Competency-based education: What works, what doesn’t

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What begins as a practical query can quickly devolve into a personal dilemma: What is a college degree for? Apart from the crushing amount of debt that university students accrue each year, recent studies suggest that many employers are less than thrilled with new graduates’ real-world preparedness. It begs the question, one that has been dogging the university system for some time now: Is the traditional college degree truly necessary for success in all areas of the working world?

Schools and institutions that are embracing competency-based programs don’t seem to think so. Broadly defined as education that recognizes material mastery based on measures of competency versus hours spent in the classroom, competency-based education or CBE is a new frontier in the development and progress of contemporary education.

Two African American college students looking at books in the libraryWritten off by many as a flash-in-the-pan attempt to leverage technology and create more revenue opportunities for universities who have invested in the online infrastructure, CBE’s conceit actually bears consideration. Completing the requirements for a traditional degree may be defined as earning high grades that indicate an understanding of the course material presented, but those grades provide no indication to prospective employers of a student’s ability to apply this knowledge to real-world situations. Employers cannot know in what capacity this knowledge would be most appropriately utilized. The goal of CBE is to shift the content of a graduating cohort from students who have acquired knowledge to students who have demonstrated an ability to apply that knowledge through specific and measurable assessments. Not only does this give potential employers a measurable understanding of what capabilities they can expect from an applicant, but it forces students to share responsibility for their learning.

Universities Proving the Promise

Purdue’s Polytechnic Institute opened its doors to its pioneering CBE class in 2014. Driven by a larger interest in competency-based education and the demands of the marketplace, Purdue’s program includes and encourages opportunities for collaborative work and cross-disciplinary thinking. The program allows students in various programs as disparate as agriculture and English literature to find ways of applying their knowledge to practical projects that will demonstrate that they have more to offer prospective employers than just a rote knowledge of subject matter.

An online college that has been in operation since 1997, Western Governors University’s competency-based model has known tremendous success, particularly in terms of the volume of math and science teachers graduating from its Teachers College. Terms consist of six months of rolling semesters as students move through online coursework at their own pace, proving their knowledge with practical tests and assessments throughout. Each student works with a personal mentor who is kept apprised of progress, is aware of challenges in coursework and reaches out to assist with issues.

Northern Arizona University’s Personalized Learning program breaks each degree into content lessons which fall under different areas of competency. Students can test out of certain requirements and move on to other coursework if they have prior knowledge or familiarity with the course material, either through work experience or previous study. This allows them to complete their degrees more quickly and at less cost. Northern Arizona University frames its program as imparting real-world skills with practical applications that make sense to real-world employers. Rather than the lofty, vague acquisition of knowledge or the learning process, the emphasis is on the utility of the degree after graduation. As anyone who has glanced at a college brochure for a traditional university can attest, the future use of education in post-graduate reality is often left entirely out of the conversation.

As Western Governors University states on its website, CBE is not for everyone. This a system that works for self-driven, motivated students who are committed to earning degrees in their chosen fields, not simply students interested in taking a course. Teachers play a significantly less active role in programs designed around a student’s drive. Professors in many CBE programs act more as coaches, guiding students through challenges as they arise and reaching out if coursework hasn’t been accessed or a student otherwise seems to have fallen behind. Such a dramatic restructuring of the classroom structure is bound to raise alarm, thus CBE programs must prove their value in the development of highly rigorous assessment.

Competency-based Education Assessments

A CBE program allows students to take diagnostic pre-tests to assess whether they have sufficient knowledge to bypass the course material. If so, they can skip the study modules, saving time and money. They can head straight for the performance-based assessment. Depending on the nature of the concepts being tested and on the course of study, a practical assessment for a business student might require her to create a business plan for a new product. A nursing student may be given information about a patient and must ask the correct follow-up questions to successfully complete an intake. Students who don’t test out must return to the course module and study the recommended lessons to prepare for the final assignment.

An Attractive Alternative

Schools with CBE programs readily admit that they are not suited to all students, and they must also acknowledge—at least for the time being—that they are not suited to all courses of study. Degrees in the humanities and the liberal arts often involve an in-depth study of literature. Primary sources and concepts in sociology or psychology are dependent on in-class dialogue and the lecture or seminar format necessary to develop thinking skills and drive inquiry. It is difficult to imagine that a student seeking a degree in social psychology would be party to the same ideas or have the same insights working independently that she might have in the classroom. Still, a degree is a means to an end for a large number of students—the chance for gainful employment. The opportunity to earn a degree that clearly demonstrates their skills, capabilities and experience without the needless cost of redundant coursework or the hassle of fulfilling outside-the-field requirements, a CBE program presents a compelling and practical alternative for these students.