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, Head of Schools and Programs


SYA Core Competencies


Language Immersion

Student demonstrates dedication to language immersion through successful participation in activities such as language pledges, target language use in the school building and the local community and responsible use of technology in the target language for academic and leisure purposes.

Language Growth

Student consistently demonstrates significant individual growth in language level appropriate for a comprehensive yearlong study abroad program, regardless of ability at program start.

Advanced Language Proficiency

Student achieves a level of target language mastery determined to be appropriate for all student participants.

Colloquial Speech and Pronunciation

Student demonstrates the ability to speak using local colloquial speech, shows an understanding of social context and is able to comfortably switch among registers. Student’s pronunciation does not interfere with the ability to communicate effectively.

Time Management

Student can effectively and consistently organize and execute responsibilities and commitments while managing distraction in a variety of environments.

Physical Independence

Student can skillfully navigate unknown places and situations using local resources such as visual and auditory clues, knowledge of cultural norms and information from strangers. Student can use high- and low-tech tools to efficiently travel from one place to another with missing or unreliable information.


Student seeks out and engages in challenging and meaningful work. Student consistently demonstrates the ability to manage and complete multiple projects and responsibilities with little or no need for outside reinforcement.

Technological Responsibility

Student displays the ability to maintain a healthy and productive relationship with technology by demonstrating responsible-use habits that enhance their ability to participate in the local environment.

Cooperative Work

Student displays the ability to collaborate effectively with others through organization, cooperation and a shared sense of duty to produce complex and quality projects.

Community Participation

Student displays the ability to use local resources to further their studies and enhance their overall experience.

Host Family Integration

Student regularly and thoughtfully engages with their host family through sharing meals, planning and participating in activities and making an effort to be an active member of the family.

Perspective Taking

Student displays knowledge of local perspectives on common issues and demonstrates the ability to frame a complex argument using a local cultural lens.

Cultural Literacy and Norms

Student demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of and the ability to emulate and participate in the cultural norms of the host country.

Cultural Self-Recognition

Student can use the environment abroad to clearly identify their own cultural norms.

Research Skills

Student demonstrates the ability to recognize and utilize high-quality sources, both primary and secondary.

Critical Reflection

Student demonstrates the metacognitive ability to critically reflect on their experience abroad and their approach to educational challenges.

Creative Production and Adaptation

Student uses the environment abroad to produce new and unique ideas and solutions to challenges.

Responsible Decision-Making

Student uses the environment abroad to make choices demonstrating a dedication to learning, kindness and personal safety.

Embodies Community Norms

Student consistently adheres to the community norms created by SYA students and faculty.

Focused Observation

Student demonstrates the ability to engage in deep observation of ideas and their environment.


Student demonstrates the ability to withhold judgement and foster an environment that supports the free exchange of ideas.

Responsible Risk-Taking

Student demonstrates the ability to take educational and social risks by engaging in new activities, ideas and social opportunities.


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.