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What is Competency-Based Education? Two Expert Perspectives

“Competency-based education is where learners progress once they have demonstrated competence. So, whether that is through modeling that they are capable of doing something, by taking an exam, or by completing a project, at the point where they can demonstrate that they have achieved competence, they move on to the next layer of learning.”

Joann Kozyrev, Vice President of Design and Development at Western Governors University

What if earning a degree was a matter of demonstrating mastery and skill rather than attending a set number of classes for a required number of weeks and repeating memorized information? Students could complete degrees faster and often for much less tuition than traditional programs that award grades and set semester schedules.

Competency-based education (CBE) aims to do just this: award a degree based on assessed mastery. Grades are not typically included in CBE programs. Rather, students earn a pass or no pass based on their level of competency. Top CBE programs often allow students to return to the course materials to gain more skills and retake the assessment instead of having to retake a class from the beginning. In general, CBE is student-centric, with success as the end goal.

A three-year survey of 488 postsecondary institutions conducted by the American Institutes for Research found that 13 percent already had full CBE programs in place, with another 47 percent in the process of adopting CBE programs. The institutions with full CBE programs offer a total of 851 graduate and 206 graduate programs. The most popular degrees include nursing, business administration, and computer and information science.

Because CBE courses are self-paced and flexible, many CBE degrees are offered online. In fact, Western Governor University is both entirely online and entirely CBE for all of its degrees: “We have so much undeveloped talent in the United States that it is very difficult for employers to match with jobs. And we have so many people who feel left out of education because of the structure. I believe that because of the flexibility and rigor of competency-based education, we have a powerful tool to help us unlock that talent and match it to the need. I think it has the potential to help people who are stuck either geographically or professionally, and to tap into their workplace passion and connect it to opportunity,” shares Joann Kozyrev, vice president of design and development at WGU.

Keep reading to learn from two CBE experts about competency-based education, how mastery is assessed, where it excels, and how it can help address equity issues in education.

Meet the Experts

Joann KozyrevJoann Kozyrev, MA

Joann Kozyrev is the vice president of design and development at Western Governors University. She leads WGU’s student-centered team of skills architects, assessment and curriculum specialists, learning designers and developers, and content specialists to provide students with personal, flexible, and affordable education based on real-world, high-demand skills and competencies.

She earned her undergraduate degree in Russian and English from Juniata College and earned her master’s of arts in teaching English as a second language (TESL) from Penn State University.

Amy StevensAmy Stevens, PhD

Dr. Amy Stevens is an educational innovation consultant at Northwestern University. Previously, she was the vice president of academic resources and technology and competency-based education at Southern New Hampshire University. Her expertise is in access, affordability, rapid expansion, and academic excellence.

She earned her doctorate in American intellectual history at Boston College, her master’s in teaching with technology from Marlboro College Graduate Center, and her master’s of fine arts in creative writing from Southern New Hampshire University.

Competency-Based Education: An Overview

Dr. Stevens explains CBE succinctly. “Competency-based education is the idea that students are assessed on what they’re able to demonstrate about what they’ve learned instead of feeling like they need to cover a certain amount of content in a fixed time period. So if we take time out of the equation and we assess students on what they’ve actually learned, can we get them to mastery to make sure they’re successful in their learning path?”

The answer from successful CBE programs has been a resounding yes. Western Governors University helps students do this through online learning every day, according to Kozyrev: “Competency-based education is where learners progress once they have demonstrated competence. So, whether that is through modeling that they are capable of doing something, by taking an exam, or by completing a project, at the point where they can demonstrate that they have achieved competence, they move on to the next layer of learning,” she says.

One distinct advantage of CBE is that students can move at their own pace. “Traditional education says this course takes 15 weeks or 20 hours, for example. The truth is that that varies a great deal. For individuals, it varies based on the amount of prior learning that you have and how long it’s been since you’ve had that prior learning. It can also vary based on how much motivation there is to learn. There are a lot of variables that come into play. And competency-based education says that it isn’t how much time you spend—it is how competent you are,” shares Ms. Kozyrev.

While CBE can be applied to most degree programs, some programs have embraced it more than others. “It has been used in nursing and medical education for many years. It has also been used in manufacturing training for many years, where once you demonstrate that you are capable of doing something safely, you are allowed to start running the forklift, for example,” says Ms. Kozyrev

How is Competency Assessed in CBE?

