Every educator wants to make sure they set up their learners with the skills they need to succeed. For many, this means moving away from traditional learning models that prioritize seat time and memorization and embracing approaches that focus on content mastery.
Competency-based education (CBE) is a method of education and training that gives people the flexibility to learn at a pace that suits them. It can respond in more agile ways to different learning abilities. Plus, it can enhance learning and career outcomes by individualizing experiences.
CBE is making impacts at all levels. Schools are leveraging CBE to equip graduates with skills they can put to work in the next stage of their journey—whether they’re pursuing further education or starting their careers. Organizations are also turning to CBE to foster professional development and training that are tied to real business needs and outcomes.
This article will provide an in-depth look at CBE and the benefits and challenges that can come with implementing it and explain how pairing technology with key competencies can enhance outcomes for educators and learners alike.
What Is CBE?
CBE is a model that concentrates on learning outcomes rather than time spent in class. Some people may move through the content quickly. Others will take time to let the material sink in. Whatever route they take, a CBE approach lets them focus on what they need to learn and advance only when they’re ready and can demonstrate a thorough understanding of the topic at hand.
Initially, CBE emerged as a reaction to concerns that students weren’t being taught the skills they would need in life after school. The view was that educators could better judge a student’s success in the real world based on what competencies they could show versus how long they’d spent in class. Today, it’s used in a variety of environments—from traditional classrooms to blended and online ones.
Standardizing the Approach to CBE
Though CBE is gaining popularity, there isn’t yet a uniform way in which it’s implemented.
One definition and approach comes from the Measuring Success through Competency-Based Learning Research Alliance (the Alliance), which has sought to develop and share best practices for CBE at the elementary and secondary levels. It defines CBE in the following manner “As a personalized learning approach, CBE provides a flexible and engaging learning environment in which progression is based on mastery of explicit learning objectives or competencies, as demonstrated through evidence of student learning, rather than the time spent in a course/topic.”
Additionally, the Alliance crafted the CBE Mastery Framework. This model differs from a competency framework, which specifies what a person will be able to do when they complete a diploma or certification. The CBE Mastery Framework identifies four areas—structure, culture, teaching and learning—where educators must adapt their practices to implement CBE successfully.
Competency-based education combines an intentional and transparent approach to curricular design with an academic model in which the time it takes to demonstrate competencies varies and the expectations about learning are held constant. Students acquire and demonstrate their knowledge and skills by engaging in learning exercises, activities, and experiences that align with clearly defined programmatic outcomes. Students receive proactive guidance and support from faculty and staff. Learners earn credentials by demonstrating mastery through multiple forms of assessment, often at a personalized pace.
C-BEN’s quality framework identifies eight elements that can apply to CBE programs. They are:
Demonstrated institutional commitment to and capacity for CBE innovation
Clear, measurable, meaningful and integrated competencies
Coherent program and curriculum design
Credential level-assessment strategy with robust implementation
Intentionally designed and engaged learner experience
Collaborative engagement with external partners
Transparency of student learning
Evidence-driven continuous improvement
The network developed its standards following broad consultation with members from 30 institutions, four statewide university systems and over 100 individuals from around the U.S. Its ambition is that the principles can provide guidance for institutions to draw on when creating or scaling CBE programs.
Competency-Based Assessments in Education
Traditional educational systems are no strangers to standard courses, assessments, credits and credentials. Yet these rarely reflect the individualized nature of competency-based learning and development. Credentials and assessments for CBE must be designed to be valuable and transferable. They must also instill confidence in students, teachers and other stakeholders.
CBE assessments should be reliable and verifiable. They should provide students with feedback that will improve their learning and give educators insights into students’ mastery levels so they can adjust teaching materials and activities accordingly.
The simple “no that was wrong, try again” answer is no longer effective feedback, and that’s what we see in a lot of online learning. We need to look at other ways that we can expand their experiences and give them that unique feedback.
Standardized exams use content sampling and item validation to help gather data and formalize competency across institutions. Because their purpose is developing a holistic picture, they aren’t transparent enough to measure competency accurately on an individual level.
Traditional assignments may involve drafting papers, conducting research, or completing a quiz or exam. They’re primarily designed to measure how much someone knows. Though they’re familiar, their weakness lies in their relevance—performance on tasks doesn’t consistently show true competency.
Authentic assessments mimic how students might use a skill in real-world applications. They help reinforce what students are learning and require them to show mastery through action. Expectations are clearly outlined, usually through a rubric, and the feedback helps educators and learners understand the progress each person is making.
Using multiple assessment types within a course can give educators a well-rounded view of student progress and understanding. Ultimately, a high-quality assessment will meet the needs of all participants. Educators will understand how to administer and assess evaluations, and students will know how their performance will be measured.
