Published on 2019/03/14
The EvoLLLution | Sharing the Competency-Based Student’s Experience
Though there are some kinks that need to be addressed, students for the most part have gotten a lot of value out of their competency-based learning experiences.

What do students really say about competency-based education? That was the underlying question I pondered while completing my dissertation at Capella University. When I began my research, CBE programs were still relatively new; the research participants had never encountered one before.

The good news: Most of the responses confirmed my assumption that CBE programs are viewed as a benefit to both student and institution. However, this is still somewhat of a cautionary tale for administrators aiming to join the CBE club.

The research was conducted during fall and spring semesters of 2016-2017 at two community colleges with similar CBE-structured programs. The programs were in the areas of computer information technology, and health care billing and coding. One is in the heartland; the other is in the west. At both institutions, the enrollment in CBE programs was still low compared to more traditional programs. The biggest challenge during this research was recruiting participants; even after a financial incentive was added, the sample group was five students.

The students’ demographic fit the research in the field. They were nontraditional, mid-career changing adults who sought to streamline the time to a degree. Although most of the students did not understand what the term competency-based meant before they began their programs of study, they all liked what they experienced once the courses started. One student said, “I had no knowledge of competency-based education beforehand. I did not know that it existed as such.” Another student stated, “I didn’t really know. I thought I would watch video-recorded lectures. I didn’t realize they were self-paced.” Lesson one: Institutions need to place a heavier emphasis on marketing and explaining CBE structure.

Where other research on CBE indicated that programs needed to be designed with a great attention to student support and individualized attention, my research indicated that students preferred an “as needed” approach to student support. Most appreciated the attention during registration and between terms. During the term, however, they preferred to focus on the coursework. Lesson two: The heavy emphasis on student support should be reexamined to align with the philosophy of CBE learning.

Other studies on CBE indicated the need for additional support in the form of tutors and academic centers. The participants in this study again preferred an “as needed” approach. They knew these services existed but did not feel the need to use them routinely. The students preferred direct access to the instructors. Two students spent significant time in labs working with the faculty even though the courses were online. Lesson three: Students preferred faculty-focused support. In fact, all the participants wanted weekly contact with instructors and no one else.

The major barrier to successful CBE courses for these participants is the same barrier that can be found in any online course or on-campus class: Clear, effective communication. One participant spent most of the interview discussing how classes with poor directions or poor response time from faculty were the biggest challenges he faced. In fact, he offered several solutions to this problem that could be applied universally regardless of modality or structure. One solution was to have a team develop each course online so that the course would be robust and applicable to the workspace. According to him, faculty need to set aside time each day go over the whole course and decide, “Do we like this assignment? Do we need to update this? What readings? How are we going to word things?” The second solution was to ensure all resources and links worked properly. He felt he wasted time on links that did not work and out-of-date resources. Lesson four:  A team approach to building these courses would reduce a common problem in online classes now seen in CBE classes.

Finally, participants reported having some issues with managing their time. Overall the self-paced structure worked well, except for a few students who struggled initially and procrastinated on some requirements. Each student expressed how not managing time caused financial and academic costs.

Last lesson: Time management should be emphasized when discussing the CBE option with students. However, with the positive overall response overall, I would be confident to encourage other administrators and leaders to continue to move forward and expand the CBE world.

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