Competency-Based Education: A Primer

Although it’s hardly new, “competency-based education” has become one of the latest buzz phrases. Many education reformers are pushing for it, arguing that it can challenge the “one size fits all” model of traditional schooling. EML editor Audrey Watters offers some background on what CBE is, which schools have implemented it, and what its adoption might mean for education.

What is Competency-Based Education?

“Competency-based education” (CBE) is being hailed by some as a way to rethink education — to save money and to boost “outcomes.” Often, competency-based education is framed as a way to save (students’) time.

Rather than moving students together through materials for a fixed duration of a class, CBE enables students to move at their own pace through the curriculum. They are assessed along the way, and if they can demonstrate “competency” on a particular skill, they can move forward to the next. This is seen as an alternative to traditional models where students receive a grade — and credit — at the end of the course, but that grade can range from A to D, meaning that students have attained very different levels of understanding of the course materials.

It’s not entirely a new idea. According to SPT Malin, the concept was introduced in the United States in the 1960s “in reaction to concerns that students are not taught the skills they require in life after school.” Malin points to 6 “critical components” in CBE:

  • Explicit learning outcomes with respect to the required skills and concomitant proficiency (standards for assessment)
  • A flexible time frame to master these skills
  • A variety of instructional activities to facilitate learning
  • Criterion-referenced testing of the required outcomes
  • Certification based on demonstrated learning outcomes
  • Adaptable programmes to ensure optimum learner guidance

CBE is sometimes referred to as proficiency-based, mastery-based, outcome-based, performance-based, and standards-based education. Those adjectives are used to in conjunction with “instruction” and “learning” as well (that is, mastery-based learning, competency-based instruction). And to complicate things, one US Department of Education description combines competency-based learning and personalized-learning together (Here is an EML look at “personalization”). From the DoE:

By enabling students to master skills at their own pace, competency-based learning systems help to save both time and money. Depending on the strategy pursued, competency-based systems also create multiple pathways to graduation, make better use of technology, support new staffing patterns that utilize teacher skills and interests differently, take advantage of learning opportunities outside of school hours and walls, and help identify opportunities to target interventions to meet the specific learning needs of students. Each of these presents an opportunity to achieve greater efficiency and increase productivity.

What do we mean by “competency”? Who decides what counts? Who decides what students should know? What does this look like in practice?

So while it seems like there’s a fairly straightforward definition, CBE is actually used in different ways — in online and offline scenarios, by higher education and by K-12 — to describe some very different practices.

What do we mean by “competency,” for example? Who decides what counts? What does this look like in practice?

Answer: it varies.

There is no single model for competency-based education. There is no agreed-upon standard for what constitutes “competency” or “proficiency.”

Who Is Doing It?

A few examples:

Big Picture Learning School
Western Governors University
University of Wisconsin
Adams County School District 50
The state of Michigan
Chugach School District
Council for Adult and Experiential Learning

These help highlight how different states and schools define and approach CBE (and, in turn, how different the implementations can be).

What Technologies Are Used?

Arguably, some of the push for CBE comes from a move towards more computer-based education. The argument is that technologies enable different sorts of tracking and assessment (more granular, for example) and provide opportunities for more self-pacing.

Specific technologies used to support CBE include “data dashboards” that display progress to students (and to teachers), standards-based grade books, portfolios, and badges  (and other “micro credentials”). Tools that support CBE, Educause argues, “enable widespread changes that could result in a rethinking of pedagogy, assessment, and the concept of the credit hour.”

But what exactly do those changes look like? Are they learner-centered? Do they allow more inquiry-based learning? Or do they simply change the timing and testing of instruction?

Questions To Consider

How might CBE’s emphasis on “skills” change what and how things are taught? Do “abstract” concepts tend to be lost, for example?

How might CBE’s emphasis on the “modularity” of skills shape teaching and learning? What does it mean to see knowledge as “modular” in this way? Does this mean that knowledge is seen as static? As decontextualized? Or only contextualized through a certain “order” of skills?

To repeat an earlier question, what is “competency”? Who decides? How is it different from current assessment decisions? (Is it?)

Can students be engaged in determining “competencies”? How might CBE help give students more responsibility?

While CBE promises to change things like “seat time,” does it necessarily change other traditional outcomes of school? Is it still focused, for example, on the things that are “measurable”?

What support systems — people and technology — need to be in place for schools to successfully move to CBE? What other frameworks need to be in place to promote a “progressive” CBE?

What policies might need to change for CBE to be more readily adopted? And always key to ask: who are the biggest advocates of these policy changes? Why?

Image credits: alamosbasement

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