Why is a co-design curriculum model essential to developing competency-based education?

Andrew Ramsden
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Competency-based education (CBE) is not a new concept. It has been around for decades, particularly in areas like professional education. However, in the last few years, we have seen a new surge around this approach, especially from higher education institutions.

The intention of this article is not to focus from a broad institutional perspective of implementing CBE (Ramsden 2016), but drawing on the emerging evidence base to position explore the tangible need for the institution to deploy a co-design curriculum development model for the long term effective development of CBE.

The take-away message is, “CBE is disruptive, and success is based on faculty members (academics) being central within a collaborative, cross-institutional design and development process”.

In comparison with traditional Higher Education models, Competency Based Education can be summarized as “transitioning away from seat time, in favor of a structure that creates flexibility, allows students to progress as they demonstrate mastery of academic content, regardless of time, place or pace of learning.  It provides flexibility … and … personalized learning opportunities” (US Department of Education, 2016). An important consideration for CBE programs is to demonstrate competencies which are partly informed by employer needs (Daugherty, Davis & Miller, 2015). The design principles for CBE include:


1. Students advance upon demonstrated mastery.

2. Explicit and measurable learning objectives empower students.

3. Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students.

4. Students receive rapid, differentiated support.

5. Learning outcomes emphasize the application and creation of knowledge.

CBE is disruptive, and success is based on faculty members (academics) being central within a collaborative, cross institutional design and development process.

For some students the CBE model is very effective, “the benefits of CBE were clear … CBE allowed students to learn at their own pace. They were able to accelerate through information they had mastered and spend more time on information that was new” (Rainwater 2016: 45). As one student proposed; “when you go to an actual classroom, the professors have to assume you don’t know anything yet. I already know about networking so it was helpful to be able to start a program that allowed me to use what I already know” (Howell, 2015 in Rainwater (2016:46)).

However, CBE innovations are often viewed as a disruptive innovation as they tend to require a significant re-design of administrative, introduction of new or adjusted financial models, academic systems and embedding process for continuous improvement within an institution (Johnstone and Soares (2014), Public Agenda (2015)). The changes in academic systems include changes around flexible staffing roles and structures, engaging faculty and external partners and creating a learner centred culture (Public Agenda 2015).

Emerging evidence supports the view from a faculty (academic) perspective that CBE is a significant endeavor. One practitioner noted “it takes time to develop a CBE course. I had about 2 months of mapping and rethinking to do for my courses to fit the CBE format. My assessments had to be rethought and redone” (Santioanni (2015) in Rainwater (2016:43). There is no straightforward transition from a traditional program to a CBE program. Cooper (2016) observes “the curriculum design process was difficult for some faculty who were accustomed to starting with content and developing assessments later. The new process … requires faculty to first design assessments, then curate supporting learning resources” (Cooper (2016:34). Therefore, the curriculum design process requires deconstructing the current syllabi and reconstructing it as competencies and sub competencies aligned to a new assessment model. It requires ensuring the competency sets are complete, ensuring there is progression from lower to high order learning skills across the program, and once written the design is transparent to other faculty members, prospective students and employers. This raises many questions, Where should an institution begin? What is the best curriculum development model? Who is responsible for researching, defining, organizing and stating the different level competencies? What are the assessment rubrics? What are the required course design services? What skill sets do Institutions need of succeed?

The rationale for the statement at the start is evident from reflecting on Institutional stories. Cooper (2016) describes one approach which empowers faculty members to take ownership of CBE design and places them at the centre of the design and developmet process. This implies the principles of co-designing curriculum are developed through building partnerships to shape the educational experience between faculty members, students, employers, and other stakeholders where their views and needs are mediated and discussed.

Figure 1 visualises a collaborative design and development process (adapted from Cooper (2016)). The core team consists of a project manager, faculty members, students and employers. These draw on the expertise of a number of other roles within a formal design and development process. The alignment process includes a peer review stage with other CBE experienced faculty members, the program (course) lead, students and employers.

Figure 1: A co-design approach to developing CBE curricular

This co-design curriculum development model ensures a high quality learning experience, alignment with principles of CBE and the effective transfer of good practice.

To conclude, I’m often asked “where to start?” A low risk approach would be to a redesign a set of modules within a programme to  embed existing competencies, such as graduate attributes, or employability criteria. Therefore, pull the co-design team together and run a two day CBE Design Workshop. This will involve discovey activities with employers, students, and creative activities around the curriculum, assessment and learning materials.


Agenda, P. (2015) Shared design elements and emerging practices OF COMPETENCY-BASED EDUCATION PROGRAMS. Available at: http://www.cbenetwork.org/sites/457/uploaded/files/Shared_Design_Elements_Notebook.pdf (Accessed: 13 June 2016).

Cooper, T.R. (2016) ‘Faculty supporting and developing a CBE program – strategies implemented at the university of Mary Hardin-Baylor’, The Journal of Competency-Based Education, 1(1), pp. 31–35

Daugherty, L., Davis, V.L. and Miller, T. (2015) Competency-based education programs in Texas. Available at: http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1239-1.html (Accessed: 12 June 2016).

Fastré, G.M.J., van der Klink, M.R., Amsing-Smit, P. and van Merriënboer, J.J.G. (2014) ‘Assessment criteria for competency-based education: A study in nursing education’, Instructional Science, 42(6), pp. 971–994. doi: 10.1007/s11251-014-9326-5.

Grus, C.L. (2012) ‘The supervision competency: Advancing competency-based education and training in professional psychology’, The Counseling Psychologist, 41(1), pp. 131–139. doi: 10.1177/0011000012453946.

Johnstone, S.M. and Soares, L. (2014) ‘Principles for developing competency-based education programs’,Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 46(2), pp. 12–19. doi: 10.1080/00091383.2014.896705.

Makulova, A.T., Alimzhanova, G.M., Bekturganova, Z.M., Umirzakova, Z.A., Makulova, L.T. and Karymbayeva, K.M. (2015) ‘Theory and practice of competency-based approach in education’, International Education Studies, 8(8). doi: 10.5539/ies.v8n8p183.

Modi, J.N., Gupta, P. and Singh, T. (2015) ‘Competency-based medical education, entrustment and assessment’, Indian Pediatrics, 52(5), pp. 413–420. doi: 10.1007/s13312-015-0647-5.

Rainwater, T.S.M. (2016) ‘Teaching and learning in competency-based education courses and programs: Faculty and student perspectives’, The Journal of Competency-Based Education, 1(1), pp. 42–47

Ramsden, A. (2016) ‘How to get started with Competency Based Education: an institutional perspective’, Blackboard Blog, <<>>

Staff, T. (2016) What is competency-based learning? Available at: http://www.teachthought.com/learning/what-is-competency-based-learning/ (Accessed: 7 June 2016).


Photos by AFP Chris j Ratcliffe

About the Author

Andrew Ramsden
Andrew is a Strategic Consultant within Strategic Services, Blackboard International primarily delivering Strategic Services in the EMEA region.
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