competencyworks higher education blog

Changing the System from Within: Using Competency-Based Education to Transform Teaching

September 6, 2017 by

by Mary Tkatchov, Assessment Manager; Erin Hugus, Instructional Designer; Jon Scoresby, Program Dean; and Haley Marshall, Editor

Many educators can relate to the uncomfortable feeling of “passing” students while knowing that they are not ready to advance to whatever comes next: a higher-level course, college, or a career. Many have also had to “fail” students and make them repeat an entire course when perhaps those students might have learned and succeeded had they had more time and individualized support. These educators might come across literature about competency-based education (CBE) and find the ideas interesting, but since their districts or institutions have not formally adopted a CBE system, they feel unable to make a transformation within their own practice. Although educators cannot control the policies of their districts or institutions, they can control, to varying degrees, their instructional design and practice.

While academic freedom varies from school to school, for the most part, it is within the power of the educator to articulate why students need to take a course, what life functions it will help them to fulfill, and therefore, what important learning outcomes must be achieved. It is also within their power to determine what learning activities and supports will help each student to learn the important skills and knowledge, and what constitutes appropriate evidence that the students have, in fact, learned. So those who are interested in competency-based education can actually implement, if not a whole new learning environment and credentialing system, at least the instructional design and teaching practices that are at the heart of CBE.

What is competency-based education (CBE)?

Competency-based education (CBE) refers to a movement to transform education to a system that focuses on demonstrated mastery of skills rather than seat time. Students can advance in their learning once they have demonstrated that they have achieved course outcomes and need not wait until the end of a unit or semester; however, they also cannot “pass” the course unless they demonstrate competence (usually a B or higher) in all course outcomes or competencies.

This definition of high quality competency education, developed by iNACOL and CompetencyWorks, can apply to K-12 as well as higher education since the concepts can be universally applied:

  • Students advance upon demonstrated mastery.
  • Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students.
  • Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students.
  • Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.
  • Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

So how does an educator working within the traditional, time-based education system apply these concepts in practice? There are many philosophies and frameworks that support today’s CBE movement, and here we synthesize concepts from two of the most well-known, William Spady’s outcome-based education (OBE) philosophy and framework and Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s Understanding by Design framework, as well as the Competency-Based Education Network’s Quality Principles and Standards for Competency-Based Education Programs.

Although you will notice different terminology in each model or framework (such as outcome-based or standards-based education), they are consistent with and related to competency-based education, as all are focused on the competencies (or outcomes, or standards) that represent important life, academic, or career skills that students must demonstrate, rather than seat time, textbooks, or activities without purpose.

Four main elements of CBE

Below are the four main elements of competency-based education that educators can begin implementing today to make teaching and learning more focused on essential outcomes, and while they mirror Spady’s four essential principles (Spady, 1994), they are compilations of insights from all of the above referenced sources.

  1. Starting with the why and defining meaningful outcomes
  2. Designing to meaningful outcomes with intentionality and transparency
  3. Expecting all students to demonstrate competence
  4. Providing strategic and differentiated support to help all students demonstrate competence

1. Starting with the why and defining meaningful outcomes

Before defining the essential outcomes of a course, first determine why the course itself is important for students to take. How might the course prepare students for significant life roles or careers? Once you have determined the “why,” you can begin the process of defining learning outcomes, or competencies, by answering the question, “What should students be able to do when they complete the course?” Also, for outcomes to be significant, they must focus on the application or creation of knowledge (higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy) as authentically as possible.

According to the C-BEN standards for quality CBE design, input from industry/content area experts who are current in the field is essential in the process of determining competencies. If access to experts is impractical, doing some research about current practices in the field/content area will be necessary here (books, blogs, professional organization websites, etc.).

2. Designing learning experiences to meaningful outcomes with intentionality and transparency


I’m Sorry I Failed You: Taking an Outcome-Based Approach to Student Learning in a Traditional Classroom

August 24, 2017 by

“Do no harm,” was my grad school professor’s advice about being an educator. When I reflect on some of the decisions I have made as a teacher since then, I know that although my intentions were good, I actually did some harm. I had to make daily judgments that could affect a student’s future, and since I am human and make mistakes just as my students do, I have often asked myself, “Did I do the right thing?”

