Mastering Skills at Your Own Pace: Competency-Based Learning in Higher Education

Many institutions of higher education are moving toward a competency-based learning (CBL) model, where graduation depends on demonstrated ability and mastery of skills, not years completed.  

Competency-based learning (CBL) offers a flexible way for students to get credit for what they know, build on their knowledge by learning with a deliberate focus on competencies, and earn credentials that are more directly related to employer needs.

Instead of evaluating student progress on the amount of time spent in a classroom (using the credit hour and seat-time, based on quarters or semesters), students receive college credit based on their actual demonstration of knowledge and skills learned. Instruction is designed in a way that builds on previous knowledge in a deliberate and scaffolded way. Many competency-based learning (CBL) programs are structured in a way that allows students to learn and progress at their own pace, which is ideal for today’s adult learner.

This course has been developed to:

Upon completion of this self-paced instructional course, all participants will be able to analyze the provided information, and utilize prior knowledge in order to formulate a plausible statement that expresses next steps and non-negotiable criteria to consider when designing and developing a rigorously competitive, competency-based learning program that is sustainable and scalable.  

What is CBL? This section will clearly define CBL, and describe the audience that is most likely to identify this approach to skill attainment as one of the most effective and efficient pathways to earning a degree or professional certification.

Competency-Based Learning Defined

Competency-based learning begins by identifying specific competencies or skills, and enables learners to develop mastery of each competency or skill at their own pace, usually while working with a mentor. Learners can develop just the competencies or skills they feel they need (for which increasingly they may receive a ‘badge’ or some form of validated recognition), or they can combine a whole set of competencies into a full qualification, such as a certificate, diploma or increasingly a full degree. Learners work individually, rather than in cohorts. If learners can demonstrate that they already have full mastery of a particular competency or skill, which usually happens through a test or some form of prior learning assessment (such as a project that effectively demonstrates mastery of content and skills), they will be allowed to move to the next level of competency without having to repeat a prescribed course of study for the prior competency.

Its value for developing practical or vocational skills or competencies is more obvious, but increasingly competency-based learning is being used for educational goals that require more abstract or academic skills development that are often combined with other cohort-based courses or programs of study.

Competency-based learning is particularly appropriate for adult learners with life experience who may have developed competencies or skills without formal education or training.  It might also work well for those who started school or college and dropped out and wish to return to formal study, but want their earlier learning to be recognized.  It has also been a popular choice for those learners wanting to develop specific skills but not wanting to participate in full programs of study. Competency-based learning can be delivered through a campus program (face-to-face), but it is increasingly delivered fully online (synchronously & asynchronously), because many students taking such programs are already working or seeking work.

Please take a minute to examine the info graphic below before continuing.

Breaking away from the Norm

Competency-based learning attempts to break away from the regularly scheduled classroom model, which would require all students to study the same subject matter at the same speed often times in a cohort of fellow students.

Please view the video below before continuing.  

 

How does Competency-Based Learning Work? Helping a New Team Member to Understand the Basics.

John, a lead designer has been asked by his new team member to explain competency based learning.  She is a little unsure of how this works, and wants a better understanding so that she is able to have a more informed conversation when this topic arises during team meetings.  Her department is considering a new credential program and this is something they are actively discussing each week.  She is unsure of how she feels about the topic, because she feels she has too little information to know if this is a good thing or not.  She knows design and the principles that support the work, and now with your help, she will also know how the two work together.    

Please click on each numbered response in order to proceed and watch how your thorough explanation of competency-based learning eases her concerns.  

Exploring Design Models that Support Competency-Based Learning: This section will review several widely used learning models in order to determine the best or best combination of learning models to support CBL.

Choosing Instructional Design Models that best Support Competency-Based Learning

ADDIE

The ADDIE model is basically a generic, systematic, step-by-step framework used to ensure course development and learning does not occur in a haphazard, unstructured way. It is designed to ensure:

  1. learners will achieve the goals of the course,
  2. allows for the evaluation of learner’s needs,
  3. the design and development of training materials, and
  4. evaluation of effectiveness of the training program using processes with specific, measurable outcomes.

