Published on 2015/10/01
The EvoLLLution | From Subject Mastery to Career: Designing CBE Programs That Close the Skills Gap
Assessment strategy is critical to the success development and launch of competency-based education offerings, as they will have a significant impact on the capacity for the student to engage in an active, meaningful and positive learning experience.

It’s the measure that matters with CBE design.

Competency-based education (CBE) is a very hot topic as businesses clamor for skilled workers who can be productive immediately and more institutions rush to develop new programs. New consortiums, such as the Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN), are forming to help institutions develop standards and identify support services needed. The key characteristic competency-based education has that is different than traditional education is that CBE focuses on what the individual learns rather than a defined time such as a semester. All education “measures” learning. However, the ways in which assessments are developed and woven into the design of the content can make a CBE-designed course different.

Today, as learning scientists suggest, “something like 90 percent of a typical university degree depends on unseen, time-constrained written examinations, and [instructor]-marked essays and/or reports.”[1] What will a college career made up of high exam scores really tell us about a student’s readiness to put knowledge into practice in creative ways? This is ultimately what leads us to look at CBE as a solution.

So how is the content being measured in a CBE-designed course and why is this so important?

CBE designed courses exist in both traditional and credit-based programs, as well as in direct assessment programs such as the ground breaking College for America initiative. In any program mode, a pure CBE design model has the assessment strategies integrated tightly with the content being delivered. The individual moves forward to new content only by demonstrating their competence. They must perform at a defined level of mastery. With the skill mastered they have a sound base to continue forward, acquiring new content building upon the solid achievement of their demonstrated prior performance. The challenge is to design a robust assessment methodology into the content development process to ensure success even when constrained by the limitations of a term- or time-based course.

It is the placement and type of assessments that makes CBE courses different. Instead of a multiple choice test at the end of a traditional course chapter, a CBE-designed course will have several performance or skill tests integrated into the chapter with a final assessment that will challenge the learner to synthesize the chapter content. In this way the learner and the instructor have immediate feedback on how the individual is progressing at a very early stage. This allows early remediation or coaching if needed and builds on the proven success of the learner to continue towards course completion. CBE-designed courses focus on delivering content that is more career-relevant, contextual, engaging and hands-on. CBE assessments reflect this content in the same way, providing organizations and institutions with proof of the individual’s ability to perform and master a subject. CBE extends beyond technical education and encompasses the liberal arts skills that business leaders have said they want their employees to have.[2]

A course designed to be truly competency-based must build assessments in the style Jon Mueller defined as authentic: a “form of assessment in which students are asked to perform real-world tasks that demonstrate meaningful application of essential knowledge and skills.”[3] According to Grant Wiggins, authentic assessments are “engaging and worthy problems or questions of importance, in which students must use knowledge to fashion performances effectively and creatively. The tasks are either replicas of or analogous to the kinds of problems faced by adult citizens and consumers or professionals in the field.”[4]

CBE-designed courses have clearly defined skills and attributes—competencies—around which course content is developed. It is key to the success of the learner that CBE-designed courses have assessments that have clearly defined success criteria (rubrics) that can be measured. Getting industry input is essential to making sure that relevant competencies are being identified and pursued. Once the competencies are established, we need experts in assessment to ensure that we’re measuring the right things.[5] CBE should be the common language to overcome what a recent study found, which is that “there appears to be a disconnect between higher education institutions that are preparing the next generation of workers and the employers who expect to hire them.”[6] For CBE to be truly successful, business leaders must clearly define the behaviors or competencies that they are looking for in their entry-level employees and that are critical to the success of their business strategy, whether that’s innovation, customer engagement, or anything else.

However, it is the assessment strategies that are integrated into the content that identify whether the learner has achieved competence and mastery. In the initial analysis phase, where the competencies are defined, it is vital that the criteria of success—the rubrics—are clearly defined as well. Once the level of performance is identified, the design of the assessments can be developed and a strategy for the course can begin. Mueller refers to this as planning backwards, where the tasks are listed first then the method to demonstrate mastery, the assessments, are developed before any curriculum is written.[7]

Competency-based education is gaining ground in institutions across the country, bolstered by the lessons learned in business that performance success occurs when the individual can perform their role reliably and confidently. The model of design CBE follows allows the individual to progress only after they can demonstrate the competencies currently being delivered. With an active and authentic assessment strategy integrated into content delivery the individual moves forward based on success in performing the defined tasks and skills reliably and confidently.

As CBE courses are developed it is imperative to develop and implement a seamless assessment strategy that will challenge the individual to demonstrate the skills that have been identified in a contextual manner. If you want someone to demonstrate sailing skills you put them on a sailboat. If you want to have an individual demonstrate critical thinking skills provide them an opportunity to evaluate, synthesize, and deliver a recommendation of the topic. CBE courses have assessments designed as an integral component of the learning process and emphasize both the application and the creation of knowledge. This design features assessments as dynamic building blocks and contributes to an active, meaningful and positive learning experience for the individual.

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[1] Marilyn Lombardi, “Making the Grade: The Role of Assessment in Authentic Learning,”EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative, January 2008. Accessed at

[2] Douglas Belkin, “Test Finds College Graduates Lack Skills for White-Collar Jobs,” The Wall Street Journal, January 16, 2015. Accessed at

[3] Jon Mueller, “Authentic Assessment Toolbox,” 2014. Accessed at

[4] Ibid

[5] Robert Mendenhall, “What Is Competency-Based Education?,” The Huffington Post, September 5, 2012. Accessed at

[6] Leila Meyer, “Report: Skills Gap Increasing in Higher Ed-to-Business Talent Pipelines,” Campus Technology, July 8, 2015. Accessed at

[7] Mueller 2014

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Readers Comments

Zack Wright 2015/10/01 at 9:33 am

The more connections we make, between CBE, different assessment techniques, information literacy and critical thinking in the workplace, the clearer it is that this method of teaching and learning is the future. It’s only going to grow as more and more institutions recognize CBE as the solution to so many problems.

Amy Ryan 2015/10/01 at 11:16 am

Agree with the comments made by Zack Wright– there is great opportunitiy to connect higher education outputs to needed capabilities in the workforce. The potential for business and higher education to partner more effectively can be realized with CBE approach because it feeds many of the competency-based approaches used in corporate learning organizations.

Darlene Thomas 2015/10/01 at 2:40 pm

Framing CBE design as designing courses backward makes a lot of sense and I think will make it easier for those getting into this field to understand the basic principles behind it and apply those to the curriculum our talented and experienced faculty want to teach.

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