Published on 2015/10/16

Competency-Based Education: A Powerful Way to Link Learning and the Workplace

Co-written with Becky Klein-Collins| Associate Vice President for Research, CAEL


The EvoLLLution | Competency-Based Education: A Powerful Way to Link Learning and the Workplace
In order for competency-based programs to meet and exceed expectations, colleges and universities must forge closer bonds with employers and hiring managers to ensure the programing is actually serving a demand.

Competency-based education (CBE) programs have experienced a resurgence in recent years in part as a response to employer concerns that college graduates and credentialed workers do not have the skills and competencies to succeed in the workplace. People outside the academy are asking:  After all the money spent, what do graduates know? What can they do?  Can they be productive working men and women?

CBE programs are touted as defining the skills and competencies that employers expect graduates to have and then verifying—through rigorous assessment—that students do, indeed, have those skills and competencies. The capacity for competency-based education (CBE) to serve as a bridge between higher education and employers was the main topic of Competency-Based Education: Linking Learning and the Workplace, a recent convening in Washington, D.C. co-hosted by CAEL, Excelsior College, and Fielding Graduate University.

This article summarizes the key points discussed by panelists of employers, educators, administrators and associations about the employer experience with CBE as well as the ways in which CBE is challenging those within higher education to reimagine the postsecondary experience.

The Employer Experience with CBE

CBE programs typically have clearly defined competencies that students must demonstrate through a rigorous assessment process before they can earn a degree. Students may be assessed at various points in a CBE program on their content knowledge, but what sets CBE programs apart is the focus on students being able to apply their knowledge in real-world settings. Students are often required to demonstrate competencies by completing the kind of projects or assignments that they would regularly encounter in an actual workplace. The idea is that through this kind of “authentic assessment,” institutions will be able to say with confidence to employers that their graduates are well prepared for the workplace.

Panelists at the convening addressed a number of things to keep in mind as institutions work on developing more of these kinds of CBE programs:

1. Employers may not even know about CBE yet, but the work the field is doing is starting to change that

Only a very small proportion of human resources professionals know about CBE in higher education, even though many employers are turning their attention internally to competency-based approaches in training and talent development. The efforts of educators in   the field over the past few years is starting to change that, but there is clearly work that needs to be done to familiarize employers with CBE to help them understand why it is a potential game-changer in workforce preparation.

2. We need to standardize our terms

Part of the disconnect between higher education and employers may be due to the fact that each uses different terms for the same competencies, particularly in terms of the broader skills. For example, employers may be concerned about an employee’s “communication skills” and “critical thinking,” while academic programs might focus on developing “writing” and “analytic inquiry” skills. A small distinction, to be sure, but language and terminology can go a long way in bridging the gap between a college and a hiring employer.

3. Without good employer engagement, competencies won’t be valid

There must be ongoing involvement of employers in order to ensure that the specific competencies that are part of a degree are the right ones, and also that the assessments used appropriately evaluate those competencies. Employer involvement can be defined in various ways by different institutions, but panelists cautioned institutions that merely hosting employers for a one-time feedback session is likely not sufficient.

Good involvement may require ongoing conversations with HR staff as well as hiring managers, as well as going beyond a simple analysis of job descriptions—talking to people who actually do the jobs is a good way to make sure to capture actual responsibilities and needed skills. Jobs change over time, and employer engagement can help institutions stay on top of those changes for needed updates to their programs.

4. It’s all about the “soft skills”

Whether called “soft skills” or “durable skills” or “broad, transferable skills,” that’s what employers often care about more than institutions might expect. Included in this category are critical thinking, teamwork, communication, adaptability, problem solving, etc. As one participant voiced, “It’s really a mistake to call them ‘soft skills’ because they are often harder to develop and assess than other skills.” CBE programs need to make sure that these skills are key parts of any competency framework.

Challenging Our Understanding of Higher Education through CBE

A strong focus on meeting the needs of employers may not be much of a stretch for some institutions that have long embraced a mission that explicitly includes workforce preparation. However, it can be a culture change for many. Faculty are key to the success or failure of CBE programs, but some faculty may worry that a CBE program may be too focused on occupational preparation at the expense of a broader purpose for colleges to prepare an educated citizenry. Engaging faculty in the design and development of CBE programs is, therefore, also critical.

Involving faculty in discussions with employers about competencies, for example, can result in recognition that the goals of faculty and employers are essentially the same. Both faculty and employers want students to gain broad, transferable skills that will enable the student to be a lifelong learner with the ability to apply their skills to a broad range of ever-changing circumstances.

Panelists also shared that faculty involvement in CBE programs can also result in a new sense of purpose around student learning. Faculty who are involved in the CBE program implementation can find that the approaches used in the CBE program can also be used in their traditionally structured courses and help focus everyone on defining and measuring learning outcomes.

The Conversation Continues

Competency-based education is still considered a new and developing area of higher education. New models and programs emerge at a rapid pace. As this field matures, we hope that the focus on connections to the workplace remains a core value, and that institutions develop their capacity to involve employers in their work. It is that connection that will ensure the quality of a CBE program and of its students’ competencies.

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Readers Comments

Angie Price 2015/10/16 at 1:15 pm

As much as we talk about a divide between what employers want and what university faculty want to teach, it’s becoming more and more evident that there is a lot of overlap. If the goal of education is to teach these so-called soft skills because they’re required for a good life, then we should have no problem meeting the needs of employers with a renewed commitment to those skills.

Ellis Bridges 2015/10/16 at 3:18 pm

The problem we run into frequently I think is that, as mentioned, it’s not only difficult to develop these skills, but it’s also particularly challenging to assess them. In so many cases, it’s the unexpected and the unplanned-for scenarios that arise in the workplace that are the real test of a students problem-solving or critical thinking or creativity. The problem is not that we’re not trying to teach these things. The problem is that we’re having a hard time grading them.

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