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Like CBE, OBE also focuses on mastery. It encompasses the same qualities—adapting to individual needs, laying out clear criteria for success and giving people time to fully develop knowledge and skills.
The difference is that OBE puts a greater emphasis on why the competency matters.
This supports learners because it helps them draw a connection between what they’re learning and how, where and when they’ll apply it. Employers can see tangible benefits, too, and schools can show the impact their courses are having.
CBE: Terms to Know
The competency-based learning model contains a wide range of critical concepts, instructional strategies and educational philosophies, so it’s helpful to understand the relevant terms and concepts. Some of these are:
Authentic assessments are a key component of CBE and involve assessing students’ abilities to apply their knowledge in real-world scenarios. They may vary by discipline but usually require learners to complete in-course knowledge checks or summative projects, assignments or exams.
A blended learning program is an instructional approach that blends face-to-face and technology-enabled learning. Using blended learning, CBE can be integrated into an educational pathway without sacrificing the social benefits that come with traditional in-person learning.
In a CBE program, learners are assessed on what they know and can do rather than how much time they spend in a classroom. The goal is to ensure people are mastering the essential skills they need to succeed throughout their academic and professional lives. CBE may also be called competency-based learning, competency-based training or skills-based training.
A well-defined competency framework is the foundation of a competency-based academic program. Combined with a credential definition, it creates a curricular architecture—clearly stating what a person can do to complete the credential and allowing students, employers and other stakeholders to appropriately set their expectations.
Conceptual learning is a more in-depth and meaningful way of learning based on core concepts and ideas instead of specific topics. It engages students in higher-order thinking and facilitates the development of richer understandings of the world.
Credentials are forms of recognition people earn after achieving preset outcomes. They can vary considerably in size and scope, with some being awarded at the end of yearslong programs and others after completing a single course or exam.
Mastery-based learning requires students to thoroughly understand one area before moving on to the next. If a student has not yet mastered the information when assessed, they’ll receive additional learning support and then be reassessed. Learning continues this way until the learner has grasped the skill and can proceed to the next level.
OBE encompasses all the qualities of CBE but takes it one step further, putting a greater emphasis on the why behind the learning. This helps learners, institutions and organizations better understand the ways in which concepts will be applied and the impact education is having.
Personalized learning is a practice that allows educators and instructors to tailor learning pathways and experiences to support learners’ unique needs and interests. As a result, people are given more flexibility and support to achieve their full potential.
Standardized, objective exams test students on a small selection of skills to see how they measure against learning objectives. While useful for data and standardization, these tests aren’t great for demonstrating competency since there is little or no transparency regarding the student’s mastery level.
Traditional assignments, such as writing papers and conducting library research, can help assess whether a student has mastered a given competency. These assignments measure against set rubrics that align with the defined competencies.
Educators have a variety of frameworks and techniques at their disposal, but pedagogy often can be divided into two subtypes:
In this traditional approach, the teacher is the central figure of the class. They deliver information and assume students will passively absorb it. Students usually carry out their work individually.
Here, students and instructors share responsibility for learning. Both participate equally in the learning process and collaborative work and communication are encouraged.
CBE classrooms can use various teaching methods, but all will be student-centered. Together, teachers and students develop a learning plan or pathway tailored to meet each learner’s individual needs. The most common CBE strategies include:
Project-based learning: Students can apply their knowledge to real-world projects that are done individually or in groups and tailored to their interests and abilities.
Problem-based learning: Students work together to solve problems based on real-world scenarios. This helps them develop critical-thinking and problem-solving skills.
Inquiry-based learning: Students can discover a topic or concept that interests them. They are free to ask questions and explore in their own way.
Collaborative learning: Students are encouraged and enabled to work together to complete a task or project. The process facilitates communication and teamwork skills among students.
Self-directed learning: Students are allowed to direct their learning. They can choose what they want to learn and how, where and when they want to learn it.
These are just a few strategies that can promote CBE in any classroom. Since students learn differently, their learning plans will also differ. As a result, there can be many pathways within one class, requiring the educator to use multiple teaching techniques.
Advantages of a Competency-Based Approach
Establishing a competency-based approach to education and training often requires a fundamental shift in learning mindsets and business strategies. But the benefits are worth the effort.
Focus on Learning Outcomes
In a traditional environment, learners may progress through the material even if they haven’t fully mastered it. CBE is different. It relies on students showing that they’ve learned the skills and acquired the knowledge before they can continue. This helps ensure everyone can move forward in their studies, albeit at different speeds, and no one is left behind.
Use Resources in the Most Efficient, Effective Ways
CBE models may require less classroom time than traditional models since people are able to review the content independently.
Become More Flexible and Accessible
One of the significant benefits of CBE is that it allows learners to study when and where it suits them best. This can be particularly beneficial for working adults or those with other commitments who might not be able to attend traditional classes. Also, CBE programs often use online learning tools, helping them reach more nontraditional students.