One English 101 student, “Jake,” still haunts my memories. Jake was pleasant and invested in his learning; he was a skilled writer and his engagement in class discussions helped to keep the climate interesting. On the last day of class, Jake approached me to thank me for a great class and then said that he did not have his final paper. He did not say why, and I did not ask. I can only assume he was respecting my “no late work” policy, which was especially thoughtful since he could not pass the class without turning in the final paper. I considered giving him more time, but since he did not ask for an extension, as many students would, I did not offer one. A few days later as I was submitting final grades, I felt compelled to fail him.

I experienced feelings of guilt and regret after posting grades for this class, even though I could justify my decision. After all, the other students might have stayed up all night or given up important events to finish their papers. It was only fair to them that I enforce my deadlines, which were disclosed at the beginning of the semester, as was the no-late-work policy. And, why should I have to chase him down to give him extra time for reduced credit? Yet, I worried I had violated the “do no harm” admonishment.

Sometime during my own education I had internalized the belief that the primary job of a teacher was to prepare students for the real world—that since they would have to meet deadlines without excuses in life, they should have to do the same in the classroom. Now that I have worked in the real world and I have had to push back deadlines on occasion without, to my relief, the cataclysmic consequences I might have expected, I am questioning how real-world is it to be so inflexible with human beings, especially when the goal is not the creation of a product, but something so impossible to standardize—an individual’s learning. (more…)

Debunking a Myth – Competency-Based Transcripts Don’t Disadvantage High School Graduates in the Admissions Process

August 23, 2017 by

A transition to a competency-based education system brings with it many small and large changes. In order to serve their students better, districts, schools, and teachers change instructional practices, strategies, feedback, and, frequently, reporting. These changes are made in order to more accurately capture what a student knows and is able to do – how they are performing in relation to rigorous, common, shared expectations. While all of these changes should be made in consultation and collaboration with school communities, in response to the vision that they have for graduates, some of these changes are more visible to them than others. Transcripts represent one of the most visible – and public – of these changes.

The ultimate goal of our system is to graduate students who are college and career ready and prepared for the futures of their choosing. Admission to a college and university is a huge part of that future for many of our graduates, and it is only natural that students and parents will immediately think about the implications that the shift to competency-based education has on college admissions. These concerns can be particularly acute for parents who were served well by more traditional educational systems and those whose students have historically thrived in such conventional academic settings.

The Great Schools Partnership and the New England Secondary School Consortium (NESSC) have worked to address these concerns in a variety of ways. The engagement began by working, over the course of a year, with deans and directors of admission, high school guidance counselors, and principals to create a sample competency-based transcript that would serve as a model for secondary schools to use, change, and adapt to their local context with the assurance that it met the needs of a variety of admissions officials. At the conclusion of this process, the group of deans and directors of admissions requested to continue working together to create a sample school profile, knowing just how critical a clear, complete, brief, easily understandable school profile is in the admissions process. The school profile conveys important descriptive information about the school, its academic program, and its community, and they are customarily included in student applications to colleges and postsecondary programs. The school profile is especially important for admissions staff with fewer resources and limited internal capacity.

Following that process, the NESSC transitioned to gathering a repository of letters from public and private colleges and universities that unequivocally state that students from competency-based systems are not disadvantaged in the admissions process. To date, the NESSC has collected statements from seventy private and public institutions of higher education across New England (including Harvard, Dartmouth, MIT, Tufts, and Bowdoin). These efforts are ongoing and additional statements will be added and are available for download on the NESSC website.

Additional resources about engaging with your community around these questions (and an interview with Nancy David Griffin, Vice President for Enrollment Management and Student Affairs at the University of Southern Maine) can be found here.

Questions about competency-based learning and college admissions are not context specific. They are at least a consideration in every district implementing competency-based learning. In every community, there are students, parents, teachers, and community members who would like to better understand the ways in which this transition impacts the college admissions process. These questions recognize that there are serious flaws with traditional educational systems: the assumption that traditional grades are equivalent school to school and classroom-to-classroom is false. The assumption that earning a high school diploma means that a student is prepared for college coursework and experiences is false, proven wrong by the high rates of remedial course taking across the country. (more…)

Alternative Credentials are Reshuffling the Higher Education Deck

August 17, 2017 by

This post originally appeared at the Christensen Institute on July 25, 2017.

