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A beginner's guide to competency-based education

Nhi Nguyen
Rebecca LeBoeuf
Rebecca LeBoeuf
July 24, 2023
Table of Contents

Paul LeBlanc, President of Southern New Hampshire University, one of the most influential figures in higher education according to Forbes, made a bold statement regarding the state of education:  

Today’s system of higher education is ill-equipped to serve the most rapidly growing student populations: those who come from low-income backgrounds and who received uneven preparation in high school; those who attend college part-time, swirl across multiple institutions, drop in and out of college, and juggle their studies with work and family responsibilities."

Competency-based education (CBE), according to Paul, would then be the perfect approach to establish a more inclusive, skill-based curriculum that values lifelong learning and mastery of essential knowledge and skills.

There have been lots of documents explaining the framework; however, it can be too overwhelming for educators who want to start implementing CBE. That’s why we compiled this article to provide a comprehensive overview of competency-based education: its definition, benefits, as well as the practical steps to implement this approach.

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What is competency-based education?

Competency-based education remained a marginal part of teaching and learning strategies at higher education institutions for many years until its emphasis on student learning led to more initiatives adopting the method (McClarty & Gaertner, 2015).

According to Casey and Sturgis (2014), competency-based education is “a system of education designed to equitably ensure all students develop the success skills they will need for college, career and life”. The CBE method focuses on facilitating education that encourages students’ mastery of the core competencies – the ability to complete a task by integrating knowledge, skills, attitudes, and professionalism required for their chosen fields of study while allowing faculties to evaluate how well their learners accumulate the desired skills.

The CBE model presents “a foundation for personalized learning, shaping the culture, structure, and pedagogy, that allow students to play an active role in their learning and achieve this broader definition of success.” (Casey & Sturgis, 2014). This makes CBE different from traditional education, which focuses on the end results rather than the entire learning process.


Establishing a full understanding of competencies is critical in exploring CBE. The CBE framework centers around the concept of competencies, which refers to “skills, abilities, and knowledge needed to perform a specific task”. These competencies vary according to subject domains or degree programs.

Competencies can be easily confused with the terms “outcomes” and “learning objectives”. While “outcomes” and “learning objectives” refers to the expected specific performance and knowledge that students are expected to acquire after a course or activity, “competencies” encompass a broader connotation of what learners should be able to demonstrate as a result of the education.

To help educators better understand competencies, Albanese et al. (2008) summarized 5 main characteristics of the concept:

1. Focuses on the product or goal-state of the instructions

A competency should focus on the results of education rather than what and how students are taught. That is, learners should be able to use their acquired knowledge to solve problems, communicate effectively, make decisions, or work collaboratively (Gruppen et al., 2013). According to Gruppen et al. (2013), CBE focuses on ensuring that students reach the specified performance level in a competency, rather than the learning process.

2. Reflects expectations that are external to the immediate instructional program

The biggest goal of CBE is to encourage students to develop the skill sets and knowledge that are desired beyond the classroom. This means that competencies need to signify students’ ability to perform according to expectations determined by stakeholders outside of the educational program.

3. Expressible in terms of measurable behavior

Competencies should go beyond the exam results, and instead describe the behavioral components achieved by integrating knowledge and skills acquired throughout the learning experience.

4. Uses a standard for judging competence that is not dependent upon the performance of other learners

Each competence must be accompanied by explicit criteria or standards for determining whether or not the student has reached the required level of performance.

5. Informs learners, as well as other stakeholders, about what is expected of them

Competencies should be able to clearly define and communicate the values, goals, and priorities of the learning experience to students, instructors, policymakers, as well as other stakeholders within education.

Why CBE?

By focusing on the demonstration of mastery of knowledge and skills rather than accreditation, the competency-based approach presents a number of merits for both students and the institutions.

For students, the CBE design allows them to:

  • enjoy an equity-centered learning environment where they are empowered to take ownership of their learning process
  • receive timely, personalized feedback and support from peers and instructors;
  • demonstrate their knowledge and skills in multiple ways and at their own pace;
  • engage actively in authentic learning activities that help develop a growth mindset and lifelong skills.
  • receive transparency over learning expectations and assessment results
  • have greater flexibility in choosing when, where, and how to learn

For institutions, switching to a competency-based curriculum supports:

  • the creation of an inclusive, equitable learning environment where all students can learn with full engagement and support
  • development of essential knowledge and skills that students need in their real-life profession
  • the personalized learning approach aims to tailor the learning experience to each student’s strengths, needs, and interests.

