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Explainer: What is Competency-Based Education?

This post appears in a series of WW Explainers—brief articles that will dig a little deeper into some of the terms, methods, and background of the Foundation’s work. For more from the series, click here.

Badges, tokens, self-paced learning: The lexicon of competency-based education crops up more and more frequently these days, particularly in higher education circles. But what is competency-based education, or CBE? As Robert Kelchen of AEI notes in a recent paper, “There is still no consensus definition of CBE, even among the institutions that provide it.”  And yet today even the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching—which in 1909 first proposed the “credit hour” as a time-based measure of learning—is examining with the influence of competency-based education (and the likely staying power of time-based learning).

For the past century and more, college degrees have been granted based on the amount of time committed to the program. An undergraduate degree is usually earned after completing 120 course hours. A master’s program is awarded after 30 or 36 credit hours. At most colleges and universities, degrees and certifications are awarded based on seat time, or the number of hours of coursework a student has completed.

Yes, in each course a student takes, exams are given and student knowledge is tested. But the actual grades—as long as they are above a minimum, or passing grade—are immaterial to earning the degree. If a student passes a semester’s worth of classes, he or she gets credit for the course.

With competency-based education, the focus is not on time spent, but on mastery of the subject matter. CBE recognizes that learners enter the process with different levels of understanding and ability, and that some students learn faster than others. It embraces the notion that learners themselves should control the pace and progress of their educations.

The CBE process is fairly simple. At the beginning of each course, students take a pre-test that determines their initial understanding of the topic. For a few, that pre-test may show they’ve already mastered the content and can move onto the next course. For others, it may determine they need additional content knowledge before proceeding.

Students then learn at their own pace. They can go as fast or as slow as they want (or as their schedule allows) in covering units of coursework. When they are ready, they take another exam on the material; if they pass, they earn a “token” (the new equivalent of a credit) and move on. If not, they better understand what topics and areas they need to focus on before completing a given subject.

Why is this approach important? It allows students to set the pace and rigor of the learning process. It makes it easier to stop and start “formal classes” as family or work demands change. It can reduce the time and cost of degree for focused learners. And it places the emphasis where it should be—on a clear and thorough understanding of the subject matter.

Though CBE has only become a buzzword in the last few years, it’s a familiar and proven idea in some contexts. One cannot earn a driver’s license without demonstrating an ability to parallel park or make a left turn. That is competency-based education, with a license delivered based on a mastery of basic driving, not the amount of time spent in a driver’s ed class.

Even in higher education, competency-based education has been around for more than a half-century. In the 1500s, the entire learning process at institutions like Oxford was based on mastery of the subject. When students showed the masters of the college a clear understanding of their subject and an ability to use it, they received a university degree.

With global demands for specific skills and knowledge higher today than ever before in our history, the shift toward competency-based education will continue. We all want the best, most capable doctors and pilots and teachers possible. Increasingly, it will be CBE that determines who is most capable.


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