Recently in higher education, k-12 education, and perhaps now in adult basic education, there has been new interest in an approach to curriculum, assessment and instruction known as competency-based education. Dr. Robert Mendenhall, President of Western Governors University, a leader in competency-based Higher Education (CBHE), has defined it this way:
“The most important characteristic of competency-based education is that it measures learning rather than time. Students progress by demonstrating their competence, which means they prove that they have mastered the knowledge and skills (called competencies) required for a particular course, regardless of how long it takes.”[i]
In competency-based education, holding learning standards constant means developing a set of clear and measurable or observable student learning objectives, intended learning outcomes, or competencies that all students enrolled in a course or other learning experience are expected to master. Mastery of the competencies is held constant for all students. It is expected that some students will take less time than in a normal cycle, term or semester, and some learners may take more time. Requiring students to master competencies (criterion-referenced assessment) instead of grading them on a curve (norm-referenced assessment) is not new; mastery learning was first proposed in the late 1960’s by University of Chicago Professor, Benjamin Bloom, who believed that it would reduce the achievement gaps between varying groups of students. It was a theory then; now, competency-based education has become a practical reality in many education environments, for example in language learning, teacher education, in some professional education such as medicine and dentistry, in career and technical education and increasingly in k-12 education.
Other important features of competency-based education include:
- The curriculum (the set of competencies to be mastered, i.e. the learning objectives or intended learning outcomes), and the learning resources or activities intended to help learners achieve them, may be derived from academic content and skills standards, or from industry work-related content and skills standards, or both.
- Students are introduced to the curriculum in a thorough way early on in the course or other learning experience so that they can aim their learning with these competencies in mind, and easily and unambiguously recognize when they have (and haven’t) mastered them. This is a key feature for achieving effectiveness and efficiency in learning.
- Assessments of competencies use primarily direct measures. These include, for example, observations of performance or demonstration of skills or knowledge, but not indirect measures such as most multiple choice tests. The assessments, like the competencies, are presented to students early on, which can also help students to aim their learning. Typically the assessments, or in some cases the competency statements themselves, specify the conditions under which the knowledge or skills must be demonstrated. They also typically include the standard or level of performance expected to master each competency. The measures, and often the competencies, are so clearly described that instructors, students, employers, assessors[ii] or others have no uncertainty about what the competencies mean and whether or not students have satisfactorily demonstrated their mastery.
- Students take a pre-assessment at the beginning of the course or other learning experience to determine what competencies they need to focus on and what competencies they may have already mastered through other formal, nonformal or informal learning experiences. From this pre-assessment students can develop an individual (“personalized”) learning plan to focus on the competencies they need to work on. The pre-assessment and learning plan can help students to develop an efficient path to course or certificate completion.
- Students take advantage of a range of learning resources to master competencies, such as:
- Lectures, presentations or demonstrations, sometime available in an online or blended learning environment through video or audio files
- Hard copy or online texts such as articles or books
- Student discussions in person or in online threaded discussions
- Face-to-face or online simulations or serious education games
- Real or virtual field trips and/or
- Supervised practice of skills.
- Because the competencies do not necessarily originate only from academic disciplines, but also from defined industry sector or local business needs, competency-based learning can be especially relevant to the workplace, workforce development, or career and technical education.
- Student transcripts, certificates and credentials are based not on credits or grades, but on reviewed and sometimes certified demonstration of skills and knowledge, and learned to a predefined standard of acceptability.
[ii] In some competency-based programs, for example in the National External Diploma Program, or in some local competency-based adult diploma programs, to assure objective evaluation of student competency, the assessor role is not performed by the instructor.