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Aurora Institute

Competency-Based Education: Understanding the CBE Student’s Experience

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Jill L. Loveless

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

Jill Loveless

When was the last time a student said this about the learning experience? “I do it all at once and immerse myself in the material. Having it available gives me the opportunity to do the immersion type learning. For competency classes, there is more exposure. Writing code on a board and writing notes is not the best way to learn writing code.” Or when was the last time students claimed that the learning experience gave “a greater sense of agency over my learning”? These are just a few of the ways students described the competency-based learning experience at two community colleges.

There are approximately 600 institutions of higher education either developing CBE programs or offering them. Ryan claims that “to create this student-centric environment CBE programs need to look at the student experience holistically.” However, many of these institutions need to reallocate limited funds to implement CBE programs that require a new set of design principles based upon theory more than actual outcomes. CBE course designers have recommended coaches, mentors, CBE advisors, as well as faculty, be included in the course delivery. In spite of the growth of CBE, very little research that focuses specifically on the students’ experiences in this nontraditional design from the students’ perspectives has been published.

Beginning in 2016, I began to explore the question, What is the community college student’s experience in competency-based education courses or programs? To answer this, sub-questions to understand the student experience included:

  • what knowledge do students have prior to enrolling in a competency-based education course?
  • how are students supported during the course and by whom?
  • what activities support learning in the competency-based education course?
  • is there nonacademic support for the student in the online competency-based education course and what engagement with college personnel help them progress in the course?
  • if they encounter barriers, what are they within the competency-based education course? and
  • if a course is self-paced, how does it impact the overall experience?

Below are a few of the insights gained through my qualitative research with a group of five students, all of whom had taken at least one competency-based course:

  1. Do Students Even Know What CBE Is When They Sign Up For It?

One of the first surprises uncovered during the interviews was how little students actually knew about CBE programs and courses prior to entering the first class. All of the participants had little to no knowledge of what a CBE course entailed. One student said, “I had no knowledge of competency-based education beforehand. I did not know that it existed as such.” Another student stated, “I didn’t really know. I thought I would watch video-recorded lectures. I didn’t realize they were self-paced.” The most interesting reaction was from one student who stated that she was just “going with it” even though she knew nothing about CBE.

  1. Does Self-Paced Lead to Self-Regulation?

All of the participants expressed appreciation for the self-paced structure of their courses. However, not surprisingly, two students stressed how each discovered the importance of not procrastinating. One student said, “You really have to take the initiative in that type of class.” This student commented on this idea further in the interview by stating, “I think I’m really good at procrastinating. I think I would have done a bit better in person, but I still did pretty well in my class.” A third student may have described what students should expect before enrolling in an CBE course when he said, “I don’t know if it’ll work for everybody, but it takes a lot of self-discipline as well just because you have to be able to just be able to sit down and discipline yourself to sit down and do the work yourself and not have somebody telling you to do it all the time.”

  1. Independent and Self-Paced or Collaborative and Instructor Led?

The idea of being able to work at an individualized pace appealed to three of the students. One student discussed the idea of having “energy” and not having to waste time driving to class and dealing with the distractions in the classroom. This flexibility resonated with three of the students who appreciated the individualized structure and not having to sit in a class and have the pace set by the instructor or others in the class.

On the other hand, two of the students found value in attending labs on campus and working in person with faculty but also wished they had more interaction with other students for some of the work. On their campuses, they had access to multiple instructors with various areas of expertise that aided the students’ success.

Overall, the self-paced structure worked well except for a few students who struggled with time management initially and procrastinated on some requirements. One student had to pay to repeat the course because he did not meet the deadlines during the first try. While this was a difficult lesson to learn, once learned it was not forgotten. Saving money by progressing quickly and completing on time was a strong motivator for these students.

How the Student Learning Experience Changed

One student described how having extra pressure to figure out concepts was a benefit to his mastery of material. This required the student to be more proactive in the class. Another one noted that whatever you put into it is what you’re going to get out of it. “The more I studied and was dedicated and used my time wisely to do the work and take notes with it, I was able to get more out of it, understand it better, just comprehend the basic concepts that it was giving me.”

