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Clarifying Competency-Based Education Terms

Co-written with Deborah Seymour | Assistant Vice President of Education Attainment and Innovation, American Council on Education

The EvoLLLution | Clarifying Competency-Based Education Terms
A common language guiding the conversation around competency-based education can help institutions develop and strengthen these programs, supporting their expansion and growth.

Competency-based education (CBE) has captured the attention of the higher education community—and for good reason. With over 30 million Americans with “some college, no degree” who need flexibility in their post-secondary education, as well as the large segment of first-generation, low-income students who would benefit from innovative pedagogical approaches and lower cost options, CBE provides many advantages.

At its core, CBE focuses on learning outcomes rather than on time. In most traditional educational programs, students are bound to the weekly structure of a term, and at the end of the term, their grades are variable, with some students succeeding and some failing. In CBE programs, time is the variable and student success is the primary focus, such that students are expected to successfully achieve the competencies defined for the program and to work until they are achieved.

However, there is no one specific methodology called, “competency-based education.” Hundreds of institutions are developing CBE programs, and while there are some shared practices, these programs vary dramatically based on the goals of the institution and the students they serve. The diversity of approaches is making it hard for those who are new to CBE to understand how to get started. And these difficulties are compounded when everyone is using different terminology to describe their approaches.

Focusing on learning outcomes is extremely valuable for all of the stakeholders in our educational ecosystems. But in the swirl of different approaches to CBE and different CBE terminology used in different ways by different people, how do we get past the confusion to move forward in achieving the value of CBE?

The American Council on Education and Blackboard have undertaken joint research advancing competency-based education, providing useful materials to clarify what CBE is and how it addresses the needs of diverse stakeholders. One of the key components of this work is called, “Clarifying Competency-Based Education Terms: A Lexicon”.

This lexicon is designed to provide a helpful structure for discussions about CBE from different perspectives, including providing a basis for those who are new to the conversation. It’s arranged by topics to facilitate exploration and discussion. For example:

  • On the topic of Competencies and Learning Outcomes, the definitions of “Student Learning Outcomes” and “Program Outcomes” can prompt discussion of the importance of the alignment between different levels of learning outcomes, so that the assessment of students’ specific learning artifacts addresses the goals of the overall program.
  • On the topic of Assessment Processes, definitions of “Formative Assessment” and “Summative Assessment” lead to discussion of how assessment can facilitate learning and not just measure learning. Better understanding of different types of assessment can inform the development of “Authentic Assessment” processes that require demonstration of mastery of competencies.
  • On the topic of Evidence of Learning, the definition of “Learning Artifacts” leads to discussion of what types of artifacts are relevant for authentic assessment of specific competencies. This can segue into discussion of whether learning artifacts from the workplace or elsewhere outside the traditional academic setting are appropriate for “Credit for Prior Learning.”
  • On the topic of Student Support, the definition of “360° Support Services” calls out the many different types of support needed for students to succeed in CBE programs, helping to identify where gaps in support might need to be addressed in conjunction with the development or revision of academic programs.

Of course many of these definitions and the discussions they stimulate are not specific to CBE, but are valid for many different approaches to innovation and improvement in our educational systems. Focusing on learning outcomes can prompt valuable changes that provide better opportunities for students, without necessarily requiring large or disruptive overhauls. Each institution needs to determine their own best approaches to CBE, and this lexicon can help stakeholders explore what those approaches should be.

We consider this lexicon to be a living document that will evolve as new terms come into use and as their meanings shift over time. It’s offered under a Creative Commons license, and we encourage you to reuse and remix it as part of your own discussions on CBE. Use it to help your institution take an informed approach to CBE and tailor your own innovations to address institutional and program goals. We welcome your feedback.

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