One of the critical parts of CBE is assessing what students know and what they have learned. There are several ways to do this and can vary from program to program. “You can do pre-assessments to see if students have the skills, knowledge, or abilities in advance. These include objective tests or simulations. That way, you can identify where the pockets of learning opportunities are,” offers Dr. Stevens. “Then, you can give content, instruction, and maybe on-the-job training. Next, you can do what’s called a summative assessment. It is this idea that you have a full demonstration of a real-world application of the content. So it may look like a project, presentation, or computer program. If it’s nursing, it could be a patient plan, or if it is IT, it could be a security plan.”

Kozyrev shares how they do it at her institution: “At Western Governors, we have two primary ways that we assess competency. Mainly we do exams and projects, although we do have certain fields of study in which there are field experience competencies where students have to demonstrate skills to a preceptor.”

Overall, mastery in CBE looks very different from passing a traditional test or turning in a term paper. “We don’t tend to have very strict rubrics that say, for example, ‘An English paper needs to have you know these six demonstratable skills.’ Rather we ask, ‘Do you have the fundamentals, do you demonstrate broad thinking? Can you do group work, have problem-solving skills, and communication skills?’” asks Dr. Stevens.

Dr. Stevens offers an example: “Take the whole spectrum of American history. It’s hard to think how someone can be competent in every battle and every election. That’s not the point. The point is, can they think like a historian? Can they use historical thought processes and are reflective and adaptable enough so that when the context changes, they have the knowledge and the skills and the abilities to take in new information and make new meaning out of it?” she says.

Courses for CBE at Western Governors are developed using a team of professionals. “We use our assessment, development, and psychometrician colleagues to help us to develop the most authentic possible assessment of people’s ability. Our primary focus is identifying competencies and helping people gain them,” says Kozyrev.

The Benefits of Competency-Based Education

CBE can be applied to all levels of education and types of degrees, from high school through doctorates. However, there are some areas where CBE really shines. “Where we saw students really excelling is in the associate’s degree pathway, which was designed for frontline employees. So people who had been working either in call centers or in fulfillment centers or in some level of retail. Through CBE, we are getting them to an associate’s degree, which often means the difference between an hourly job with no benefits and a salary job with benefits,” shares Dr. Stevens.

In addition to preparing students for careers, CBE can benefit non-traditional learners. Kozyrev notes, “One of the real advantages of competency-based education is it can teach people how they learn. So it can help people who have maybe not had the best instruction or who are more hands-on learners or who just didn’t have the maturity going through school to learn how to be learners to develop the skills of learning. They can then take way into any future endeavor.”

How Competency-Based Education can Address Equity in Learning

CBE has the opportunity to address equity in education due to the flexibility of this type of degree and the possibility of reduced tuition.

Dr. Stevens shares how she saw this play out in the College for America program at Southern New Hampshire University. “When they started going into refugee camps in Africa, what they were able to find was that there were a body of students who were born in these camps, were probably going to die in these camps, but had the talent and the dispositions to be able to take the project-based learning and then work on it in their own time,” she says.” They were able to demonstrate mastery at incredibly high rates, but they would never have been able to sit in a 16-week college classroom. It just was never going to happen for them.”

Dr. Stevens continues, “This opened up the whole world of Western educational models to them, and they were able to sprint through picking up competencies as they needed them and as they were interested in them. They were able to put together degrees very quickly. I met a student who is a graduate and said to me, ‘I was born here. I thought I was going to die here. Last month, I bought my mother a house because I can now travel the world selling windmill engineering.’ It completely transformed his life.”

Kozyrev also sees how CBE levels the playing field for non-traditional students. “I went to a liberal arts college on a generous scholarship. It was an incredible moment of privilege. And in my senior year, one of my instructors said, ‘How wealthy are we as a nation that we can send our children off to think for four years?’ And I think about that all the time because we do have people who can send our children off to think for four years, and we have many people for whom that’s simply not a viable option,” she says. “Competency-based education allows us to send off people to think but not require them to do it in a particular way and in a particular venue.”

Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson is a freelance writer with extensive experience writing about healthcare careers and education. She has worked in public health, at health-focused nonprofits, and as a Spanish interpreter for doctor’s offices and hospitals. She has a passion for learning and that drives her to stay up to date on the latest trends in healthcare. When not writing or researching, she can be found pursuing her passions of nutrition and an active outdoors lifestyle.