not challenged by the arbitrary A+. The alternative is to focus assessment on measuring student successes through a school-wide collection of competencies and to remove the arbitrary interpretation of perfection so that even the highest- achieving students engage fully and enthusiastically.

The SYA Core Competencies are a collection of 22 student skills in seven competency areas. These competencies represent over a year of work by SYA faculty to identify an array of skills that are uniquely well-suited to the environment abroad. These skills go well beyond the traditional academic environment to challenge students in ways only possible at SYA.

Focusing on competencies allows SYA to provide an engaging experience with infinite room for student growth. Unlike traditional assessment environments, high-achieving students always have a new project, activity or problem to challenge them.


While students are expected to work towards the SYA Competencies as part of their courses and experiences at SYA, every student also enrolls in the SYA Practicum, a credit-bearing course that uses SYA Core Competencies as the sole basis for assessment. This first-of- its-kind course allows students to engage in competency-based education in an authentic environment with a genuine impact on their overall educational experience.

The SYA Practicum is best imagined as an all-encompassing “SYA class,” incorporating all aspects of the student experience: numerous fieldwork opportunities, involvement in the community and engagement with the host family. We believe that the learning environment extends well beyond the classroom walls, and therefore Practicum is designed to continually present students with opportunities to challenge themselves. Students work with their advisor regularly to manage their progress and engage in regular self-assessment of the competency goals. This individualized approach ensures that students consistently feel supported and challenged.

An essential part of the Practicum is the SYA Capstone Project. More than just a “final project,” students must engage in extensive primary source research, participate actively in the community and engage in a public display of their work based on a metacognitive view of their studies. The Capstone Project provides students with the opportunity to showcase their yearlong growth through a comprehensive, experiential and place-based project on the topic of their choice.

“Working with competencies helps SYA students build on a strong academic base with a series of skills that will enable them to navigate the complexity of an interdependent world. It’s no coincidence that these skills are part of the same skill set competitive colleges and universities are looking for in prospective students.”

— Dr. Aric J. Visser, Former Head of Schools and Programs


SYA Core Competencies



SYA was founded on the premise that students from competitive high schools across the U.S. could spend one academic year abroad and receive credit for their courses. To accomplish this goal, SYA recruited the most talented faculty it could find and transplanted the American high school classroom experience abroad. While that model worked for a very long time, 21st century best practice in education looks very different.

The SYA curriculum redesign project was launched as an effort to continue our tradition of innovation in education abroad. Some aspects have not changed. SYA still recruits world-class faculty, and students still return home with transferable credits, including credits in math and English, reinforced by SYA’s accreditation by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC).

How students receive those transferable credits has and will continue to change. As seen in the SYA Practicum, we have been able to reinforce our belief that students learn best when engaged in real-world participation using a model focusing on experience, student choice and transdisciplinary and place-based coursework.

Each year the SYA Core Competencies will play a larger role in student assessment at SYA. This will help us remove the arbitrary barriers between disciplines, challenge students to be authors in their own education and thereby continue to be what we always strive to be — the highest-quality study abroad experience in the world.