What is Competency Based Learning?

In the age of online learning, blended learning, flipped classrooms, and hybrid classes, the idea of personalized learning is an important topic.

We’re hearing a lot these days about competency based learning or personalized learning.   But the concept isn’t new — and it isn’t limited to online learning. The concept of personalizing learning experiences has been in place in some form through dual enrollment programs, early college high school programs, Advanced Placement, CLEP, and DSST exams.  However, it is relatively new to base an entire program on competencies. As competency based learning is being explored in the online world, the concept is being reevaluated in face-to-face education as well.

Why should college parents understand competency based learning?  Because most colleges are exploring the concept and you and your student may want to ask about your school’s approach.  If you are considering any type of online program or class, you’ll certainly need to understand the approach, but even if your student is planning a traditional classroom college program, he’ll probably be exposed to the concept in some of his classes.

What is Competency Based Education?

Competency based learning or education (CBE) varies from the traditional seat-time system because students move through course material at their own pace as determined by test scores.  As soon as a student masters a topic or concept, he moves on to the next.  The system works especially well for concrete skills and adapts well to online learning.  Many argue that it is less well suited for abstract learning and liberal arts.

Students move through a series of carefully designed assessments — tests, papers, assignments, projects.  As they complete each module, and demonstrate mastery, they move on to the next.  This allows students to accelerate their rate toward graduation — either because they already know some material or because they choose to work harder.  It also allows some students to spend extra time on particularly difficult material.

Some schools, such as Western Governors’ University and Southern New Hampshire University are based solely on this format.  The University of Wisconsin began a program this year called ”Flexible Option” which uses this approach.  It is especially attractive to adult learners returning to school.

Much of the interest in Competency Based Learning has come from President Obama’s call for colleges to improve affordability.  ”We’re going to encourage more colleges to innovate, try new things, do things that can provide a great education without breaking the bank.”  The Department of Education is now considering approaches to education that go beyond the seat-time, credit hour approach that colleges have traditionally used.  Colleges are redefining courses, credits and degrees — and not just in the online world.  There is more flexibility in the way a credit can be earned.

What are the advantages of Competency Based Learning?

One of the major advantages of this approach is the self-paced aspect.  Competency Based Learning is learner focused.  It allows students to advance at their own rate and, in most cases, shrink their time to graduation — and thereby save money.  There may now be multiple pathways to graduation. Completion may now be based on what you can do rather than how long you spent in college.

In some systems, students may skip a module or unit if they have already mastered it.  This determination would be based on a ”prior learning assessment” or competency test.  Students do not need to spend seat time relearning something they already know.

Some argue that this approach to learning provides better student engagement because students find the material more relevant, meeting their unique needs.  There is a direct correlation between time and effort and progress.

The new focus on this type of learning is also forcing college faculty, whether they teach online or in a traditional classroom, to analyze what they are teaching and to think carefully about what they expect at the end of the course; to deconstruct their courses and work backwards from the desired outcomes through learning assessments (tests or projects), through the experiences that will help the student attain mastery.  Faculty need to examine how they know that students have learned what they are expected to learn.  So whether or not a course is overtly based on competency based learning and progress, the concept will spill over into many college classrooms.

Are there disadvantages to Competency Based Learning?

The concept of competency based learning is worrisome to many faculty members.  Many are concerned that students working strictly for competencies, especially in online programs, will miss important elements of their education based on classroom participation, debate, and contact with their peers.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities argues that this approach does not work for liberal arts courses, which work to ”transform a person by offering diverse experiences” and are based on the quality of intellectual experiences rather than competencies.  Philosopher Gary Gutting has said, ”We should judge teaching not by the amount of knowledge it passes on, but by the enduring excitement it generates.”

Competency Based Learning does not work well for all students.  Students require a strong sense of self-discipline and commitment.  The self-directed nature of the approach does not fit with some students’ learning styles.  Students do not ”just take courses,” they must direct their own learning in many instances.  They must reach out for help from faculty members or ”success coaches” or facilitators when they recognize that they need it.  Some students may need a more hands-on, guided approach.

As more colleges and universities move toward this approach, in at least some of their offerings, policies will need to be addressed.  Currently most federal financial aid is based on seat time (credit hours).  Most college accreditation systems look at faculty credentials, course materials, and time measures (credit hours).  This new approach to learning will have broad effects on the educational system as we currently know it.

So why does all of this matter to my student?

Students and their parents will need to be aware of a school’s philosophy and approach to both Competency Based Learning and Prior Learning Assessments.  Use of these techniques has the potential for reducing time spent in college and for changing the face of even traditional classroom education.  The approach will work better for some students than for others.  Matching a school’s approach with knowledge about a student’s learning styles and abilities, will allow that student to be most successful.

Related Posts:

The Path to Graduation: The Fast Track

The Problem with College Placement Exams

Does Your College Student Know How to Advocate for What She Needs?

Will Your College Student Graduate On Time?

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