What Faculty Should Know About Competency-Based Education

I loved the title of Phil’s recent post, “Competency-Based Education: Not just a drinking game” because it acknowledges that, whatever else CBE is, it is also a drinking game. The hype is huge and still growing. I have been thinking a lot lately about Gartner’s hype cycle and how it plays out in academia. In a way, it was really at the heart of the Duke keynote speech I posted the other day. There are a lot of factors that amplify it and make it more pernicious in the academic ecosystem than it is elsewhere. But it’s a tough beast to tackle.

I got some good responses to the “what faculty should know…” format that I used for a post about adaptive learning, so I’m going to try it again here in somewhat modified form. Let me know what you think of the format.

What Competency-Based Education (CBE) Is

The basic idea behind CBE is that what a student learns to pass a course (or program) should be fixed while the time it takes to do so should be variable. In our current education system, a student might have 15 weeks to master the material covered in a course and will receive a grade based on how much of the material she has mastered. CBE takes the position that the student should be able to take either more or less time than 15 weeks but should only be certified for completing the course when she has mastered all the elements. When a student registers for a course, she is in it until she passes the assessments for the course. If she comes in already knowing a lot and can pass the assessments in a few weeks—or even immediately—then she gets out quickly. If she is not ready to pass the assessments at the end of 15 weeks, she keeps working until she is ready.

Unfortunately, the term “CBE” is used very loosely and may have different connotations in different contexts. First, when “competency-based education” was first coined, it was positioned explicitly against similar approaches (like “outcomes-based education” and “mastery learning”) in that CBE was intended to be vocationally oriented. In other words, one of the things that CBE was intended to accomplish by specifying competencies was to ensure that what the students are learning is relevant to job skills. CBE has lost that explicit meaning in popular usage, but a vocational focus is often (but not always) present in the subtext.

Also, competencies increasingly feature prominently even in classes that do not have variable time. This is particularly true with commercial courseware. Vendors are grouping machine-graded assessment questions into “learning objectives” or competencies that are explicitly tied to instructional readings, videos, and so on. Rather than reporting that the student got quiz questions 23 through 26 wrong, the software is reporting that the student is not able to answer questions on calculating angular momentum, which was covered in the second section of Chapter 3. Building on this helpful but relatively modest innovation, courseware products are providing increasingly sophisticated support to both students and teachers on areas of the course (or “competencies”) where students are getting stuck. This really isn’t CBE in the way the term was originally intended but is often lumped together with CBE.

What It’s Good For

Because the term “CBE” is used for very different approaches, it is important to distinguish among them in terms of their upsides and downsides. Applying machine-driven competency-based assessments within a standard, time-based class is useful and helpful largely to the extent that machine-based assessment is useful and helpful. If you already are comfortable using software to quiz your students, then you will probably find competency-based assessments to be an improvement in that they provide improved feedback. This is especially true for skills that build on each other. If a student doesn’t master the first skill in such a sequence, she is unlikely to master the later skills that depend on it. A competency-based assessment system can help identify this sort of problem early so that the student doesn’t suffer increasing frustration and failure throughout the course just because she needs a little more help on one concept.

Thinking about your (time-based) course in terms of competencies, whether they are assessed by a machine or by a teacher, is also a useful tool in terms of helping you as a teacher shift your thinking from what it is you want to teach to what it is you want your students to learn—and how you will know that they have learned it. Part of defining a competency is defining how you will know when a student has achieved it. Thinking about your courses this way can not only help you design your courses better but also help when it is time to talk to your colleagues about program-level or even college-level goals. In fact, many faculty encounter the word “competency” for the first time in their professional context when discussing core competencies on a college-wide basis as part of the general education program. If you  have participated in these sorts of conversations, then you may well have found them simultaneously enlightening and incredibly frustrating. Defining competencies well is hard, and defining them so that they make sense across disciplines is even harder. But if faculty are engaged in thinking about competencies on a regular basis, both as individual teachers and as part of a college or disciplinary community, then they will begin to help each other articulate and develop their competencies around working with competencies.

Assuming that the competencies and assessments are defined well, then moving from a traditional time- or term-based structure to full go-at-your-own-pace CBE can help students by enabling those students who are especially bright or come in with prior knowledge and experience to advance quickly, while giving students who just need a little more time the chance they need to succeed. Both of these aspects are particularly important for non-traditional students[1] who come into college with life experience but also need help making school work with their work and life schedules—and who may very well have dropped out of college previously because they got stuck on a concept here or there and never got help to get past it.

