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4 Principles for Developing Competency-Based Programs in Higher Education

  • 4 Min Read

We look at how competency-based education (CBE) can successfully fit into existing college and university programs


Competency-based education (CBE) is an instructional model that is used to design class delivery, material, and assessments to help students master specific skills and competencies at their own pace. There isn’t a “one solution fits all” for creating CBE programs; rather, it’s about integrating varied opportunities for students to help them progress and demonstrate important skills in authentic contexts.

In this blog we look at how successful CBE programs can fit into existing college and university campus structures based on a framework suggested by Johnstone & Soares (2014).

1. Courses Reflect Robust Learning Competencies

One of the key benefits of CBE is that learning centers on real-world skills and competency development. Programs reflect the skills and knowledge that students will need for the next stage of their development, whether that’s further education or advancing their career.

At a program level, this is an iterative and progressive process, which includes evolving marketplace demands, academic expectations, and student needs to create robust competencies. This requires a partnership between academic and industry experts who not only develop these high-level competencies but also review and update them to guide the development of CBE programs.

2. Competencies Inform Class Material and Assessments

Once specific skills are outlined using marketplace demands such as problem-solving or communication skills, these then need to be translated into topics that can be formulated into programs. This means breaking down abstract goals into specific and measurable competencies that can be used to inform the selection of learning resources and assessments. This helps make sure that course material is not only informed by marketplace demands but is valid for students’ learning processes.

Throughout the course material creation and selection process, it’s important that this content is revisited. This process consists of reviewing and cross-referencing material and assessments back to the outlined education requirements such as learning competencies and outlined skills to support student success.

3. Students Have Support to Learn at Their Own Pace

CBE programs allow educators to organize student learning in a new and innovative way. While faculty and academic institutions remain in control of determining what students will learn and how this will be measured, students have increased autonomy in personalizing their learning in terms of pace. With this educational model, students are not constrained to review the same content at the same time and at the same pace. They can develop essential critical thinking skills by identifying, assessing, and sharing high-quality content on their own.

According to Johnstone & Soares (2014), in order to have this flexibility in learning, a CBE program needs to provide students with academic assistance and support to keep students motivated and academically on track. This consists of financial aid, tech, and writing support, for example.

The Complete Guide to Competency-Based Education

CBE is helping schools, institutions and organizations deliver learning experiences that translate to practical, provable outcomes and true skill mastery.

Read the blog

4. Students Have Access to Learning Resources

The fourth principle for developing CBE programs goes hand-in-hand with the third principle. In order for students to learn at their own pace, they need to have resources that are constantly available, such as recorded lectures, case studies, and readings. For educators, this means creating resources that are designed and developed for multiple iterations of a course rather than a single use.

In order to support a flexible learning pace for students, academic institutions need to have the right technologies that support this concept. This means partnering with a learning management system (LMS) that not only helps store and manage content for students to access but also allows students to access material anytime anywhere—online or offline.

Why Competency-Based Education Matters

CBE has gained considerable traction in recent years, both challenging conventional methods of instruction and opening new opportunities for students and institutions.

Inside Higher Ed editors Scott Jaschik and Doug Lederman will address the following topics and more in the webinar Why Competency-Based Education Matters:

  • Why CBE has taken off and some of the early adopters
  • The types of programs in which CBE has had the most progress
  • The spread of CBE to traditional colleges and universities
  • Regulatory challenges to CBE and how advocates hope to overcome them

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Written by:

Zeina Abouchacra

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Table of Contents

  1. 1. Courses Reflect Robust Learning Competencies
  2. 2. Competencies Inform Class Material and Assessments
  3. 3. Students Have Support to Learn at Their Own Pace
  4. 4. Students Have Access to Learning Resources
  5. Why Competency-Based Education Matters