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Aurora Institute

The Multi-Faceted Potential of Competency Based Education: Four Benefits of CBE

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Contributing Author

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, How to Get Started

Fatma Mili
Fatma Mili

By Fatma Mili, Associate Dean of Educational Research and Development, Purdue University.

As competency-based education continues to grow, the higher education industry could begin to realize some significant benefits.

In a recent Lumina-organized workshop on Competency-Based Education (CBE), it was remarked that CBE, will succeed where MOOC has not to truly revolutionize higher education. Paul Fain, in one of his Inside Higher Education blogs called CBE the next big thing. The growing interest in Competency-Based Education spans institutions (their number went from 20 last year to almost 250 this year), accreditation agencies, and the Department of Education.

Although many of the institutions embracing CBE are offering adult education and are operating somewhat independently of the traditional academic walls, there are numerous potential benefits for CBE that are at the heart of the mission of post-secondary education. In this article, I will outline four:

1. Quality Assurance on the Outcome

The book Academically Adrift, published in 2011, rang a very loud alarm when it reported on its findings of the level of learning in our colleges. The documented lack of significant improvement in students’ critical thinking and complex reasoning and writing skills in a third of the graduates was unsettling. If nothing else, it pointed to a deep flaw in our system of accountability. What if we shifted graduation requirements from credits and grades to actual learning and demonstrated competence? What if degrees were defined in terms of the outcome rather than the process? CBE is meant to do just that. This is a major philosophical shift for the faculty and the students. For faculty, it focuses on what the graduates will be able to do upon graduation; for the students, it puts higher expectation of competence rather than just passing classes. For both, the onus is on them to support students’ learning and competency.

2. Competent In What? Accountability on Higher Order Skills

Along with the focus on the outcome, CBE raises the question of the nature of these competencies. With the deepening of our academic disciplines, we have experienced an increasing specialization and sharpening focus on the growing amount of disciplinary knowledge in the design and delivery of curricula. Yet, interviews and surveys of employers are consistently valuing higher order skills over the specific disciplinary domain in which the graduates learned to practice them. In a recent AACU Report It Takes More than a Major nearly all those surveyed (93 percent) say that, “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than [a candidate’s] undergraduate major.” Although not a panacea to all problems, CBE can help us bridge the disconnect by explicitly identifying both types of competencies and designing around them. Instead of designing a curriculum around domain knowledge and hoping that other competencies will emerge as a byproduct, curricula will be designed specifically to hone domain knowledge and higher order capacities. The latter become part of graduation requirements and curriculum design in the same capacity as disciplinary knowledge. Students will no longer graduate with one type of competencies or another. They will attain and demonstrate both.

3. Empowering the Students with their Learning

The clarity on expectations and the inherent asynchronicity of CBE puts the students in the driver’s seat when it comes to their learning. Students are presented with clear specifications with what competencies they need to demonstrate to graduate. They can then establish how and when they will acquire these competencies. They can attend live classes, use abundant materials online (e.g. MOOCs), work independently and manage their own capacities and constraints. Some students may be able to go much faster; some will choose to acquire additional competencies outside those prescribed by their curriculum and have them credentialed; some will choose to go at a slower pace, more appropriate for their preparation or outside demands on their time. The sense of control nurtures the students’ intrinsic motivation and helps them explore and deepen their learning. From our one semester-long experience with CBE we have seen many students attempt a higher number of competencies and explore areas outside of their recommended plan of study.

4. Designing for Diversity: We Built it and They Did Not Come

One of the visible signs of the growing pains of higher education is its continuing struggle with diversity and the representation of all segments of the population in the student body. This unequal representation is not attributed to lack of trying. In the STEM disciplines in particular, many efforts have been invested in attempting to increase the number of women and minorities. Yet, the problem proved to be almost intractable, at least in its present form. One possible hypothesis is that the whole system has evolved around a specific type of student profile. Many of its features are therefore a reflection of that profile. The slow progress in diversifying students may be a symptom of the shortcomings of retrofitting a system to students for whom it was not specifically designed. CBE—with its potential for flexibility, openness and personalization—can lead to a breakthrough in finally breaking barriers for all and making post-secondary education more accessible, more appealing and more successful for all.

This piece was originally published on The EvoLLLution at