Competency-based education (CBE) and competency-based learning are interchangeable terms. CBE is an outcomes-based approach to education advanced through a set of policies and practices (Gervais, 2016; Surr & Redding, 2017). The approach is built around desired, targeted competencies that incorporate different resources, modes of instructional delivery, and assessments that are designed to evaluate mastery of student learning. Such mastery is demonstrated through the necessary knowledge, attitudes, values, skills, past experiences, and behaviors required to complete a course, get a degree, or complete training to attain work or achieve other goals (Gervais, 2016; Oroszi, 2020; Surr & Redding, 2017).
In a CBE model, learning is both horizontal and vertical. According to Gervais, horizontal learning describes what students must know to integrate what they learn across the curriculum; vertical learning describes what content from each course students must master in depth. Combined, they show mastery of a targeted competency. Kelchen (2015) asserts that CBE takes two primary forms: “Well-established prior learning assessments, which grant credits for content that a student has previously mastered; and newer competency-based coursework, where students progress toward a degree as they demonstrate mastery of new academic content” (p. 2).
CBE began in K-12 education, and CompetencyWorks, a project of the Aurora Institute, is a leader in advancing CBE efforts in the K-12 system. Levine and Patrick (2019) describe the set of seven expectations for students and learning environments engaged in CBE efforts put forth by CompetencyWorks:
- Students are empowered to make important decisions about their learning experiences, how they will create and apply knowledge, and how they will demonstrate their learning.
- Assessments of student learning are meaningful, positive, and empowering and yield timely, relevant, and actionable evidence of student learning.
- Based on such assessments, students receive timely, differentiated support that matches their individual learning needs.
- Students progress through the learning environment based on evidence of mastery, not on the length of time they spend in a class (i.e., clocked hours or credit hours).
- Students can take different pathways in their learning and learn at varied paces.
- Strategies to ensure equity for all students are embedded in the culture, structure, and pedagogy of the learning environment.
- Rigorous, common expectations for learning are explicit, transparent, measurable, and transferable.
According to Gervais (2016), CBE occurs on a continuum, which he describes as follows. Students are provided, and can choose from, a wide range of learning experiences in a formal learning institution, online, and in their community. Educators work collaboratively with a diverse array of partners and their students to build individual learning pathways. These pathways accommodate student interests and learning preferences, within the bounds of the competencies that students are expected to master, and react to real-time data. Each competency has clear, transferable learning objectives, and students get customized support and accelerated opportunities—in and out of school—to ensure they stay on pace to master the competencies. Students take assessments when they are ready and have multiple opportunities to demonstrate mastery, and evaluation metrics reflect the degree of mastery of competencies ranging from advanced to not yet competent. If a student’s record indicates that competencies need to be re-learned, they focus on that competency rather than re-taking an entire course.
Relationship to Ecosystem
CBE recognizes the mastery of competencies, acquired in and outside of a classroom, rather than clocked hours or course credit. This leads to a credential that recognizes all that students know and can do. Such a model connects learning to work by providing employers with more tangible information than a traditional degree about what potential employees have learned. It shows what knowledge and skills employers can expect from individuals they aim to hire.
- Excelsior University has developed general education career competencies from findings of employer-based research. The competencies are the foundation of the university’s curricula, and students encounter and meet the competency requirements through general education courses and programs of study (Excelsior University, n.d.).
- Northern Arizona University offers an online personalized learning degree using a competency-based learning model. Rather than paying for credit hours, students pay a flat, six-month subscription fee and can take as many courses as they can complete during that time. Students complete courses and earn credit by demonstrating that they have mastered a topic (Northern Arizona University, n.d.).
- Southern New Hampshire University offers competency-based education through its College for America (CfA) curriculum. The CfA comprises real-world projects that count toward skills-based goals. It blends academic content with the soft skills and core competencies that employers seek (Southern New Hampshire University, n.d.).
- University of Wisconsin’s UW Flex Option is designed for working adults with some college credit or on-the-job experience. Students can start any month, move at their own pace, and complete assessments when they’re ready. UW faculty and industry leaders identify the competencies that are essential to the degrees and certificates offered, and students complete tests or projects to prove they’ve mastered those competencies. Students can apply prior knowledge and experience and/or the knowledge and skills gained through coursework to prove such mastery (UW Flex Option, n.d.).
