Sharpening our Focus on Learning: The Rise of Competency-Based Approaches to Degree Completion

By Betsy Prueter
A recent paper from the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment examines competency-based education (CBE) in the United States. CBE credits students with what they actually know and can do rather than how long students spent in a course. The number of CBE programs is increasing, the paper argues, due to growing concern about the quality and cost of higher education. The report analyzes current CBE models and describes how they might go to scale on a national level.

Among the report’s findings:

  • Institutions that are using competency-based education are approaching it one of three ways: (1) embedding it into traditional curriculum; (2) redesigning the curriculum entirely around competencies; or (3) redesigning the credentialing process around CBE, using direct assessment.
  • There are five common concepts in competency-based education (1)a focus on demonstrating knowledge; (2) clearly defined requirements of what graduates should know and be able to do in order to earn a degree;( 3) assessment practices that focus on real-life scenarios; (4) a de-emphasis on a traditional course format so that students can learn from open education resources or hands on, project-based environments. (5) customization of the learning materials for individual students, based on their needs, and the extent to which they might need additional help.
  • Some of the primary challenges facing competency-based programs in the U.S. are (1)determining eligibility for federal financial aid, (2) gaining buy-in from faculty,(3) developing and sharing best practices, (4) understanding the variety of assessment practices currently being used by CBE programs across the country, (5) working with regional accreditors, and (6) identifying what data should be collected on CBE programs and how best to collect it for continuous improvement.