How Competency-Based Learning Actually Works

How Competency-Based Learning Actually Works

Added by Katie Lepi on 2013-06-24

iA report from The National Center for Education Statistics found that 38% of those enrolled in higher education are over the age of 25 and one-fourth are over the age of 30. The share of all students who are over age 25 is projected to increase another twenty-three percent by 20191. These findings demonstrate a significant shift in the traditional higher education student. While many developments, such as MOOCs, Open Educational Resources, flipped classroom models and accelerated three-year degree programs have entered the landscape, another great option for variety in learning is Competency-Based Learning (CBL).

CBL is designed to provide students with a personalized online education that they can complete at their own pace and that takes advantage of competence learned through experience. As personalized learning is becoming more and more emphasized, CBL is yet another very effective way for us to meet different, as well as new student population needs.

As defined by the U.S. Department Of Education, CBL transitions students away from “seat time” in favor of a structure that creates flexibility, allowing students to progress through a course as they demonstrate mastery of academic content, regardless of the amount of time they put in.2 Competency-based learning strategies provide flexibility in the way that credit can be earned or awarded, provides students with a personalized learning opportunity and gives students an option to reduce costs by speeding through courses, once they demonstrate competency.


According to a report from the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning titled Competency-Based Degree Programs in the U.S., CBL roots can be traced as far back as the 1960s, when pilot training programs were developed for elementary school teachers. However, it wasn’t until the 1970s that CBL programs emerged for adults looking to further their education and go back to school to obtain a specific degree.3 Western Governors University can arguably be called the pioneer of CBL. The institution formally proposed a competency-based virtual university in November 1995 and in September 1999, Western Governors University launched their first CBL program, Master of Arts in Learning & Technology.


Widespread adoption of CBL has not yet occurred, however, there are several institutions within the U.S. that are testing the waters by integrating CBL assessments into their curriculum offerings. The report on the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning on Competency-Based Degree Programs in the U.S. provides several examples of how institutions are using competency-based strategies.

Delaware County Community College (Pennsylvania) incorporates competency frameworks within traditional course-based programs. Rio Salado College, in Tempe Arizona, has a model that is similar to that of DCCC, but also incorporates competency assessment into each course. Each online degree and certificate program lists the competencies expected of students who complete that program, and each course is designed to help students achieve a specific set of competencies.

Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) recently redesigned its business administration bachelor’s degree program around competencies and, at the same time, constructed a new curriculum that helps students master competencies in a deliberate way. This learning style has streamlined the entire learning process so that the full range of bachelor’s level competencies can be mastered in three years instead of four. Additionally, as part of a public/private partnership, in 2012 Northern Arizona University (NAU) announced a partnership with Pearson to develop three competency-based bachelor degree programs: Computer Information Technology, Business Administration (with a specialization in small business), and Liberal Studies.


There are numerous benefits to CBL programs for students, faculty and institutions. Students are rewarded for prior knowledge that they demonstrate during pre-tests, and once a student displays competence, based on their assessment by professors, they are free to move on to other areas of the course or, in some cases, test out of the course entirely. Students are able to spend more time focusing on areas of the course that require more of their attention and spend less time on topics they have mastered. Additionally, CBL programs are often a more affordable option for students because they can test out of certain courses by demonstrating their mastery. With CBL courses, students also have the freedom of completing courses at their own pace, on their own time. If they have the desire and are capable, students can significantly accelerate their degree path.

From a faculty perspective, professors can work with their students as more of a coach or mentor, and create personalized content paths based on student assessments and their specific needs. Online CBL courses also allow for more flexibility. Since seat time is deemphasized, professors are not required to be present in a classroom and can work remotely. CBL also helps existing students find yet another way to learn and provides professors with an alternative way to teach.

Lastly, for institutions, CBL programs allow universities the opportunity to target a new set of non-traditional students, such as adult learners, that may not have been interested in the university prior to offering CBL programs.

Altering Higher Education

According to The National Center for Education Statistics, between 2000 and 2010, the enrollment of students 25 years old and over rose 42 percent.5 CBL can be an important factor in providing education to non-traditional students, such as working adults, who may not have the freedom or time to attend on-campus higher education courses. CBL is revamping many areas of higher education, such as course design, efficiency, evaluation, development and execution, as well as the professors’ role.

CBL courses are personalized for students based on their incoming competency and areas of need. Students can focus on higher order thinking skills and higher value outcomes can be applied. They also have the freedom to accelerate their coursework and program completion. In many cases, curriculum is customizable to fit specific areas of student competency, versus “one size fits all” courses, directly altering the development and execution of the course. Course and topic level outcome data, or data rolled up to higher levels such as program and institutional outcomes, gives institutions detailed information for institutional assessment and improvement efforts. The data is timely, relevant and actionable, at the course or program level.

With seat time deemphasized, the professors’ role changes in the CBL style of learning – where faculty serve more as a coach or facilitator versus a traditional lecturer. Professors’ “office hours” are fundamentally different as well. That’s because they need to make themselves more available to students at off-peak hours of the day, often in the evenings, when students are doing assignments online, to answer questions and help students master key areas of the course. CBL elevates the role of the professor, positioning them as a guide, with a focus on offering individual student support: evaluation, feedback, identification, intervention, and remediation of at-risk learners.

CBL is finding its place in higher education and resonating well with non-traditional students. Not only can it cut costs, it also helps time-crunched students complete a course at their own pace on their own time, while providing professors the ability to provide a personalized learning experience based off students’ demonstration of competency and assessment. CBL ensures that students have mastered the knowledge they need to know to move on to the next course, based on proven results from their assessments.

By Brent Capriotti, Curriculum Consultant for Pearson


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