- Western Governors University (WGU) pioneered competency-based education in postsecondary education, and it remains the only institution offering competency-based degrees at scale (Western Governors University, n.d.).
- Kelchen (2015) provides a list of institutions offering CBE models and prior learning assessments (PLA) as of 2014.
- Personalized learning
- Self-directed learning
- Mastery-based education/learning
- Proficiency-based education/learning
- Performance-based education/learning
- Problem-based education/learning
- Outcome-based education/learning
The Competency- based Education Network (C-BEN) develops and supports learning that focuses on competency—what an individual knows and can do—rather than on proxies for knowledge and skills. In doing so, C-BEN believes postsecondary education and training will be flexible, responsive, and valuable for learners and employers. The C-BEN network includes colleges and universities, state systems of higher education, corporations, and service providers dedicated to realizing the full potential of competency-based learning. The organization’s work is focused on quality, evidence-based practice, and outcomes.
The original working definition of CBE was developed in 2011 at the National Summit for K-12 Competency-Based Education, hosted by the Aurora Institute (formerly iNACOL) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (Levine & Patrick, 2019). The work to build CBE models in K-12 education paved the way for CBE in higher education (Nodine, 2016).
Outside school-based education, the history of outcomes-based approaches can be traced back to craft guilds, apprenticeship training programs, technical training programs, and licensure programs for professionals such as doctors and lawyers. These efforts established standards for competence and performance within specific jobs and roles (Nodine, 2016).
The development of CBE models in higher education dates to 1968, when 10 colleges and universities were funded by the U.S. Office of Education to develop training programs for elementary school teachers (Nodine, 2016). The progressive education movement, which spanned through the 1960s, sought to accommodate the post-industrial labor force and contributed to the philosophical foundation of CBE. It did so by advocating that formal education focus less on a traditional learning environment, where students acquired knowledge through direct instruction, to one that was more student-centered and prepared students for their roles in society (Gervais, 2016).
Nodine (2016) asserts that the history of CBE programs in U.S. higher education can be distinguished by three overall phases: “(a) innovative teacher education programs in the 1960s and beyond; (b) vocational education programs in the 1970s and beyond; and (c) more recent programs over the last decade and a half, particularly those taking advantage of online or hybrid models, advances in adaptive learning technology, or direct assessment” (p. 6).
When they began to take root in higher education, CBE programs were primarily a niche offering targeting nontraditional, adult learners. But recent calls by policymakers and employers for increased productivity, effectiveness, and demonstrable outcomes from the education sector have prompted the interest in and expansion of major CBE initiatives. Also, advances in educational delivery, including the development of asynchronous online learning, have enabled more adults to pursue higher education, thus reigniting interest in CBE models (Ford, 2014). Furthermore, as college costs and student debt continue to rise, students are seeking alternative, more cost-effective modes of education (Oroszi, 2020).
Excelsior University. (n.d.). General Education Career Competencies.
Ford, K. (2014). Competency-based education: History, opportunities, and challenges. UMUC Center for Innovation in Learning and Student Success. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.1.4679.0885.
Gervais, J. (2016). The operational definition of competency‐based education. The Journal of Competency‐Based Education, 1(2), 98-106.
Kelchen, R. (2015). The Landscape of Competency-Based Education: Enrollments, Demographics, and Affordability. AEI Series on Competency-Based Higher Education. American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.
Levine, E., & Patrick, S. (2019). What is competency-based education? An updated definition. Aurora Institute.
Nodine, T. R. (2016). How did we get here? A brief history of competency‐based higher education in the United States. The Journal of Competency‐Based Education, 1(1), 5-11. DOI: 10.1002/cbe2.1004.
Northern Arizona University. (n.d.). Personalized learning online. https://nau.edu/online-innovative-educational-initiatives/self-paced-personalized-learning/.
Oroszi, T. (2020). Competency-based education. Creative Education, 11, 2467-2476.
Southern New Hampshire University. (n.d.). Competency-based learning. https://gem.snhu.edu/competency-based-learning/.
Surr, W., & Redding, S. (2017). Competency-based education: Staying shallow or going deep? A deeper, more personal look at what it means to be competent. College and Career Readiness and Success Center.
UW Flex Option. (n.d.). Take control of your future. University of Wisconsin System. https://flex.wisconsin.edu/.
Western Governors University. (n.d.). Learning at WGU: Different by design. https://www.wgu.edu/about/story/cbe.html.