According to Paul Leblanc, CBE “promises to transform accreditation. Instead of focusing on inputs—such as the size of an institution’s endowment, the percentage of faculty with Ph. D.s or the student-faculty ratio—accreditors would be encouraged to attend to outcomes, including the jobs graduates get and their postgraduation earnings.”

The challenges of CBE

Despite all these great benefits, competency-based programs are challenging to implement. In “Show what you know: A landscape analysis of competency-based education”, a report issued by the XQ institute, the authors outlined 6 main challenges in facilitating CBE regarding both the design and policy making.

  1. Defining competencies: Establishing a set of competencies that are clear and broad enough can be difficult, especially considering the lack of well-defined descriptions of work-ready skills.
  2. Transition challenges: Adopting CBE indicates the departure from traditional methods of teaching and learning, which undoubtedly require lots of work and investment from the institutions. From preparing for new roles and positions to making sure the faculties and students are ready to embrace the change in curriculum and learning culture, faculties need to invest a certain amount of time, finance, and effort to address these tasks.
  3. Tools and resources: Implementing CBE calls for relevant, multifunctional technology that can support content management, assessment practices, students’ data dashboard, dynamic scheduling, and more.
  4. Technical challenges: CBE produces a lot of data on student's performance, which calls for appropriate systems and infrastructure to collect, store, and process. Institutions then face several technical challenges such as a lack of a common student record, along with the limited capacity to combine formative feedback and assessment.
  5. Reporting: Implementing CBE would require the development of a new way to document students’ performance and outcomes, which can be difficult since universities have been relying on standardized testing.
  6. Accountability: A big challenge lies in overcoming the legal and policy obstacles to adopting a completely novel approach that departs from accreditation.

Despite all these great benefits, competency-based programs are challenging to implement. For one thing, they require faculty to identify a particular program or course’s learning objectives at a granular or atomic level. Then the faculty needs to design lessons and activities to bring students to competency and assessments that can evaluate whether or not they have attained mastery of the appropriate processes, procedures, and skills.

Practical steps to implement CBE

Since CBE is a relatively new educational approach, there hasn’t been consensus on how to design and implement this framework. Based on the existing research and reports created by institutions, and organizations, CBE adoption can be summarized in the following main steps:

1. Getting ready for CBE

Promoting inclusive education and providing training throughout the faculties is the first critical step to a successful transition to a competency-based framework.

“Having everyone committed to and being able to establish equity is the foundation of CBE implementation. This commitment must be established at different levels, including school systems (e.g., local education authorities), school leadership, and teachers.” Saad Shawer (2022) in How to implement competency-based education

CBE requires institutions to create an inclusive, equitable learning environment that addresses students’ learning diversity and gives them the same opportunities to master the competencies.

Training is another critical component when starting to adopt CBE. Each faculty member needs to develop a full understanding of how the framework differs from a traditional education model in terms of defining competency framework, creating activities design, and facilitating relevant assessment approaches.

This first step should be implemented as soon as possible to give both institutions and faculty members time to get acquainted with CBE and be ready to transfer the values to their students.

California Community Colleges also realized the positive impact of CBE and have been implementing the framework since 2020. Here is how the team kickstarted their CBE adoption:

  1. They started with forming a CBE work group to investigate the CBE overview and definition
  2. Based on the insights, they developed the academic standards and course approval for the CBE courses
  3. After this, policy and guidance focus areas were created to identify faculty roles, academic timelines, and the scalability of the CBE programs

More details of CBE implementation at the CCC can be found via their presentation on “Advancing Competency-Based Education for California Community Colleges”.

2. Defining a competency framework

“The central step in shifting from a traditional to a competency-based educationalframework is to define the target competencies for the specified set of learners.” (Gruppe, et al., 2013)

In essence, competencies must reflect both the educational goals and the institutional or national policy.

Each competency should focus on the knowledge and skills application in authentic scenarios of the subject domain and can be translated into a number of learning outcomes (LOs).