Merrill's Principles of Instruction 

This framework holistically integrates five principles of learning, namely:

  1. Task/Problem centered principle
  2. Activation principle
  3. Demonstration principle
  4. Application principle
  5. Integration principle

The principles promote learning in the following manner:

  • Learning starts with real-world problems. Students should be able to relate to problems and tasks they can handle
  • A course must activate existing knowledge base of the learner; hence aiding them connect previous knowledge with the new one
  • A course must demonstrate the knowledge (both visually and through story telling) so that it leverages different regions of the brain, hence retaining it longer
  • Allow them to apply new information on their own. Let them practice and learn from their mistakes. Let them see how your new material works in concrete situations
  • The course must offer possibilities for integrating the knowledge into the learner’s world through discussion, reflection, and/or presentation of new knowledge

ARCS

One of the biggest problems we face as designers of e-Learning content: without the luxury of face-to-face interaction with our audience, how can we keep our audience motivated enough to not only complete the courses we create, but to actually enjoy learning the skills and knowledge we set before them? 

Keller’s ARCS Model of motivation can be perceived as a problem solving approach to learning that instructional designers can use to develop even more engaging eLearning activities.


Dick & Carey

This model addresses instruction as an entire system, focusing on the interrelationship between context, content, learning and instruction. According to Dick and Carey, "Components such as the instructor, learners, materials, instructional activities, delivery system, and learning and performance environments interact with each other and work together to bring about the desired student learning outcomes".

Kemp Design Model

 This model conveys that the design and development process is a continuous cycle that requires constant planning, design, development and assessment to insure effective instruction. The model is systemic and nonlinear and seems to encourage designers to work in all areas as appropriate. The model is particularly useful for developing instructional programs that blend technology, pedagogy and content to deliver effective, inclusive (reliable) and efficient learning.

Rapid Prototyping 

What exactly does Rapid Prototyping offer? With Rapid Prototyping, the steps are crunched together to reduce the amount of time needed to develop training or a product.  Its non-linear approach allows for more instructional flexibility. It can catch problems early in the development stages as users are able to offer immediate feedback.  The design and development phases are done simultaneously and evaluation is done throughout the process. It reduces development time and costs by:

  • Using working models early in a project to eliminate time-consuming revisions later on.
  • Completing design tasks at the same time, rather than sequentially, throughout the project.

With Rapid Prototyping, learners and/or subject matter experts interact with prototypes and instructional designers in a continuous review and revision process. The development of a prototype is the first step and analysis is continuous throughout the process. As one cycle proves effective and usable, the next cycle begins, based upon the best-practices of the previous cycle, and so on.

Please drag and drop each model to the correct picture.

  • ADDIE
  • ARCS
  • Rapid Prototyping
  • Merrill's Principles of Instruction
  • Kemp Design Model
  • Dick & Carey

Choosing Competencies: This section will provide suggestions and areas to consider when defining and choosing learning competencies that are progressive and coherent.

Defining competencies

A feature of most competency-based programs is a partnership between employers and educators in identifying the competencies required to demonstrate competence in the content or area of expertise. Problem-solving or critical thinking, might be among these but usually only considered at the highest-level, but competency-based learning tries to break down abstract or vague goals into specific, measurable competencies.

For instance, some degree programs develop a high-level set of competencies and utilizes a working team of contracted subject matter experts.  The team takes 10 or so of the high level competencies for a particular qualification and breaks them down into about 30 more specific competencies, around which the online courses are developed to show mastery of each competency. Competencies are based upon what graduates are supposed to know in the workplace and as professionals in a chosen career. Assessments are designed specifically to assess the mastery of each competency; thus students receive either a pass/no pass following the assessment. A degree is awarded when all 30 specified competencies are successfully achieved. This can be accomplished at the individual pace of each learner, which in some cases can be as soon as 6 months after starting a specified program.  

Defining competencies that meet the needs of students and employers in ways that are progressive (i.e. one competency builds on earlier competencies and leads to more advanced competencies) and coherent (in that the sum of all the competencies produces a graduate with all the knowledge and skills required within a business or profession) is perhaps the most important and most difficult part of competency-based learning.

Please review the infographic below before continuing:

Please review the passage from the previous section and provide the correct response to complete the paragraph. You can go back to the previous section if you need help.

A feature of most competency-based programs is a partnership between   and in identifying the required competencies.  Problem-solving or , may be considered at the highest-level, but competency-based learning tries to break down or vague goals into , competencies.

Defining competencies that meet the needs of and in ways that are and is perhaps the most important and most difficult part of competency-based learning.

Program Design, Learner Support, & Assessments: This section provides information on course creation, mentors for learner support, and assessment of learning.