Improve Retention Rates
CBE programs are generally associated with higher student retention rates than occur with traditional models. This is likely because students in a CBE program are only progressing once they have fully mastered the material, meaning they are less likely to become frustrated and give up on their studies.
Foster a More Positive Student Experience
CBE programs tend to lead to a more positive overall student experience because they focus more on learning outcomes and individualized attention. In fact, many students who have participated in CBE programs report feeling more engaged with their studies. Receiving targeted support based on their individual needs helps them feel more confident in their abilities and achieve a statistically higher GPA.
Challenges With Competency-Based Learning
While CBE holds promise for transforming education, it’s helpful to consider the potential hurdles as well.
Teaching Must Fundamentally Change
CBE requires a change of mindset among educators. Instead of teaching to a set plan, educators need to be prepared to teach what each student is ready to learn and adapt, considering individual behaviors and outcomes.
Preparation Is Critical
Creating measurable learning objectives that show competency isn’t easy. For instructors, the change in teaching styles that comes from implementing CBE may require a top-to-bottom overhaul of course materials. This includes re-creating lessons and learning materials, developing appropriate assessments, and ensuring all students have access to the resources they need.
Students Need to Learn Differently
Students enrolled in CBE programs need to be ready to adjust to a different learning style. For some, it’s a matter of staying motivated and balancing the demands of their personal, professional and academic lives. For others, it’s a social shift. Depending on the speed at which learners move through the material, they may not stay with the same cohort the whole time.
CBE in Action
CBE is an emerging trend in education that has the potential to enhance learning outcomes and prepare students for the workforce. Many institutions, however, use CBE only for certain programs or student groups rather than as a primary teaching method. Consequently, implementation is fragmented across institutions, with many differences in their program methods.
CBE in Elementary Schools
Implementing CBE programs can help ensure no student leaves school without mastery. With traditional educational models, a student can still earn a diploma if they struggle with the material; they just need to earn a passing grade. CBE relies on consistent, competency-based standards, which means students progress once they’ve shown they understand the material.
New Hampshire and Vermont are examples of advanced states that have made significant strides toward awarding credits and diplomas based on competency rather than time spent in the classroom.
Implementing a CBE program can give teachers more flexibility outside of the classroom. Plus, it lets them more easily personalize learning to suit the needs of individual students.
CBE is also proving beneficial in helping students weather and rebound from disruptions. As an approach, it gives educators easy insight into how each person is doing and supports students in their learning, making sure they don’t move ahead until they’re ready.
In New Hampshire, for example, Parker-Varney elementary’s teachers didn’t need to guess how much learning their students had to make up. The school’s competency-based strategy gave teachers immediate insight into exactly what students had and hadn’t learned. When the school year ended in June 2021, Parker-Varney knew that 70% of its students had mastered at least 75% of their grade level’s math and literacy standards. They would be ready to pick up from there when school restarted in the fall.
CBE in Higher Education
Globally, the higher education sector is embracing CBE.
The reasons why colleges, universities, vocational schools and other higher education institutions choose to implement CBE vary, but generally it comes down to three broad factors: accessibility, flexibility and applicability.
By their nature, CBE programs are designed to adapt to different learning needs. If there’s a concept or theory a student is really struggling with, they can spend time unpacking it. They don’t have to feel like they need to rush through it just so they can get a passing grade on an exam. Educators can also keep an eye on how they’re progressing and step in to provide helpful content or support.
The structure of CBE can also make it easier for students who want to strike a balance—pursuing educational opportunities that reflect and fit around their lives. This is especially true for adult and nontraditional learners, a cohort that can face unique challenges. Education probably isn’t their full-time focus; they may also face work, family and financial pressures that traditionally college-aged students don’t. Research from the Strada Education Network found that in the wake of the pandemic, stresses outside school meant 37% of adult learners had to change or cancel their education plans. Because CBE programs offer a more flexible route to certifications, students can reach their educational goals at a pace that suits them and more affordably.
Finally, since students need to prove competencies to complete a CBE program, outcomes are more transparent and applicable. There’s less guesswork about skills and knowledge they will or won’t have afterward. This can make it easier for schools to not only say but also show how they’re preparing their graduates for the working world, which can instill confidence in students and employers alike.
Competency-Based Education for Students, Institutions and Employers
We define CBE and look at how it can benefit students, academic institutions and employers.
Competency-Based Training for Professional Development
Though CBE is still largely an elementary- and higher education-focused framework, it’s playing an increasingly valuable role in corporate spaces as a vehicle for meaningful, targeted skill development.
Taking a skills-based approach to professional learning serves two important functions.
First, it makes it easier for employers and training providers to keep up with how fast skill needs are changing. The research on this topic isn’t hard to find. The World Economic Forum has estimated that 44% of the skills employees need to do their jobs effectively will change by 2025. Similarly, Gartner found that 58% of the workforce already needs new skills to get the job done. Whichever way it’s broken down, people need to build new skills—and they need to do it fast.