“Hard problems often solve themselves, if we get the categories right.” – Clayton Christensen

In a simple version of the world, work and learning are considered separate spheres. But in fact the categories are not so clear. The world of work involves learning too, and while much of this learning is experiential or “on the job”, companies have built a range of solutions to help their employees develop and learn new skills, including internal training sessions, external seminars, and corporate universities. They also turn to colleges and universities. But these institutions are but one piece of the puzzle.

We generally break learning down further into a neat progression of schools: elementary, middle, high, college, & graduate. But here, too, the complexity of the real world defies our schemes to classify it. For instance, 40-60 percent of college students require remedial classes, to the tune of $1.3 billion per year. Put differently, this means that millions of college students are spending money—including their own cash, federal loan dollars, and federal grants—to take high school courses from colleges and universities.

This is one of many examples of the costs of getting the categories wrong in higher education.

Interdependent vs. modular architectures

The simple story—of education neatly preceding work—describes a modular architecture, whereby colleges make sure that students meet employers’ specifications, and then send them off to those employers, their education complete. Modular architectures favor flexibility, because the pieces can be put together in different ways. Companies can recruit college-educated workers from a variety of different institutions and students can bring their degrees to bear in a variety of professions.

But in reality, learning doesn’t end with a graduation ceremony. Corporations are spending billions on training, using many avenues, of which traditional higher education (either on campus or online) is but one. Much of the training that happens within companies could be described as an interdependent solution. Interdependent solutions are preferable when standards are not well defined—just as the learning and skills outcomes of traditional higher education are highly variable between institutions and between students. Companies optimize the performance of their employee preparation and training by building their own solutions.

For instance, McKinsey, one of the world’s top consulting firms, has long recruited some of the best and brightest from the world’s elite universities. But once new consultants arrive at McKinsey, their first stop is more training. These internal training efforts formalized into McKinsey Academy, which has since evolved to be a profit center in its own right, providing McKinsey’s clients with leadership training in the form of in-person seminars as well as online courses.

Industry architectures are rarely either purely modular or purely integrated. Reality most often lies somewhere in the middle. These architectures are also not fixed over time—they oscillate toward modularity or integration as needs change. This is true in education; industry practices around training and credential requirements shift over time. Corporate universities represent a shift to a more integrated solution for training business and management functions. But other roles, like nursing, have seen a move toward a more modular architecture as requirements for degrees replace on-the-job training practices. (more…)

New Metrics and Student Engagement System

August 4, 2017 by

It is definitely time for the competency education innovators in K-12 and higher education to be learning from each other.

One of the opportunities for learning from each other is in thinking about information management systems that support student learning and collect what students know and are able to do in some form of a transcript. For example, in skimming the case study on the University of Wisconsin Flexible Option, I found two ideas that can push our thinking forward in K-12.

Metrics on Pace

In the Metrics Framework, the University of Wisconsin identifies three elements of pace:

  • Measuring rate of assessment completion within each subscription period (time) to reach personal educational goals
  • Assessing rate against student’s planned rate
  • Measuring nature of student’s engagement with curriculum

For aggregated student level data, University of Wisconsin is “aggregating average (mean, mode, median) pace through a program. This aggregate should be measured from student matriculation to completion (or other reason student leaves program). Aggregate pace can also be measured yearly. Aggregate pace can also be analyzed by types of students including demographics, professional interests, etc.”

Student Engagement System


What’s New in Competency-Based Higher Education?


What's new! star graphicExpansion of CBE in Higher Education Programs

  • Queen’s University’s medical program in Canada will become the first in North America to make the change to competency-based medical education.
  • Southern New Hampshire University announced a new Workforce Partnership Team to work with partners (employers, nonprofits, the public sector, and more) to meet students where they are with educational opportunities suited to their needs.