Although one student used the descriptor of it being “impersonal,” it was clarified as a positive attribute. “This is a much more, kind of impersonal way, but it also was able to cover a lot at the same time of learning. I mean, it works for me. I don’t know if it’ll work for everybody but it takes a lot of self-discipline as well just because you have to be able to just to sit down and discipline yourself to sit down and do the work yourself and not have somebody telling you to do it all the time. Otherwise, you kind of just, like, if you stop doing the coursework for about a week, then everything starts to become fuzzy again and you can’t remember everything as clearly.”

The participants were asked to describe their overall perceptions of the CBE experience. All of the participants had positive experiences due to flexibility but with the caveat that students had to be able to manage their time. On the whole, each participant described the experience as beneficial to learning even if some struggled with managing time and assignments as previously discussed. One of the more unique responses described the CBE experience as a more efficient way of learning, “I think it’s—engineers worry about efficiency—more efficient especially for working students. I learn by doing. It is more suited to that. I prefer it to a lecture of 300.” Some of the students agreed that they learned better because they were not distracted by what is experienced in traditional classrooms.

Critical Roles in Supporting CBE Students.

Participants said they had contact with a variety of personnel, some more than others. Advisors were the group whose contact was secondary to faculty. At one site, CBE academic counselors work with CBE students directly to help them navigate through the program. One participant stated that the academic counselor directly associated with the CBE courses is much more involved than your standard academic advisor. However, because that student felt confident in his abilities, the advisor tended to let him get in touch with her as needed. Other students described a similar approach: advisors were readily available when needed.

Tutors also were available to help students; in some cases, these were course-specific tutors. Students described proctors as part of the testing practices in some of the CBE courses. Another student, however, described a lack of knowing what support was available, saying, “I guess there were tutors that were available. I don’t know if they charged you for tutoring or if it was just something that was available for us, one of the perks of the program.” The utilization of support staff often correlated to the student’s level of self-confidence. This is an area where more consistency between programs may be needed.

Barriers Are Often Found in the Details

Each student was asked, what, if any, barriers did you encountered and how did you overcame them? The primary barrier for some students was communication issues. One major hurdle is having a course instructor that is a poor communicator. Poor communication could mean they’re not reading their e-mail. Or maybe they’re reading it but they’re not responding to it. Or maybe they’re responding to it but it’s a week later and you’ve already figured out the answer to your problem or given up. Or they respond and it’s totally unclear from the response what you’re supposed to do.

A solution to poor communication due to poor construction of a course offered by a student was instead of having one person be responsible for the course layout, they need to have a conference about this. They need to set aside, like, an afternoon or a day to, as a team, go over the whole course and have arguments about, “Do we like this assignment? Do we need to update this? What readings? How are we going to word things?” If they did that, then even if the instructor wasn’t the greatest communicator, it would really cut down on the need to get in touch with him or her. To me, it only makes sense . . . that they would do something like that because online courses are so efficient.

One student found technology issues as present barriers. “Another issue is when the course content has not been updated sufficiently. Like, links to information might be broken or some of the information is just a little bit old.”


Most of the students preferred the self-paced learning offered by the online coursework and the ability to seek assistance only when they felt the need. All of the students identified some support staff as part of their program, only one utilized them routinely during her coursework. However, none of the students expressed a need for weekly contact with anyone other than the faculty. If the end goal is to allocate funds to programs that increase enrollment and completion rates at colleges, then students in this study indicated that the institutions in this study did not fully prepare or inform them of what a CBE course was, which may limit future enrollment opportunities. Leaders should allocate additional resources to identify the demographics of successful students in current CBE programs (Kelchen, 2015). These data will strengthen marketing strategies attract students who are ignorant of benefits that CBE may offer, especially if individuals are seeking a program in which they can control most of the learning experience.

See also:

Jill Loveless is currently the Vice President of Academic Affairs at West Virginia Northern. She recently graduated from Capella University where she earned a Ph.D in Higher Education Leadership. The focus of her dissertation was competency-based education. Her career in education spans three decades with the last 18 years spent in community colleges.