Special: Competency-based Education (CBE)

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Traditional learning has always been a time-based industry. A student sits in a chair for hours listening to lectures in a “chalk and talk” approach. The credits are not given based on if the student has learned but if they have completed the required amount of time in the classroom. If students barely pass an exam because they don’t understand the material at hand, they still continue to the next grade or next subject matter. Likewise, if a student barely passes when learning how to add, they may never pass when they are taught to multiply. Competency-based Education (CBE) is a dynamic kind of education based on making sure that students master different skills in order to become better at others. It seeks to set goals in the form of knowledge, skills, and behavioral features that the students should learn by the end of their studies.1

What is CBE?

It’s a learning methodology where students must master a skill or competency before moving on to other subject matters. The time it takes to achieve mastery varies, but the objectives set in the course of the education remain unaltered, in order to achieve the highest learning capacity possible.1

The initial idea for competency was born in the United States by Noam Chomsky in 1965. “It is the fundamental difference between the competence or knowledge of language and the application or actual use of language.”1

What is a competency?

A competency is a “combination of skills, abilities, and knowledge needed to perform a specific task.” – The US Department of Education.3

The foundation of the learning model starts with the traits and characteristics of both the student and the task itself. After those traits and characteristics are defined, the learning process begins. This is where the skills, abilities and knowledge come into play and must be mastered. The demonstration portion is the result of applying the competences and demonstrating how the student used them. The time it takes the student to master the competency ultimately varies on their learning and performance. 3

A single competency can be used in many ways. For example, algebra is equally important for an engineer as much as it is for an architect. Even though they are used in different ways in both professions, the skill involved, regardless of the technique or method, should produce the same result if the skill is truly mastered. 3

Main objectives of CBE

CBE is aimed to help learners achieve mastery of competencies by providing learners with different pedagogical instruments that ensure mastery of skills and competencies instead of memorizing them.1

Competency-based models ultimately rely on measurable assessments. If a competency is ambiguously described and does not have an objective method of measurement, it probably is not a true competency. All people involved in the learning process (faculty, administrators, and students), should be able to clearly understand the outcomes of the learning experience. 3

Illustration: Competency-based learning.

The fact that competency-based education is founded on being able to measure the abilities and competencies is an advantage for the learner. This way, learners can go back to the competency that is lacking mastery, rather than having to repeat a traditional course where mastery won’t be attained.

CBE in higher education

It is implied that higher education should pursue a deeper objective other than simply allowing a student to graduate, but to be aware of the standards needed in the profession, and to be aware of the requirements put on students today. CBE tries to focus on the potential possibilities for the future activities of graduates.1

When a competency is being designed, it can frame over one of the following categories:

1. Learning to know
2. Learning to do
3. Learning to live together
4. Learning to be

Different role for the teachers in a CBE model

The risk of CBE: A decrease in the teacher’s direction giving and an increase of the student’s control. 1

CBE programs look to change education in many ways and one of them is changing the role of the faculty. The new roles of teachers under the CBE program are: 2

Icon: Faculty instructional designers.Faculty instructional designers:
These faculty members define the learning outcomes, design the curriculum, develop the learning experience, and curate content.

• • •

Icon: Assessment experts.

Assessment experts:
Oversee the design of scoring rubrics and may evaluate student learning.

• • •

Icon: Enrollment coaches.

Enrollment coaches:
A student’s initial program contact could be through an enrollment coach who assists with administrative-related enrollment tasks such as admissions, payment, financial aid, and credit transfer.

• • •

Icon: Academic success coaches and mentors.

Academic success coaches and mentors:
During the program, a student’s primary point of contact should be the coach or mentor, who helps plan, guide and monitor their academic process to ensure success.

• • •

Icon: Learning outcomes assessors.Learning outcomes assessors:
Staff or faculty using scoring rubrics created by assessment experts may grade assessments. Some assessments are machine-scored.



1. Everyone has different learning styles, strengths and weaknesses, and knowledge that they already know and some that they don’t.
2. Not fully understanding a skill can prevent growth in learning.
3. Each learner takes a different amount of time to grasp a concept or skill.

CBE leads to a reduction of negative psychological effects of the learning process such as stress, low self-esteem, and demotivation.1

Advantages of CBE:

The interest in measuring specific learning and competencies is something that is becoming more and more popular around the world. 3

Students are less likely to graduate with holes in their knowledge, and are able to apply their skills in different sectors, industries, and in their own lives. They are taught to utilize those skills and become potential experts and leaders.

CBE programs also lead to a higher retention rate, meaning that less people drop out of the program compared to traditional education, because the flexibility of CBE allows them to learn on their own time, at their own pace, and really see the future advantages of gaining a specific skill. 2

CBE programs have a very defined map of what the student needs to learn and an objective to shorten the study time, which eliminates program redundancies and makes the learning process more efficient. Traditional education usually teaches the same thing in different classes because there is no structure and communication between the classes. 2

Due to CBE programs saving time and money, they also give a great advantage to adults looking to capitalize on previous college or work experience, who otherwise would not have been able to enroll in a traditional university. 2

Total CBE spending per student was nearly 50% lower, on average, compared to other traditional delivery models. 2

Disadvantages of CBE:

It is easy to identify clear competencies in technical areas (math, biology, chemistry, physics, etc.) but it is almost impossible to do so in subject matters such as history, literature or creative disciplines. 4

Since a student cannot move on from a certain subject to a higher one, until they have mastered it, there might be a certain task in which a student can possibly get stuck and there is no loophole in order for them to move on. 4

Coming to terms on what core skills all college graduates should have is subjective and can be problematic, given the diversity of programs and institutions. 3

How to implement a CBE teaching methodology in an institution? 4

Infographic: TRiiBU Studio


1Butova, Y. (2015, June). The History of Development of Comepetency-Based Education. European Scientific Journal. Retrieved February 21 2017 http://eujournal.org/index.php/esj/article/viewFile/5728/5535

2Donna M. Desrochers, R. L. (2016, October). Competency Based Education: A Study of Four New Models and Their Implications for Bending the Higher Education Cost Curve. Retrieved February 21 2017 RPK Group. http://rpkgroup.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/rpkgroup_cbe_business_model_report_20161018.pdf

3Voorhees, R. A. (2001). Competency-Based Learning Models: A Necessary Future. New Directions for Istitutional Reaserch. Retrieved February 21 2017 http://www.medbev.umontreal.ca/GTEA/Competency-Based%20Learning%20Models.pdf

4Ramsden, A. (2016, December 5). How to get started with Competency Based Education: an institutional perspective. Retrieved February 21 2017, from Blackboard Blog: http://blog.blackboard.com/how-to-get-started-with-competency-based-education-an-institutional-perspective/?lang=uki

5Chip Franklin, R. L. (2015, April). Employers perspectives on Competency-Based Education. Center on Higher Education Reform – American Enterprise Institute. Retrieved February 21 2017 http://www.aei.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Employer-Perspectives-on-Competency-Based-Education.pdf

About the Author

E-Learn Team
Openness Initiative
E-Learn is a community openness initiative started by Blackboard. It’s a partnership designed to help educators share insights, perspectives and practices for the purpose of achieving student and institutional success.
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