Bringing Faculty Onboard With Competency-Based Learning: Five Considerations for the Professoriate
By now, the surging interest in competency-based learning (CBL) has been clearly documented by publications across the postsecondary industry—from the pages of Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education to this very newspaper. The recent call for experimental sites by the Department of Education is another indication that competency-based learning is likely to be a way of developing academic curricula that endures in the coming decades. A confluence of concerns for affordability, accessibility and relevance, both for employment and for an educated populace, are offering challenges to current models of higher education: challenges in which CBL offers fruitful dialogue for the academy.
College trustees, presidents and academic administrators are often excited about CBL as a creative way to offer a range of modalities in order to attract more diverse audiences to their campuses. What are less discussed are the potential ramifications for faculty, especially those faculty members, ranging from tenured to contingent, who spend much of their professional time in the classroom.
1. Increasing student responsibility for their learning promotes faculty flexibility
CBL models focus on explicitly identifying the intended outcomes for knowledge acquisition, whether it is a traditional face-to-face course or some other method of instruction such as online, synchronous and/or asynchronous. Much effort is placed into identifying and discussing these competencies at the beginning of the engagement. Some approaches, such as Northern Arizona University’s personalized learning degree, have students work with faculty mentors to develop these competencies, usually through a learning plan. Extending the logic of course objectives, faculty will find that learners who participate in setting the outcomes are both more likely to meet them, and understand how their courses fit into broader disciplinary objectives.
In this way, CBL may offer more flexibility for faculty as they can adapt each course to specific learner needs. Rather than a cookie-cutter approach, the opposite can be implemented. A course based on a general set of competencies as outcomes, but personalized for each student strengthens their disciplinary outlooks.
2. Increasing student collegiality in the classroom offers greater faculty autonomy
Due to the flexibility and personalized qualities of CBL, this form of learning offers more opportunities for students to work together in the classroom as co-learners, creating their course work as they make progress. As students seek to demonstrate a particular competency, faculty can design collaborative spaces for not just group work to take place, but also more general intellectual interaction. This co-learning can be either place-based or online. For example, courses can be designed with hallway discussions, where students post additional ideas and resources, and are also expected to be in dialogue with each other. Could this be done separate from a CB frame? Of course, but the clarity of having well-developed competencies facilitates faculty in providing a learning environment that fosters intellectual, emotional and ethical growth. All of these components are essential for high-quality learning.
CBL offers the faculty to ask more challenging questions of the students beyond skill acquisition into fundamental questions about their own learning to build their capacity in understanding the use of self. CBL can provide a more intentional path to transformation, as it requires students to understand the process of building their knowledge and skill set.
3. Adopting CBL frees up faculty time
Competencies are not mysterious and, in fact, have endured within university environments, the workforce, and as prerequisites for an educated democratic society. Agreed upon competencies at the college level, whether they are called that or by some other name, include the development of critical thinking skills, ethical judgment and decision-making abilities, and complex problem solving. In addition, research conducted to ask employers what they need from college graduates reveals the growing importance of intercultural knowledge and the ability to negotiate diverse and globalized environments.
Finding common ground on what we think students should be learning is, perhaps, not as difficult as it may appear. As faculty, having this common agreement expands our own ability to move beyond the definition towards the more philosophical aspects of our teaching: to think about the range of materials needed and the depth of the processes our students should experience. By ceding some authority to the student, the student can be asked to participate in course design and implementation.
4. Undergraduate CBL programs are likely to accelerate CBL graduate-level learning
The most recent survey of college freshman revealed that aspirations for graduate learning are the highest ever reported since data started being collected. Between 1974 and 2014, the percentage of students entering college with plans to earn a master’s degree increased from 28.1 percent to 43.6 percent, while students indicating they would like to earn a doctorate or professional degree similarly increased from 21.1 percent to 32.9 percent. At the same time, CBL programs are growing.
A recent study released by the American Enterprise Institute report that the nine colleges that are entirely competency-based enroll more than 140,000 undergraduates and 57,000 graduate students. For graduate faculty dedicated to developing future scholars in their disciplines, these combined facts sum up important data. It raises questions about how to engage these more potentially active learners in educating them in the norms of a particular area of study. CBL challenges us to think about the habits of mind for these competency-based educated learners.
As CBL is implemented across college campuses, it would behoove us as educators to evaluate the impact on graduate level learning, especially at the doctoral level in terms of disciplinary outcomes, and in preparing future faculty for what is clearly going to be the wave of the future. CBL is here to stay.
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 NAU, What is Competency-Based Learning?, 2015, downloaded from http://pl.nau.edu/HowItWorks.aspx, February 17, 2015.
 AAC&U, Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success, 2015, downloaded from http://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/LEAP/2015employerstudentsurvey.pdf, February 17, 2015.
 CIRP, The American Freshman: National Norms–Fall 2014, 2014, downloaded from http://www.heri.ucla.edu/monographs/TheAmericanFreshman2014.pdf, February 14, 2015.
 AEI, The Landscape of Competency-Based Education, January 2015, downloaded from https://www.aei.org/publication/landscape-competency-based-education-enrollments-demographics-affordability/, February 15, 2015.
Author Perspective: Administrator