Blog Post

The Rise of Competency-based Education

by | June 5th, 2017

Having joined the education vernacular in the 1960s, CBE (competency-based education), is experiencing a resurgence in interest and popularity. Attention on accountability in higher education, student learning outcomes and a related focus on outcomes-based assessment has brought new energy into the CBE movement. Other factors, including the rise of for-profit universities, the increasing numbers of non-traditional students, the desire to move students to degree completion more quickly and even the effort to provide a more transparent and personalized learning experience all contribute to this growing movement.

One of the challenges in the world of competency-based education is the “c.” Defining competency, measuring competency, ensuring equivalent competency is the toughest nut to crack. To achieve this, faculty must come together to discuss their expectations of student knowledge, behavior and disposition as well as the expectations for the newly-minted professionals. What do working professionals expect from a recent graduate?

Fortunately, many professional organizations provide those expectations, identified as learning outcomes, for you. Those learning outcomes describe the skills, knowledge and dispositions required for a recent graduate to achieve success in the working world.

Sounds simple, right? Not so much. The convoluted and layered bureaucracies of higher education mean that there are multiple levels of oversight and many stakeholders. State governments, local governments, foundations, taxpayers, students, faculty, employers, the federal government and more; they all have an investment in higher education. As a result, student learning outcomes have become less the transparent statements of what observers should see in the performance of discreet competencies, and more holistic, complex, and politically inclusive statements of policy and expectations.

Time in Class = Student Progress?

One of the highest hurdles is the more than 100 years of use of the “Carnegie Unit”. Originally designed to standardize educational experiences within and across institutions and, more importantly, to regulate faculty workloads for the purposes of pension determination, the 120-hour “contact” model is the cornerstone of the 4,000 colleges and universities in North America. The Carnegie Unit is used for everything from curriculum design, the planning of daily schedules, to evaluating faculty efficiency, calculating financial aid and budgeting.

Aside from its original faculty pension intention, there are benefits to the Carnegie Unit. It allows students to more easily transfer from one institution to another, provides a mechanism for institutions to compare courses as well as quickly evaluate the preparation of prospective students. But most importantly, it provides a well-known context and language for instruction. The Carnegie Unit is the currency of higher education.

Seat time = Job Readiness?

So, the challenge is how best to modify an established paradigm to incorporate the fluid and adaptable environment of competency-based education – a world in which “seat time” may mean little or nothing. Replacing this concept is notion of “challenge performances’: carefully crafted requirements for demonstrations of a skill or skills in real-world contexts. If a learner can acceptably demonstrate proficiency in solving problems or performing some skills using the appropriate facts, concepts and theories, then what sense is there in demanding the student repeat courses that have traditionally been part of the “program package”? The student should be able to claim those competencies as complete and march on to what they cannot do and do not know.

How does one organize and budget for instruction under these circumstances? Even if a singular institution can cut this Gordian Knot, there is the pesky matter of how this would all work with a highly mobile learner seeking credentials from multiple schools at the same time. Proponents of CBE say tackling this issue successfully provides a more transparent curriculum, wherein students are more in control of their own learning (both content and pace), and it encourages interdisciplinary study as well as collaboration among faculty. It also more easily supports out-of-the-classroom experiences and accommodates multiple learning styles. Powerful assessment technology makes the judgement of student performance even easier and allows students to see where they are at any point in time.

Opponents say that it creates a teach-to-the-test, one-size-fits-all curriculum, not appropriate for all disciples and discourages achievement by creating a low bar for performance. How do you establish and then assess student learning outcomes for French literature or another field that requires significant intuition, interpretation or creativity?

Let’s be completely clear about the assessment argument: assessment drives instruction and always has. Instructors have been saying for years that they do not “teach to the test” but, in practice, this is not the case. The real issue is… to whose test are they teaching? One designed by the teacher herself or one provided by someone else? All of this conveniently becomes entangled in the web of “academic freedom”. In reality, making a judgement about whether a young person is able to graduate as determined by his ability to demonstrate core, transferable skills is the best opportunity for faculty to weigh-in on the question of student job readiness. Faculty control this agenda as they control the final definitions of the learning outcomes and how these are best judged. Ultimately, it is their instruction and “tests” that make the difference.

The real problem is the time needed to address the challenge of “making meaning”. Many faculty members legitimately argue that they do not have time for this while others openly question whether they really want this task at all. The irony of the situation is that in the absence of a strong, proactive faculty voice about outcomes, the high ground has been surrendered to third parties to take their best shot at the ultimate definitions of competency – The Lumina Foundation, The AAC&U (VALUE Rubrics), and P21 (The Partnership for 21st Century Learning) to name only a few.

So, must we throw out the Carnegie Unit and “traditional” curriculum in favor of a competency-based educational structure? Perhaps the ideal solution is one that combines the best of both and actively invites and empowers faculty to own a process that they already implicitly control. Much of this work is going on right now in isolated pockets.

In the end, the question is not “CBE” or no “CBE” but rather, can we arrive at valid measures of core skills performance and stand by them? Perhaps the best compromise should be one that utilizes the power of learning outcomes and assessment to quantify student performance and incorporates digital badging to celebrate student achievement, but does not set an upper limit for performance and allows students to follow their passions beyond the line of competency.

To find out about how to successfully implement assessment through technology to achieve accreditation, download the guide now.


  1. Aspoan

    The post helped me to tackle a faculty debate on learning outcomes using CBE.
    Best regards


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