What To Watch Out For

All that said, there are considerable risks attached to CBE. As with just about anything else in educational technology, one of the biggest has more to do with the tendency of technology products to get hyped than it does with the underlying ideas or technologies themselves. Schools and vendors alike, seeing a huge potential market of non-traditional students, are increasingly talking about CBE as a silver bullet. It is touted as more “personalized” than traditional courses in the sense that students can go at their own pace, and it “scales”—if the assessments are largely machine graded. This last piece is where CBE goes off the tracks pretty quickly. Along with the drive to service a large number of students at lower cost comes a strong temptation to dumb down competencies to the point where they can be entirely machine graded. Again, this probably doesn’t do much damage to traditional courses or programs that are already machine graded, it can do considerable damage in cases where the courses are not. And because CBE programs are typically aimed a working class students who can’t afford to go full-time, CBE runs the risk of making what is already a weaker educational experience in many cases (relative to expensive liberal arts colleges with small class sizes) worse by watering down standards for success and reducing the human support, all while advertising itself as “personalized.”

A second potential problem is that, even if the competencies are not watered down, creating a go-at-your-own-pace program makes social learning more of a challenge. If students are not all working on the same material at the same time, then they may have more difficulty finding peers they can work with. This is by no means an insurmountable design problem, but it is one that some existing CBE programs have failed to surmount.

Third, there are profound labor implications for moving from a time-based structure to CBE, starting with the fact that most contracts are negotiated around the number of credit hours faculty are expected to teach in a term. Negotiating a move from a time-based program to full CBE is far from straightforward.


CBE offers the potential to do a lot of good where it is implemented well and a lot of harm where it is implemented poorly. There are steps faculty can take to increase the chances of a positive outcome.

First, experiment with machine-graded competency-based programs in your traditional, time-based classes if and only if your are persuaded that the machine is capable of assessing the students well at what it is supposed to assess. My advice here is very similar to the advice I gave regarding adaptive learning, which is to think about the software as a tutor and to use, supervise, and assess its effectiveness accordingly. If you think that a particular software product can provide your students with accurate guidance regarding which concepts they are getting and which ones that they are not getting within a meaningful subset of what you are teaching, then it may be worth trying. But there is nothing magical about the word “competency.” If you don’t think that software can assess the skills that you want to assess, then competency-based software will be just as bad at it.

Second, try to spend a little time as you prepare for a new semester to think about your course in terms of competencies and refine your design at least a bit with each iteration. What are you trying to get students to know? What skills do you want them to have? How will you know if they have succeeded in acquiring that knowledge and those skills? How are your assessments connected to your goals? How are your lectures and course materials connected to them? To what degree are the connections clear and explicit?

Third, familiarize yourself with CBE efforts that are relevant to your institution and discipline, particularly if they are driven by organizations that you respect. For example, the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) has created a list of competencies called the Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP) and a set of assessment rubrics called Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education (VALUE). While these programs are consistent with and supportive of designing a CBE program, they focus on defining competencies students should receive from a high-quality liberal arts education and emphasize the use of rubrics applied by expert faculty for assessment over machine grading.

And finally, if your institution moves in the direction of developing a full CBE program, ask the hard questions, particularly about quality. What are the standards for competencies and assessments? Are they intended to be the same as for the school’s traditional time-based program? If so, then how will we know that they have succeeded in upholding those standards? If not, then what will the standards be, and why are they appropriate for the students who will be served by the program?


Share Button
"What Faculty Should Know About Competency-Based Education", 3 out of 5 based on 5 ratings.
  1. The term “non-traditional is really out-of-date, since at many schools students who are working full-time while going to school are the rule rather than the exception. However, since I don’t know of a better term, I’m sticking with non-traditional for now. []

Google+ Comments

About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
This entry was posted in Ed Tech and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to What Faculty Should Know About Competency-Based Education

  1. Peter Ming says:

    Shouldnt CBE assessment be much broader than machine-graded tests? If not it just seems like the CBE hype is now missing the point. If CBE was conceived to be vocationally oriented then machine-graded tests are not the most effective method of assessing job ready skills.

    In the UK we have have NVQ and Competence-based qualifications where learner’s can provide all manner of multimedia evidence through competency based eportfolio’s to demostrate they have developed the necessary knowledge and skills.

    Perhaps machine-graded testing fits better into those scalable golden content triangles but it is a pity to cast the assessment of job skills into that shape.

  2. I agree completely, Peter. And to be fair, there are lots of folks engaged in conversation about CBE, including many who are the most deeply involved with it, who are not tying CBE to machine grading. The trouble is that a substantial percentage of faculty hear about CBE for the first time from vendors pitching products, many of which are machine-graded. What I’m trying to do with this “What Faculty Should Know About…” series is to speak to faculty who are not big ed tech followers and hear these terms come up through the louder channels, which generally means vendor pitches or general interest articles in The Chronicle or IHE. These pieces are not intended to give a complete expert’s view of a topic but rather to start from my sense of what faculty who are not focused on ed tech might be hearing about these issues and help them to cut through some of the noise.

  3. Pingback: a terminology rabbit hole ? | sallyhirst

  4. Pingback: A Coming Luddite Rebellion Among Educators? | Etale – Life & Learning in the Digital World

  5. Pingback: why i hate writing learning objectives* | The Long Eighteenth

Comments are closed.