Second, it corresponds with shifts in job functions and hiring processes. In many organizations, roles are becoming less siloed as employees adapt to emerging technologies and tackle a wider variety of projects. According to research from Deloitte:
This is where competency-based employee learning—also called programmatic training—comes into play. At a high level, it involves using data to map competencies to functions and roles that align to long-term business needs and goals. This approach builds skills, knowledge and abilities over time and provides real-life applications to help learners work through more complex organizational problems.
None of us are here to take a course just to know something. We’re here to take a course so that we can apply it on the job.
– Jeff Salin, learning experience consulting manager, D2L
How Does a Learning Management System (LMS) Support CBE?
An LMS is one tool educators can use to support CBE programs. It can bolster in-course actions and activities, helping educators create personalized learning paths that give learners access to materials anytime, anywhere.
In a CBE program, educators must assess students’ progress frequently and accurately to determine whether they’ve mastered the material. With an LMS, educators can create a variety of assessment types to suit situational needs. Ungraded knowledge checks can help people reinforce what they’re learning, while quizzes and assignments can be used to evaluate their progress. Educators can also add in flexibility by letting learners choose their preferred format for submissions—including text, audio or video.
2. Providing Feedback
Feedback is a key component of CBE programs. An LMS can help automate and streamline parts of the process by automatically grading assignments and tests. Plus, it can provide valuable data to help educators tailor their instruction so they can better meet the needs of learners.
3. Personalizing Learning Paths
An LMS can also be used to create individualized learning paths for students. Educators can create different content modules for students depending on their needs and abilities and provide targeted interventions. A student who’s struggling with a particular concept may be given extra practice exercises, for example, while a student who’s excelling can be given more challenging material.
4. Delivering Flexible, Accessible Learning
With an LMS, learners can get 24/7 access to course content. This is especially important for those who work full time or have other commitments that make it difficult for them to attend in-person classes or stick to a synchronous program.
5. Scaling CBE Programs
One of the biggest challenges with CBE programs can be delivering individualized instruction on a school-wide scale. Educational technologies including an LMS can help schools enhance and augment the work educators are doing, grow the scope of their reach, and create a cohesive shared learning environment.
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For CBE programs to be successful, it’s crucial that all stakeholders be on the same page about what CBE looks like at the organization. Consider questions such as:
Why is CBE the right choice? What problems will it help solve? What value will it bring?
How do the goals of a CBE program support the organization’s mission, vision and values?
What personnel and technological resources does the organization already have that can enable a transition to CBE? What additional supports will it need?
Being able to answer these questions can help guide an organization’s decision-making. Plus, the earlier it can get feedback and buy-in from stakeholders, the more valued and invested those individuals and groups will feel about the process.
2. Create a Clear Communication Plan
Ongoing communication is also important to the success of CBE programs. Internal and external stakeholders need to understand why transitions are being made, when they should expect to see changes and who is responsible for implementing the different parts.
3. Launch With a Pilot
Though this seems obvious, it’s a step that’s sometimes overlooked or minimized. Beginning with a pilot can help organizations identify and resolve issues before rolling out programs on a broader scale.
When deciding what to include in a pilot, prioritize a small number of courses that:
are being taught by teachers and instructors who are comfortable using the new methodologies and technologies
will clearly benefit from implementing CBE into the existing framework
suit individualized instruction and personalized learning paths
When making monumental change, remember—dream big but start small.
4. Measure Progress
The metrics an organization chooses to track should reflect the goals laid out during the initial planning phases. Measurements should be done at regular intervals and be both qualitative and quantitative in nature; they can be used to identify and correct issues, especially during a pilot.
5. Share Successes
At the end of the day, talking about wins can help organizations get the endorsements and support they need to grow CBE in the future. An executive summary can provide a high-level overview of what a project achieved, while an in-depth article can expand on the processes, successes, challenges and adaptations that went into implementing CBE. Documenting individual approaches can also help other organizations, giving them road maps to follow when they want to launch their own CBE programs.
Transform How and Why People Learn With CBE
CBE is a growing global education trend, and for good reason. For schools, institutions and organizations, it’s about creating learning programs that translate to practical, provable outcomes. For educators and instructors, it’s about being able to provide truly personalized instruction that supports each person along their learning journey. And for learners, it’s about instilling confidence that they’ll be able to apply what they’re learning outside of the classroom and in their professional lives.
When it comes down to it, CBE is about setting up people with the knowledge, skills and competencies they need to succeed.
Haley Wilson is a Content Marketing Manager at D2L, specializing in the corporate learning space. She holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Guelph as well as a Master of Arts focused in history from Wilfrid Laurier University.
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