Course and Program Design

Some courses can be created by in-house subject matter experts that select existing online curriculum from third parties and/or resources such as e-textbooks through contracts with publishers. Open educational resources are increasingly used as well.

When an LMS is not used, a specially designed portal for each course is needed. When using portals as opposed to an LMS, E-textbooks are offered to students without extra cost, through contracts between the college and the publishers. Courses are pre-determined for the student with no electives. Students are admitted on a monthly basis and work their way through each competency at their own pace.

Students who already possess competencies may accelerate through their program in two ways: transferring in credits from a previous associate degree in appropriate areas (e.g. general education, writing); or by taking exams or submitting relevant projects when they feel they are ready.

Please identify each statement as it relates to Course & Program design as either True of False.

  • Some courses are created by in-house subject matter experts who might select existing online curriculum from third parties and/or resources such as e-textbooks through contracts with publishers.
  • The use of open educational resources in designing competency-based learning is steadily decreasing.
  • An LMS like Canvas or Blackboard cannot be used to deliver CBL content, only a specially designed portal can be used for each course.
  • Students who already possess competencies may accelerate through their program in two ways: transferring in credits from a previous associate degree in appropriate areas, or by taking exams or submitting relevant projects when they feel they are ready.
  • E-textbooks can be offered to students without extra cost, through contracts between the university and the publishers.

Learner Support

Learner Support will vary depending on the institution as well as the learning goals and outcomes that are identified.  Assigning mentors is one way to provide learner support.  Mentors are often previous students that were extremely progressive and successful in completing the course work within an impressively short amount of time.  

There are two types of mentors: ‘student’ mentors and ‘course’ mentors

Student Mentors  Course Mentors
Student mentors have qualifications within the subject domain, usually at a masters level Course mentors are more highly qualified, usually with a doctorate, and provide extra support for students when needed
They are in at least bi-weekly telephone contact with their students, depending on the needs of the student in working through their courses Course mentors will be available to between 200-400 students at a time, depending on the subject requirement
They and are the main contact for students  
A student mentor is responsible for roughly 85 students   
Students start with a mentor from their first day and stay with their mentor until graduation  
Student mentors assist students in determining and maintaining an appropriate pace of study and step-in with help when students are struggling  
   

Students may contact either the student or course mentor at any time (unlimited access) and mentors are expected to deal with student calls within one business day. Student mentors are pro-active, calling students regularly (at least once every two weeks, more if necessary) to maintain contact. Mentors are full-time but work flexible hours, usually from home. Mentors are reasonably well paid, and receive extensive training in mentoring.

Please identify each characteristic as an either an attribute of a student mentor or a course mentor.

  • 1. Student Mentor
    1. Has qualifications within the subject domain, usually at a masters level
  • 1. Course Mentor
    1. This type of mentor is more highly qualified, usually with a doctorate, and provides extra support for students when needed.
  • 2. Student Mentor
    2. They are in at least bi-weekly telephone contact with their students, depending on the needs of the student in working through their courses
  • 3. Student Mentor
    3. They are responsible for roughly 85 students
  • 4. Student Mentor
    4. Students start with this type of mentor on their first day and stay with this mentor until graduation.
  • 5. Student Mentor
    5. This mentor assists students in determining and maintaining an appropriate pace of study and step in with help when students are struggling.
  • 2. Course Mentor
    2. This type of mentor will be available to between 200-400 students at a time, depending on the subject requirement.

Assessments

Many competency-based learning programs utilize written papers, portfolios, projects, observed student performance and computer-marked assignments as appropriate, with detailed rubrics to assess student learning.  Assessments are submitted online and if they require human evaluation, qualified graders (subject matter experts trained in assessment) are randomly assigned to mark work on a pass/fail basis. If students fail, the graders provide feedback on the areas where competency was not demonstrated. Students may resubmit as many times as needed to meet the requirements to pass.

In some instances students will take both formative (pre-assessment) and summative (proctored) exams. Many colleges and universities are beginning to increase their usage of online proctoring, enabling students to take an exam at home under video supervision, using facial recognition technology to ensure that the registered student is taking the exam. In areas such as teaching and health, student performance or practice is  assessed in by active professionals in the field of study (teachers, nurses etc).

Please use the drop-downs to select the correct terms that correctly completes the passage.

