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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.

Competencies

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.

Competencies and Learning Outcomes 

Though describing the desired goals that students need to achieve by the end of their study, competencies and learning outcomes are different indicators of students’ learning progress.

In the table below you can find a differentiation of these two concepts: 

Competencies and Learning outcomes
Competencies and Learning Outcomes

Competency-based education and Outcome-based education

Competency-based education (CBE) is often mistaken for Outcome-based education (OBE). Despite sharing the focus on skills development, there are several factors that differentiate these two frameworks from each other. 

Outcome-based education (OBE) is an educational approach that focuses on the intended, desired learning outcomes resulting from instruction (Nicholson, 2011). These outcomes are closely linked to the standards defined by employers and the profession. The end goal of OBE is to help students become well-equipped with knowledge and skills to excel in their future work. 

Competency-based education (CBE) also emphasizes the mastery of skills and competencies. However, the method also aims to give students more ownership and responsibility. That is, students can decide on their strengths and areas for improvement, thus orienting and progressing along their learning trajectory at their own pace. 

The benefits of 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.

Conclusion

“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.

References

Albanese MA, Mejicano G, Mullan P, Kokotailo P, Gruppen L. Defining characteristics of educational competencies. Med Educ. 2008 Mar;42(3):248-55. Doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2923.2007.02996.x. PMID: 18275412. Mcclarty, Katie & Gaertner, Matthew. (2015). Measuring mastery: Best practices for assessment in competency-based education. 

Sturgis, C., & Casey, K. (2018). Levers and logic models: A framework to guide research and design of high-quality competency-based education systems. https://www.inacol.org/resource/levers-and-logic-models-a-framework-to-guide-researc-and-design-of-high-quality-competency-based-education-systems/

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