Competency-Based Education 2.0

Definitions and values.

February 22, 2015

For years, accreditors, employers and a host of educational reformers have sought an outcomes-oriented education with explicit learning objectives and rigorous assessments to evaluate and certify students’ knowledge and proficiencies. Convinced that grade inflation and a diluted liberal arts curriculum have eroded the value of a traditional college degree, a growing body of thought has come to favor an approach that emphasizes demonstrated mastery of essential competencies.

Why, then, has Competency-Based Education – an educational model that places a premium on learning outcomes rather than class time – evoked a great deal of ambivalence among many observers? The answer, as my colleague Marni Baker Stein has explained, is because Competency-Based Education lacks a commonly accepted definition.

Even a cursory review of articles or websites that describe Competency-Based Education makes the jumble of definitions obvious.

According to the Harvard Business Review: CBE is an education geared to “the needs of the workplace.” Its modularized approach to education breaks free of the course and the credit hour as the primary units of teaching and learning. It holds out the prospect of accelerating the pace of education by awarding credit for prior learning.

In every example cited by the Harvard Business Review, the educational experience is self-directed and self-paced and delivered entirely online. In most cases, it’s offered through a subscription model that allows students to take as many assessments as they can during a particular term.

It is this conception of Competency-Based Education that has provoked a backlash from those who fear that this approach is at odds with the goal of a liberal education: To produce graduates with a well-rounded education that places a premium on critical thinking, written and oral communication, and fluency in an array of disciplines and methodologies.

But an outcomes-driven education need not be fully online, self-directed, self-paced, or narrowly skills-focused.

Rather than conflating competency-based education with any online approach that grants credit based on tests, papers, and projects rather than seat time, it is better to focus on CBE’s fundamental characteristics. It is an approach to teaching and learning that:

  • Emphasizes transparent, measurable learning outcomes and demonstrated mastery of the skills and knowledge.
  • Offers an intentionally designed curriculum with a carefully considered sequence of learning experiences;  and
  • Embeds demanding assessments to ensure that students can demonstrate their mastery of a wide range of skills and knowledge.

The University of Texas System campuses are implementing an approach to Competency-Based Education that differs fundamentally from that offered elsewhere.

Our approach:

Is career aligned, but isn’t job training.
Rather than offering a vocational education or narrow technical training, our CBE approach instead emphasizes a grounding in the liberal arts, with a particular emphasis on written and oral communication skills, contextual thinking, moral reasoning, and policy analysis; professional identity formation; and a broad range of employment outcomes.

Thus our BS in Biomedical Sciences includes a core curriculum that incorporates clinical writing, narrative medicine, the history of medicine, disease, and public health, medical ethics, and health care policy. The program might lead to medical school, but also into nursing or health informatics or health administration, among other fields.

Rests upon a backward designed sequence of courses developed collaboratively by teams of faculty.
Faculty – including faculty from our graduate and professional schools -- blueprint all aspects of the learning experience from the curricular level to the course and module level. They think about the curriculum as a vertical that builds in a logical sequence over time, from secondary school through postsecondary education and beyond.

The faculty, in association with professional associations and industry, identify the learning goals, the topics to be covered, and the activities and projects, and work with assessment specialists inside and outside our System to insure that students achieve a minimal viable competency along every program dimension.

Our CBE program accelerates time to degree not by awarding credit for prior learning or life experience, but by optimizing the curriculum—eliminating redundancies and aligning assignments, readings, and activities.

Is cohort based and course-aligned.
Students traverse our degree programs in the company of peers and meet at least one day a week in a classroom setting with faculty.  As members of a “learning network,” our students get the advantages of face-to-face interaction.

Because competencies are aligned with traditional courses, students receive two transcripts – a competency transcript that clearly identifies the proficiencies they have achieved, and a traditional grade and course transcript, necessary if students seek to transfer or apply for admission to a graduate or professional school

Adopts a hybrid approach that combines the advantages of personalized adaptive learning and a traditional course schedule.
The online component of our courses is personalized and adaptive. Embedded diagnostics identify student strengths and challenges and adjust the student’s learning pathway to remediate deficiencies. Our technology infrastructure can also tailor readings and activities to particular students’ interests and learning needs.

Unlike self-paced, self-directed approaches to learning, our faculty establish clear timetables to ensure that students remain on track.

Emphasizes interactivity, real-world projects, and powerful social experiences.
To reinforce high levels of engagement, students do not simply view video-recorded lectures or review static websites; instead, they take part in active learning activities and undertake career-aligned projects, including, where appropriate, fieldwork and clinical, laboratory, and research experiences.  The social dimensions of our programs include team-based learning and opportunities for collaboration.

Harnesses the power of data analytics to boost graduation rates.
Advanced data analytics flag students at-risk of failure, help faculty personalize instruction, strengthen advising, and allow institutions to continuously improve teaching methods and student support services.

CBE can be a game-changer, especially for those students who historically have been poorly served by higher education. It can increase engagement by providing projects and activities that students find meaningful and relevant and by offering degrees with a clear value proposition. It can streamline the path to a degree by eliminating wasted credit hours.

But for competency-based education to be truly effective, it is essential to move forward on multiple fronts.  We need high impact program designs that offer personalized learning pathways, a high degree of interactivity, state-of-the-art content, and powerful networking and collaborative experiences. We need 360-degree individualized student support, including instructional facilitators who can provide the mentoring that too few students currently receive. And we need new technologies to power next generation pedagogies and forms of education research previously impossible.

Competency-Based Education can produce unprecedented gains in access, affordability, and student success. The challenge is to do this right.

Steven Mintz is Executive Director of the University of Texas System's Institute for Transformational Learning and Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin. Harvard University Press will publish his latest book, The Prime of Life: A History of Modern Adulthood, next month.


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