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What is OBE? | Unboxing Outcomes-based Education

  • 4 Min Read

What is outcomes-based education and how does it compare with other educational models like competency-based education or mastery-based learning? Learn about the similarities and differences of these models and the challenges that can come with it.

In 1993, Research Roundup published a collection of reviews that described outcomes-based education (OBE) as “a controversial model of educational restructuring,” where learning was defined as a clear demonstration of what a student can know and show.

Almost two and a half decades later, the concept of organizing curriculum, content, and learning activities around specific, demonstrable outcomes is still rather controversial.

To make matters more challenging, terms such as competencies and competency-based learning, mastery and mastery-based learning are often used in the same sentence to describe different aspects of the same idea.

If we’re to thoughtfully unbox the ways these terms and models differ, let’s start with how they’re similar since they all focus on what a learner should be able to know and do.

What is outcomes-based education (OBE)?

First and foremost, OBE is an organizational structure. It’s a way to structure content around activities that lead to demonstrable proficiency of a specific skill, knowledge, or behavior. As a learning model, OBE is non-prescriptive. Instead, it offers a handful of principles that are worth considering in more detail.


As a learning model, outcomes-based education starts by asking: what does a learner need to do to demonstrate mastery of a particular skill, knowledge, or behavior? Such an approach puts student needs front and center of the learning design process.


Given that all learning objectives in an outcomes-based education model are clearly spelled out ahead of time, learners know what’s expected of them and can adjust their focus and questions more appropriately.


An outcomes-based education model must be flexible enough to adjust to a learner’s strengths and weaknesses. Flexibility is also important for providing learners enough time to attain fluency or proficiency.

Check out our guide for restructuring courses around outcomes-based education

How does outcomes-based education compare to other models?

When looking at how outcomes-based model compares to a mastery or competency-based learning model, the same principles align quite nicely.

Here’s how outcome-based education is similar to mastery-based learning:

  • There are clear criteria for what constitutes mastery
  • Instruction is thoughtful and adapts to learner needs
  • Learners are assisted when and where they have challenges
  • Learners are given adequate time to achieve mastery

Here’s how outcome-based education is similar to competency-based learning:

  • There are clear criteria for measuring fluency/proficiency
  • It’s adaptive to student needs
  • Learner support is provided when and where it’s needed most
  • Learners are given sufficient time to achieve mastery

How does outcomes-based education differ from mastery-based learning?

While the similarities between outcomes, mastery, and competency-based learning models are clear, the differences are a bit subtler.

Competency-based learning is generally a self-paced model that falls under the umbrella of outcomes, but with specific learning objectives often relating to workplace needs. All three learning models focus primarily on the steps and methods that lead to proficiency. The major difference is that OBE includes an additional component:

Why being proficient in a particular skill, knowledge, or behavior matters.

This subtle difference is important. The objective of mastery-based learning is to help students learn, but it applies directly to content. Outcomes-based education incorporates the principles of mastery-based learning, but it goes much further than just the content. It looks at what students are learning and why.

In the end it can be argued that these terms share an important agreement about starting with the end in mind.

What is OBE? The difference between mastery-based education, competency-based education and outcome-based education

What are the challenges of an outcomes-based education model?

Finally, no unboxing would be complete without addressing a handful of challenges associated with any of these models.

Time and energy

Any outcomes, mastery, or competency-based course, program, or project takes time and energy to:

  • Produce meaningful content
  • Construct reliable metrics for success
  • Support students with regular and substantive feedback and interactivity

Unbundling instructional roles

In each of these models you might notice that function tends to drive form. A subject-matter expert is clearly needed to provide appropriate content for lessons. Yet this expert might not be the best judge of mastery. In this case an institution might consider hiring faculty or specialists to manage the assessment components of lessons. This move to a possibly more objective form of evaluation and assessment could be considered controversial, yet it might be useful in determining what forms accountability can and should take. (Hint: probably more than one or two.)


Such a shift in how instruction, assessment, and support is organized can be disruptive. But if it’s well-managed, it can yield remarkable results for learners and institutions. This kind of shift will require time and planning devoted to change management and making sure the organization can support the lift.

As the saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day. It actually took about 1,009,491 days. Not to mention, the city itself has been sacked and rebuilt several times – hopefully this will provide you some degree of comfort as you draft your transition plans.

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