Many competency-based learning programs utilize , , , observed student performance and computer-marked assignments as appropriate, with detailed rubrics to .  Assessments are submitted online and if they require human evaluation, qualified graders (subject matter experts trained in assessment) are randomly assigned to mark work on a pass/fail basis. If students fail, the graders provide on the areas where competency was not demonstrated. Students may resubmit as many times as needed to meet the requirements to pass.

In some instances students will take both (pre-assessment) and (proctored) exams. Many colleges and universities are beginning to increase their usage of online proctoring, enabling students to take an exam at home under video supervision, using facial recognition technology to ensure that the registered student is taking the exam. In areas such as teaching and health, student performance or practice is  assessed in by in the field of study (teachers, nurses etc).

Critically Examining Pros & Cons: This section provided several identified strengths, and weaknesses to consider before adopting and implementing competency-based learning pathways.

Strengths of a competency-based approach to design

Proponents of have identified several strengths in the competency-based learning approach:

  • Meets the immediate needs of businesses and professions; students are either already working, and receive advancement within the company, or if unemployed, are more likely to be employed once qualified
  • Enables learners with work or family commitments to study at their own pace
  • Allows some students to speed up time to completion of a qualification by enabling prior learning to be recognized
  • Students get individual support and help from their mentors
  • Tuition &  fees are affordable and some programs can be self-funding from tuition fees alone, if existing study materials and increasingly open educational resources are used
  • Competency-based education is being recognized as eligible for Federal loans and student aid in the USA
  • Using a competency-based approach, at least as part of their operations, has allowed annual enrollment growth at some colleges and universities in the range of 30-40 % each year

Weaknesses of a competency-based approach to design

The main weakness that have been identified are that it works well with some learning environments and less well with others; In particular:

  • It focuses on immediate employer needs and is less focused on preparing learners with the flexibility needed for a more uncertain future
  • It does not suit subject areas where it is difficult to prescribe specific competencies or where new skills and new knowledge need to be rapidly accommodated
  • It usually takes an objectivist approach to learning, but this can be modified 
  • It usually ignores the importance of social learning since most students work individually and at their own pace  
  • It will not fit the preferred learning styles of many students; best for self-regulated learners who need high level of autonomy 

Please identify each characteristic as an either an attribute of a CBL strength or a weakness.

  • 1. Strength
    1. Enables learners with work or family commitments to study at their own pace
  • 2. Strength
    2. Students get individual support and help from their mentors
  • 3. Strength
    3. Allows some students to speed up time to completion of a qualification by enabling prior learning to be recognized
  • 1. Weakness
    1. It does not suit subject areas where it is difficult to prescribe specific competencies or where new skills and new knowledge need to be rapidly accommodated
  • 2. Weakness
    2. It focuses on immediate employer needs and is less focused on preparing learners with the flexibility needed for a more uncertain future
  • 3. Weakness
    3. It usually ignores the importance of social learning since most students work individually and at their own pace

Lesson Review & Wrap-Up: A summary of course information and an opportunity to formulate a plausible statement that expresses the criteria needed to create competitive competency-based learning pathways that are sustainable and scalable.

In conclusion

Competency-based learning is a relatively new approach to learning design, which is proving increasingly popular with employers and also suits certain learners, such as adult learners seeking to re-skill or who are searching for mid-level jobs requiring relatively easily identifiable skills. It does not suit all  learners and may be limited in the development of high level, more abstract knowledge and skills requiring creativity, high-level problem-solving, decision-making and critical thinking skills.

However, it is important to keep in mind that it offers a flexible way for students to get credit for what they know, build on their knowledge by learning with a deliberate focus on competencies, and earn credentials that are more directly related to employer needs.

It is also important to note that instead of evaluating student progress by the amount of time spent in a classroom (using the credit hour), students receive college credit based on their actual demonstration of prior knowledge and skills learned. The instruction is designed in a way that builds on previous knowledge in a deliberate and scaffolded way. Many competency-based learning programs are structured in a way that allows students to learn and progress at their own pace, which increasingly is more ideal for today’s adult learner.

A National Consortium for Designing, Developing and Scaling New Models for Student Learning

Please review the institutions that are apart of this network.  After becoming familiar with the network please use the link below the map to visit their site and learn more.  

Please click the logo on the left  to visit the CBE Network Website.  

Please use the space provided to formulate a plausible statement that expresses next steps and non-negotiable criteria to consider when designing and developing a rigorously competitive, competency-based learning program that is sustainable and scalable.