In summary, the process of defining competencies should involve:

  • A list of competencies at the target level
  • Competencies to be formulated by all concerned stakeholders (e.g., school leadership, teachers, graduates, employers, SMEs, community representatives) rather than a single person or party
  • Competencies must target knowledge and skills application in real-life situations rather than content understanding
  • Each competency must be broken down into a set of measurable LOs
  • Competencies must be shared with students before the course starts

The competencies may vary across the subject domains and profession that the students are pursuing, below are some examples of competencies developed by different organizations and institutions:

The report Levers and Logic Models: A Framework to Guide Research and Design of High-Quality Competency-Based Education Systems by iNACOL and CompetencyWorks identified four competency-based education models that should form the framework of a good system.

3. Providing self-regulated and flexible learning options

For the California Community Colleges, CBE is the perfect framework to help institutions prepare students for their careers, and meet the demands of changing technology, employer demands, and societal shifts. This is because CBE allows for flexibility in both teaching and learning. Competency-based curriculum lets faculties provide instructions and support that address each individual learner’s needs and preferences, and students enjoy multiple means to demonstrate their mastery of the competencies.

After deciding on sufficient competencies, faculties need to devise a range of activities that encourage students to achieve the desired skills and address their diverse learning needs and preferences.

Within the competency-based model, institutions are free to adopt and experiment with multiple pedagogical approaches to create customizable, flexible, and scalable learning experiences for each learner. Below are some of the effective approaches to designing learning activities within the CBE framework.

Personalized instruction addresses the diversity in students’ learning needs and interests. Students are encouraged to take ownership of their own learning by constructing their own educational pathway, from learning goals, and activities to assessment. Adopting personalized instruction involves a deep understanding of students ‘ learning needs; a combination of summative and formative assessment; as well as provision of continuous feedback.

You can read more about this approach and how to implement them in this article.

Active learning strategies are also great ways to create inclusive, authentic learning activities that foster mastery of competencies. Active learning strategies require instructors to utilize multiple teaching approaches like the flipped classroom, team-based learning, collaborative learning, and more in order to foster active engagement and development of real-life skills.

4. Assessing learners for competencies

“Without evidence of the learner’s ability to fulfill a given competency, it is impossible to judge the success of either that individual or the educational program. The diversity of competencies defined for a given set of learners also requires a diverse set of assessment methods.”

A major challenge facing competency-based education (CBE) is to ensure the effective use of robust assessment methodologies that result in useful performance-relevant information (PRI) by which to provide feedback on learning and make decisions about learner progression.

However, “the major development effort” of CBE lies in “the design of appropriate performance assessments (Harris & Keller, 1976). It is critical that the successful adoption of the CBE model ensures the effective use of robust assessment methodologies that result in useful performance-relevant information (PRI) by which to provide feedback on learning and make decisions about learner progression. Assessments in CBE aim to generate rich information, or data about students’ performance which can enable timely intervention, adjustments, and effective evaluation decisions. To produce ample data for assessing students' competencies, triangulation is the key. Triangulation involves harmonizing both traditional and modern assessment approaches across a longitudinal basis to generate the whole picture of a student’s “competency” and make “high-stakes decisions”. Competency-based assessments rely on a variety of formats ranging from objectively-scored, performance-based, standardized testing to authentic assessments.

Among these, authentic assessment stands out to be a critical element of CBE as it addresses several principles of the model, such as real-life skills development, inclusivity, and personalized learning.

Programmatic assessment has also emerged as a great evaluation methodology for the CBE model, due to its reliance on abundant learning data and methods to collect these data. Most importantly, this evaluation approach makes sure:

  • There are multiple points and methods for data collection.
  • Methods for data collection match the quality of the competency being assessed.
  • Emphasis is placed upon workplace observation.
  • Emphasis is placed on providing personalized, timely, meaningful feedback.
  • Progression is based on documentation of achievement. There is a robust system for decision-making.

Since we can’t cover in detail the assessment approaches mentioned, you can explore each of these in our in-depth articles:


“The best education we can offer is not the fastest nor the cheapest. It’s an education that involves frequent, substantive interaction with classmates and a scholar. It also provides access to a broad curriculum and to laboratories, libraries, studios, performance venues, and extracurriculars.” – Paul Leblanc

CBE is expected to be the flexible and effective approach to help institutions provide sustainable, inclusive learning experiences that cater to all learners of varied learning preferences and nurture lifelong skills.

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