Competency vs. Mastery

July 25, 2014

"Competency-based” education appears to be this year’s answer to America’s higher education challenges, judging from this week's news in Washington. Unlike MOOCs (last year’s solution), there is, refreshingly, greater emphasis on the validation of learning. Yet, all may not be as represented.

On close examination, one might ask if competency-based education (or CBE) programs are really about “competency,” or are they concerned with something else? Perhaps what is being measured is more closely akin to subject matter “mastery.” The latter can be determined in a relatively straightforward manner, using various forms of examinations, projects and other forms of assessment.

However, an understanding of theories, concepts and terms tells us little about an individual’s ability to apply any of these in practice, let alone doing so with the skill and proficiency which would be associated with competence.

Deeming someone competent, in a professional sense, is a task that few competency-based education programs address. While doing an excellent job, in many instances, of determining mastery of a body of knowledge, most fall short in the assessment of true competence.

In the course of their own education, readers can undoubtedly recall the instructors who had complete command of their subjects, but who could not effectively present to their students. The mastery of content did not extend to their being competent as teachers. Other examples might include the much-in-demand marketing professors who did not know how, in practice, to sell their executive education programs. Just as leadership and management differ one from the other, so to do mastery and competence.

My institution has been involved in assessing both mastery and competence for several decades. Created by New York’s Board of Regents in the early 1970s, it is heir to the Regents’ century-old belief in the importance of measuring educational attainment (New York secondary students have been taking Regent’s Exams, as a requirement for high school graduation, since 1878).

Building on its legacy, the college now offers more than 60 subject matter exams. These have been developed with the help of nationally known subject matter experts and a staff of doctorally prepared psychometricians. New exams are field tested, nationally normed and reviewed for credit by the American Council on Education, which also reviews the assessments of ETS (DSST) and the College Board (CLEP). Such exams are routinely used for assessing subject matter mastery.

In the case of the institution’s competency-based associate degree in nursing, a comprehensive, hands-on assessment of clinical competence is required as a condition of graduation. This evaluation, created with the help of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in 1975, takes place over three days in an actual hospital, with real patients, from across the life span -- pediatric to geriatric. Performance is closely monitored by multiple, carefully selected and trained nurse educators. Students must demonstrate skill and ability to a level of defined competence within three attempts or face dismissal or transfer from the program.

In developing a competency-based program as opposed to a mastery-based one, there are many challenges that must be addressed if the program is to have credibility. These include:

  • Who specifies the elements to be addressed in a competency determination? In the case of nursing, this is done by the profession. Other fields may not be so fortunate. For instance, who would determine the key areas of competency in the humanities or arts?
  • Who does the assessing, and what criteria must be met to be seen as a qualified assessor of someone’s competency?
  • How will competence be assessed, and is the process scalable? In the nursing example above, we have had to establish a national network of hospitals, as well as recruit, train and field a corps of graduate prepared nurse educators. At scale, this infrastructure is limited to approximately 2,000 competency assessments per year, which is far less than the number taking the College’s computer-based mastery examinations.
  • Who is to be served by the growing number of CBE programs? Are they returning adults who have been in the workplace long enough to acquire relevant skills and knowledge on the job, or is CBE thought to be relevant even for traditional-aged students?

(It is difficult to imagine many 22 year-olds as competent within a field or profession. Yet, there is little question that most could show some level of mastery of a body of knowledge for which prepared.)

  • Do prospective students want this type of learning/validation? Has there been market research that supports the belief that there is demand? We have offered two mastery-based bachelor’s degrees (each for less than $10,000) since 2011. Demand has been modest because of uncertainty about how a degree earned in such a manner might be viewed by employers and graduate schools (this despite the fact that British educators have offered such a model for centuries).
  • Will employers and graduate schools embrace those with credentials earned in a CBE program? Institutions that have varied from the norm (dropping the use of grades, assessing skills vs. time in class) have seen their graduates face admissions challenges when attempting to build on their undergraduate credentials by applying to graduate schools. As for employers, a backlash may be expected if academic institutions sell their graduates as “competent” and later performance makes clear that they are not.

The interest in CBE has, in large part, been driven by the fact that employers no longer see new college graduates as job-ready. In fact, a recent Lumina Foundation report found that only 11 percent of employers believe that recent graduates have the skills needed to succeed within their work forces. One CBE educator has noted, "We are stopping one step short of delivering qualified job applicants if we send them off having 'mastered' content, but not demonstrating competencies." 

Or, as another put it, somewhat more succinctly, "I don't give a damn what they KNOW.  I want to know what they can DO.”

The move away from basing academic credit on seat time is to be applauded. Determining levels of mastery through various forms of assessment -- exams, papers, projects, demonstrations, etc. – is certainly a valid way to measure outcomes. However, seat time has rarely been the sole basis for a grade or credit. The measurement tools listed here have been found in the classroom for decades, if not centuries.

Is this a case of old wine in new bottles? Perhaps not. What we now see are programs being approved for Title IV financial aid on the basis of validated learning, not for a specified number of instructional hours; whether the process results in a determination of competence or mastery is secondary, but not unimportant.

A focus on learning independent of time, while welcome, is not the only consideration here. We also need to be more precise in our terminology. The appropriateness of the word competency is questioned when there is no assessment of the use of the learning achieved through a CBE program. Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire, and Excelsior offer programs that do assess true competency.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of the newly created CBE programs do not. This conflation of terms needs to be addressed if employers are to see value in what is being sold. A determination of “competency” that does not include an assessment of one’s ability to apply theories and concepts cannot be considered a “competency-based” program.

To continue to use “competency” when we mean “mastery” may seem like a small thing. Yet, if we of the academy cannot be more precise in our use of language, we stand to further the distrust which many already have of us. To say that we mean “A” when in fact we mean “B” is to call into question whether we actually know what we are doing.


John F. Ebersole is the president of Excelsior College, in Albany, N.Y.

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