Defining Competency-based Education at Northern Arizona University


Defining Competency-based Education at Northern Arizona University

Published on May 27, 2014

Northern Arizona University’s Dr. Corrine Gordon shares why her institution is thinking ahead and exploring what it means to be a truly educated person. Is seat-time the best way to measure learning? Hear how competency-based education is being used at NAU to ensure that learning comes first.


My name is Corrine Gordon. I’m with Northern Arizona University and I’m the Assistant Clinical Professor, but my functional title is lead faculty for the Liberal Arts Program and Personalized Learning.

NAU is one of the three state colleges in Arizona, and our mission is to bring education to the student. Going back to the early days of NAU, they’ve always tried to take education to the more remote parts of Arizona and address some of the underserved student population.

With personalized learning, our target student is more the adult student who has been unable to complete their degree program due to whatever constraint it may be – economic, geographical, time – so our student is more the adult learner who is coming back to the classroom and is looking to do it in a different way.

While it’s hard to define competency-based education right now, as all of the institutions who are sticking their toes in the water are putting their own stamp on what competency-based education looks like, a general definition of competency-based education is defining what it is that an institution hopes a student will be able to do or know at the end of the learning process, and then working in different assessments and different methods to get the student there, and it’s often not bound by the credit hour or seat time. So it might be a more personalized approach or a more student-centric approach to the learning process.

One thing I’ll say is that I believe competency-based education is perfect alongside the traditional models or online models. I think there’s a place for competency-based education within the environment rather than taking over the environment, so I don’t see the idea of getting rid of the credit hour as something that’ll happen anytime soon. But I do think that what competency-based education is doing right now is calling into question, what it means, what does good learning mean? Is the credit hour a good way to quantify that, or is there another measurement? I believe that competency-based education is another way to encourage higher education leaders to think about students and what it means to be an educated person.

We started looking at ways that maybe we could offer an educated environment that breaks some of the traditional rules, some of the long-standing expectations or the long-held beliefs about higher education. And the competency-based model became another way that we could help serve and help meet more students and bring education to more students and really improve the marketplace in Arizona as a result – bring more qualified candidates to the marketplace, helping those people who have maybe been barred from positions they’ve really been interested in, giving them those credentials they need in order to advance personally.

From the students I’ve interacted with, I’ve heard terms like “blessing.” I’ve heard terms such as “this is an answer to prayers.”

I think we’re looking to be pioneers in this competency-based world, or at least in personalized learning we are, but I also think that part of NAU as an institution is being known for quality and being known for genuinely caring about our students’ experience and what they’re taking away from the learning experience.

Innovation to me is looking for new ways to do things. They’re not always better ways; sometimes you take a step back to take two steps forward. But I believe innovation is continuously thinking creatively toward the future for different solutions to problems.