Published on 2016/02/05
The EvoLLLution | The Foundation for Widespread CBE Exists
The competency-based education is a promising approach to helping students master content and succeed in their postsecondary pursuits, but there are hurdles to its wider adoption that must be overcome.

The concept of competence, how well someone knows something or can do something, isn’t new. Each of us makes numerous assessments and judgements regarding the competence of others, and ourselves, every day. We use those judgements to guide our decisions and actions. The same is true in a learning environment for both instructors and students. Many critics of competency-based education (CBE) generally present competency-based models as too narrow and rigid to allow meaningful learning to occur, being strongly aligned with behaviorist theories and programmed instruction or mastery learning practices. Critics are generally concerned that competencies can’t be defined well enough to be meaningful, and the focus on what people can do, not what they learned, is too limiting for something as complex as human learning. While those arguments may have merit from the perspective of psychology, the fact that there are multiple, competing theories of learning demonstrates there isn’t one universal truth or answer when it comes to how human beings learn.

I have decades of experience as a practitioner helping higher education instructors create learning environments and activities intended to help students learn, or become more competent in some aspect of a specific discipline. My thousands of hours of interactions with higher education instructors has convinced me most instructors are not experts in psychology or learning theories. For the majority, they are content experts in their discipline and the psychology they’ve studied was part of their undergraduate liberal arts coursework with only a small portion focused on how human beings learn. What they do rely on when contemplating how to create learning experiences are their own experiences, as a student, a practicing professional, and as a teacher. The choices they make aren’t intentionally aligned with any specific learning theory. For better or worse, most often the teaching method they choose is the one that worked for them.

I don’t consider CBE a learning model as much as I believe in its value as an assessment and reporting model—a model that can facilitate learning and program completion. If one considers competence along a range, novice to expert, then every CBE assessment event serves as a formative evaluation event. Learners, instructors, counselors and others can use that information to decide what should come next, whether the learner needs additional opportunities and experiences to increase their level of competence or if they’ve reached the required minimum standard and can therefore devote their time and attention to another area of competence. If the minimum level of competence required is met, the assessment serves as a summative assessment. While it is possible, the credit-hour course package seldom provides learners that kind of insight or the flexibility to shift their efforts toward a weaker area of competence once they’ve reached a required standard in one.

Summative measures and standards already exist for academic programs and credit-hour courses. But the current practice of aggregating multiple measures into a single character value, a course grade, obscures important information to assist a student in developing competence. Regardless of the number of learning outcomes incorporated into a course, all of what a person achieves is aggregated into a single course grade. That one character is expected to meaningfully describe what a person has learned, knows or is capable of doing. It simply doesn’t, and requires too many assumptions later. The degree or certificate is another layer of aggregation, along with a grade point average, which further obscures meaning. There are certainly opportunities to remove the obscurity and better describe what a student knows or is capable of as they progress through and finish degree programs. That includes those often-cited but seldom-measured well rounded abilities achieved through a liberal arts education.

I believe there is one primary reason CBE isn’t more prevalent: tradition. The traditional organization of credit-hour degree programs and the associated problems are described exceptionally well by Elizabeth D. Capaldi Phillips in her article Moving Past the Standard Degree Pathway: The Status Quo Needs Improving. In the article, she highlights a major deficiency is discipline core, liberal arts, and electives create organizational silos instead of an integrated view of the curriculum. She explains the silos lead to uninformed and unintentional duplication of learning outcomes among program core and liberal arts courses. While duplication and repetition can be necessary and valuable to facilitate learning and developing competence, duplication is wasteful if the person is already competent. That is true whether the student is an 18-year-old high school graduate or a 35-year-old working adult who is returning to finish a degree that was started a decade earlier. No one wants to spend their time, energy or money on activities that do not help them advance toward their goals.

I believe the foundation for more widespread use of CBE already exists; degree programs and courses are already structured around learning outcomes. Many institutions have been working, at the urging of accrediting agencies, to phrase their learning outcomes using measureable language. A measurable learning outcome can identify a competency.

Another barrier to CBE being used more broadly is the design of data systems used to record and report student learning and achievements. Data systems are, of course, designed to support whatever their environment needs. In a traditional credit-hour model, the student record system records the course and final course grade. Degree audit systems, or human advisors, assess whether the right collection of courses with minimally acceptable final course grades have been assembled to determine if a degree can be conferred. Major changes will clearly be needed to shift toward, or cut over to, a competency-based model of documenting and reporting student achievement. The good news is that learning management systems, used widely across higher education institutions, are providing the means for instructors to do their part of associating learning activities and assessments with competencies. That, with some technology system integration, makes it possible to get more value from the work instructors are doing already, without asking them to do additional data entry into an institutional competency-based student record system.

Grassroots changes are already occurring. As learning management systems have added competency-based features, some instructors have begun to use them. They’ve known all along they are helping students become competent in one way or another. With the technology providing the means to structure their learning activities and assessments around competencies, they are making those changes on their own. I have worked with instructors who have begun to make the transition. Each of them has made the observation that while it is sometimes hard to do, it adds clarity for them and their students as they work through the learning process together. Instructors see value for students and students respond well to this new information. As such, the instructors are willing to do the hard work.

Higher education is a complex industry so making fundamental changes on a large scale will require considerable commitment and resources. Higher education is often criticized for being resistant to change, yet I believe higher education is capable of change. An important tradition that contributes to higher education’s vitality is shared governance. Convince the faculty and change is relatively easy. Try to impose change from the outside and change is hard. I believe CBE will become the rule instead of the exception. I can’t predict how quickly that will occur but I do believe there is momentum where it matters most, with instructors working to solve the complex problems of helping students become competent.

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Readers Comments

Craig Smith 2016/02/05 at 9:31 am

Faculty is definitely the key to adopting any kind of new policy or practice that influences they way teaching and learning happens. And while it can be frustrating for administrators, I believe that is largely as it should be. Professors are the ones in the trenches with students and responsible for ensuring students get the skills and information they need. It makes perfect sense that faculty championing CBE is what will take it into the mainstream.

Nicole Garcia 2016/02/05 at 1:20 pm

It was always going to be a slow process, but I think we’re going to start seeing change in leaps and bounds. For example, one of the most prestigious medical schools in Canada (Queen’s University) has just adopted a CBE approach to educating future doctors. I think we will see more and more schools and programs taking the leap.

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