Taking a new approach: why consider competency-based education?

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Recent news that competency-based assessments could be used as a measurement for US universities to attract federal funding shows just how far competency-based education (CBE) has come. The US shift towards CBE could pave the way for the learning model to become more widely adopted in education elsewhere; certainly, we are already starting to see evidence of an emerging CBE trend in the UK.

Competency-based education (CBE) allows students to draw on pre-existing knowledge and skills. For mature students, this can mean gaining credit for previous learning and experience built up in the workplace. Drawing on this knowledge, students can move more rapidly through topics that are already familiar to them and give more time to areas that are new.

It’s a learning model that exemplifies a personalised approach to study, recognising that students not only all learn in different ways, but also at different rates. It’s designed to enable all students to succeed and it uses flexibility and adaptability to do so. Provided clear learning outcomes are set, students have a flexible amount of time – within course parameters – to master each competency. This ensures that all students that complete their courses do so because they’ve mastered all elements of them, rather than just some.

Our ebook Learners Become Masters: Answering Five Key Questions About Competency-based Education explores CBE in more depth. It provides a comparison of CBE against traditional approaches as follows:

  Traditional Competency-based
Time Fixed Variable
Learning (mastery) Variable Fixed
Content Generalised Personalised
Pace of study Fixed Variable
Student outcomes Some succeed All succeed

Table: traditional and competency-based education compared

From this, we can see that CBE aims for all students to successfully master defined competencies by working through personalised content at a pace that suits them, giving the amount of time they individually need to give to each course element.

The right conditions for student success

As a model that is flexible, online and adaptable to students’ needs, CBE is well suited to our modern approach to learning. Many students in higher education have to fit learning in around other commitments, such as work and family life, and here CBE can be suitable because it gives learners a high level of control over when, where and how they learn.

Students build up competency credits and, for some, these are earned in a shorter than prescribed timeframe because of pre-existing knowledge that they have.

Building required transferable skills

With employers looking to take on graduates with relevant knowledge and skills, higher education institutions have a keen focus on employability. In the US, according to the American Association of Community Colleges, CBE’s potential to “help students attain the skills they need for available jobs at a pace that works for them” is of interest, particularly for ‘non-traditional’ learners.

Southern New Hampshire University is a pioneer of innovation in education and a believer in learning models that don’t differentiate between on-campus, online and CBE, but that provide students with competency-based options, regardless of their programme.

A mindset change

To transition to a CBE model takes not only a number of practical steps but also a change in mindset. With CBE, the role of the educator shifts – from one where instruction is delivered at set times to all students, to one where students are coached in achieving a level of competence across a range of pre-determined learning outcomes.

However, help can be at hand. D2L’s Brightspace has a competencies tool that helps automate some of the processes within course design to reduce the amount of work required to build courses.

While the first step towards CBE can be a daunting one to take, it could be worth exploring, particularly for those institutions that serve the needs of adult learners. Supported by an online learning platform, a learner-centred, self-paced model designed around mastering core competencies could be a winning approach for some courses and some students.

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