New Resources and Reports

The University of Wisconsin Flexible Option released a new case study website as a resource for other institutions looking to develop competency-based programs. It includes tough decisions and helpful resources in six key areas:

  • Academics: Faculty and curriculum development and factors influencing program offerings and quality
  • Budget: Business model, funding sources, and factors critical to success
  • Communications: Building stakeholder relationships
  • Enrollment Management and Technology: Student services and back-office operations
  • Metrics: Defining and measuring student and program success
  • Policy: Policies impacting direct assessment CBE models

New reports include:

New report findings include:

  • Education Dive reports that recent surveys of higher education highlight a dramatic shift in the ‘typical college student’ over the past ten years, with colleges now enrolling older students on non-traditional pathways, calling for IHE to adapt to the changing demographics through competency-based education programs.
  • A recent report found that colleges could earn about $1 million annually if they increased student retention. This article points to the benefits of adopting new strategies and using data analytics to provide better student experiences while boosting graduation rates.
  • A report for the Australian Skills Quality Authority found that” in competency-based training systems there are still circumstances in which mandating duration is seen as necessary as one means of regulating quality.”


What’s New in Competency-Based Higher Education?

July 6, 2017 by

What's new! star graphicThe Competency-Based Education Network, a grant-funded group of 30 institutions with competency-based programs, has become a free-standing nonprofit association and is opening up its membership. See this article in Inside Higher Education.


CBE in the News

  • This article highlights Temple University’s efforts to establish competencies for business education.
  • Steve Gunderson, former congressman and current president and CEO of the Career Education Colleges and Universities, wrote an article about connecting the Higher Education Act to jobs, including a recommendation to provide access to and recognition of credentials and competency-based pathways.
  • This article describes why Rwanda needs CBE in institutions of higher learning.



C-BEN Opens to New Members

June 19, 2017 by

The Competency-Based Education Network (focus on higher education) or C-BEN has opened its network to new members! You can find the new member brochure here, which includes information on the four categories of members: U.S. Institutions of Higher Education; K-12, International Institutions of Higher Education, Government, Associations and Non-Profits; Corporations and Service Providers; and Individuals

C-BEN has already done an amazing job in creating quality standards and tackling tricky issues for competency-based education in institutions of higher education. They operate with a set of core principles and have demonstrated powerful collaborations to harness the potential of competency-based education. In the announcement, other strands of their work include: promote and advance competency-based education as a strong and legitimate pathway to high-quality degrees and credentials for all learners; play a defining role in the growth of the movement; build and scale high-quality competency-based education programs; and advance the latest in innovative competency-based learning practices.

The next CBExchange is September 20-22, 2017, in Phoenix, AZ with a member-only convening September 19-20.If you are interested in presenting a session at CBExchange, the Request for Proposals process is open for submissions. Please submit your proposed session no later than July 10, 2017.

What’s New in Competency-Based Higher Education?

June 5, 2017 by

What's new! star graphicNew Resource: The Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN) released the first ever set of Quality Principles & Standards designed specifically for post-secondary competency-based education (CBE) programs.

High School Transcripts: More than 100 private schools across the U.S. formed the Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC) and are embracing a new high school transcript, in hopes to transform the college admissions process. (More on this from EdSurge and the Christian Science Monitor.)

Blog from Ireland on CBE in Higher Ed: Warnborough College published a blog on Competency-Based Education—What it is and why it’s relevant.

For more news and updates in competency-based higher education, sign up for our monthly newsletter on our homepage and follow us on Twitter: @CompetencyWorks.

What’s New in Competency-Based Higher Education?

May 5, 2017 by

What's new! star graphicUpcoming Event: The Saylor Higher Education Summit is being held on June 21-22 in Washington, D.C., which brings together leading decision makers and influencers across higher education who will share programs, initiatives and ideas such as competency education. Learn more here.

The Journal of Competency-Based Education 

A new issue of The Journal of Competency-Based Education has been released. New articles include:

  1. Designing quality into direct-assessment competency-based education
  2. “Right on the money”: CBE student satisfaction and post graduation outcomes
  3. Editorial
  4. Competency-based education as a force for equity
  5. Student success and retention using new definitions created for nonterm, direct assessment CBE

Education Dive reports: A report recently published in the Journal of Competency-Based Education shows CBE programs remain popular among older, “nontraditional” students who already have work experience, with just 10% of undergrads at CBE institutions under the age of 25. For more on the kinds of students most likely to enroll, read this article from eCampus News.

For more news and updates in competency-based higher education, sign up for our monthly newsletter on our homepage and follow us on Twitter: @CompetencyWorks.

WordPress SEO fine-tune by Meta SEO Pack from Poradnik Webmastera