What is competency-based education (CBE)?

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Providing a diverse student population with flexible access to outcomes-based learning programmes

Competency-based education has the potential to provide a diverse student population with flexible access to outcomes-based learning programmes. It lends itself particularly well to further education, where students bring a range of experiences and pre-existing knowledge to their studies and want to fit learning into busy home and work lives. As a learning model, CBE can look very different to institutions and students, but it’s worth exploring what it has to offer because it can be an effective way of achieving successful student outcomes.

Competency-based education – or CBE – recognises that, within a given timeframe for a period of study, students will progress at different rates. Some will need to spend more time on particular topics than others, and they might even need to supplement course material with other sources of information to fill gaps in their knowledge.

With CBE, students move onto each new topic only once they’ve mastered the previous one. If they’re struggling in a particular area, they can receive additional guidance to help them. Essentially, with CBE the end result is the goal, not the amount of time spent on each learning outcome.

It’s a model particularly suited to further education, where learning is generally more self-paced. It could also be applied within apprenticeships because CBE allows learners to draw on existing knowledge and skills to demonstrate capability in areas where they have some experience. By doing so, they are able to move on more quickly to areas that are new to them and spend more time there, getting to grips with new information.

A focus on learning outcomes

The achievement of learning outcomes has a big impact on levels of student success, and therefore it’s always been important across all models of teaching, be that classroom-based, online or blended. However, while time spent in a traditional course is fixed with varying student outcomes – some will be more successful than others – with CBE, students may complete their studies in a shorter space of time if they master all learning outcomes quickly.

By allowing students to spend more time on areas they find more difficult – and supporting them by drawing on additional learning materials if required – they are set up to succeed. Everyone who completes a course will have done so because they’ve mastered all elements of it, rather than just some.

Getting students to the end of their courses, and chalking up all learning outcomes along the way, the type and delivery of content doesn’t adopt a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Instead, it can be personalised to suit each individual’s level of knowledge, capabilities and learning style.

Why CBE can help students succeed

CBE gives students a high degree of control over their own learning, and over the kind of learning experience they have. It allows them to ‘fast track’ course material where they have existing skills and high levels of knowledge, in favour of giving more time to areas they don’t understand as well.

It’s a model that can meet the diverse needs of a changing student population. One where more learners require flexible courses to fit into the demands of their work and family life. It recognises that learners don’t necessarily spend as much time in the classroom as before, and that success can come from supporting different ways of learning, using a range of different devices. It helps achieve flexible learner schedules and enables students to access their studies whenever and from wherever they wish.

The technology enabling CBE

Virtual learning environments that support CBE enable flexible programme delivery and content adaptability. Through an online platform, educators can craft personalised learning paths able to adapt to individual learners and provide student access to course materials, wherever they are.

While CBE lends itself well to self-paced learning – which in turn encourages students to own their own learning and development – regular, timely feedback is critical. This is made possible through an online method of delivery which supports continuous measurement and analysis of progress.

For a more detailed overview of CBE, you can download the ebook Learners Become Masters: Answering Five Key Questions About Competency-based Education.