Competency-based education: A primer

AACRAO Annual Meeting attendees unfamiliar with Competency Based Education (CBE) received a primer at a session on Tuesday presented by Joellen Shendy of the University of Maryland University College and Lesa Beals of Purdue University. 

CBE programs have dramatically increased over the past several years, the presenters said, offering their take on why they are gaining popularity, how they change processes and policies, and the overall impacts of such programs.

The common elements of CBE, the presenters noted, are that it measures learning, not time; is flexible; is personalized; and is relevant to the workplace. 

For registrars, specifically, becoming familiar with CBE is important because it affects campus processes, policies, and practice as well as curriculum creation and design, transfer credit, and evidence of students learning (transcripts, badges, etc.).

There are three types of CBE programs:

  • Competency Based Direct Assessment: learning that is completely divorced from the Carnegie unit, tied to workplace needs, primarily self-paced, stresses what a student knows and can do. There are six such programs in the country.
  • Competency Based Not Direct Assessment: tied to credit hour/units, tied to employer/workplace needs, stresses what a student knows and can do, delivered with term structure.
  • Competency Framework: broadly developed with competencies, tied to employer/workplace needs, stress what a student knows and can do delivered in existing model (project-based). There are currently three such programs.

At UMUC, the CBE model is part of its graduate program and is designed around what its students must know and be able to do when they graduate.  “It really is about the application of their knowledge,” Shendy said.

She added that their curriculum is designed around “abilities” rather than the traditional “domain.” “Traditionally designed programs tend to focus primarily on domain,” she said. “The reality is that domain will change.”

At UMUC, every ability has to be demonstrated at least three times in a multitude of domains, Shendy said. “You have to clear a competency three times. You have to meet the threshold of 80/85 percent in every CBE.”

At Purdue University, its CBE is offered to its undergraduate population. Similar to UMUC, its CBE programs are designed around real-world application. In addition, they offer different levels of mastery.  Purdue’s CBE programs include dedicated classroom or laboratory time with faculty from different departments who serve as coaches or mentors in the learning process. The campus is currently working on legitimizing artifacts through digital badges, a URL for Linkedin and student transcripts.

Challenges at Purdue include the unpacking of courses and creating them into one.  “It is challenging when students come in and don’t need one part of the packed courses,” Beals said.

“Where we struggled the most is in the grading,” Shendy said.

Neither presenter anticipated sweeping increases in CBE right away. “It’s innovative and there’s a population that we’ll serve,” Beal said.

“For us, it is becoming our core learning model,” Shendy said. “But what I hope that we can take from this is that there are different ways to create curriculum and make connections with the workplace and increase student learning. Take the pieces that make the most sense and hopefully we can use those in the curriculum."

The presenters noted that the Competency Based Education Network (C-BEN) is a good resource for institutions wanting additional resources and information on CBE, as is AACRAO’s Comprehensive Student Record project.   

Review the session PowerPoint here.