Wednesday, 13 April 2016 19:48

What is Competency Based Education?

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Competency Based Education (CBE) which was first introduced in education in the 1960’s (Ford, 2014) has recently made a resurgence in post-secondary education, particularly in the United States. A CBE approach breaks the program requirements down into a specific set of competencies that students are expected to master prior to graduation. A number of competency based education and training programs, are currently operating with much success.

Pressures to make post-secondary degrees and diplomas more accessible to a working adult population, labour market demands and the rising costs of post-secondary education have made CBE an attractive alternative to traditional models (Johnstone & Soares, 2014). The idea is that if students can prove upon graduation that they have achieved a set level of competence in a number of specific skill sets, they will be more employable and better prepared for employment (Abner, Bartosh, Ungerleider & Tiffin, 2014). Competency based accreditation is common in the Canadian landscape and competencies have been adopted by a number of professional associations in Canada; Police Sector Council, Canadian Association of Schools of Nursing and Chartered Professional Accountants. Post-secondary institutions in Canada, although they must prove they teach the competencies, do not use a competency based approach in their programming.

Comprehensive CBE is an approach towards curriculum design and delivery that begin with a set of competencies relevant to the content and job that students are being trained for (Mulder, 2012). This approach is distinct from a traditional model by the following characteristics.

A curriculum centered around robust and valid competencies

Robust and valid competencies are designed to “align with both industry and academic expectations” (Johnstone & Soares, 2014, p. 15) and revised regularly to meet current expectations in the job market. A competency is a cluster of knowledge, skills and attitudes that are demonstrable and can be measured for performance level in a specific context. Setting a competency in the professional context in which it will be practiced is one distinction between a traditional learning outcome and a competency in CBE.

Secure and reliable assessments carefully aligned with competencies

The contextual nature of competencies is necessary for effective design of assessments in CBE. Assessments should also utilize the expertise of industry and faculty representatives and be piloted for reliability prior to use. A range of assessment types might be deemed appropriate for assessing a competency; simulations, scenarios, written papers or other student products and machine scored testing. Regardless of the method, it is of utmost importance that the assessments are embedded in the context in which the competency will be used (Schuwirth & Ash, 2013). Assessment should be done “before, during and after the learning process” (Mulder, 2012, p. 308) to effectively streamline the process for the varying levels of competency as students enter and progress through the program. Multiple points of assessment give the student opportunity to accelerate their program completion.

Designed for individual pacing creating the option for accelerated graduation

“One of the valuable aspects of the CBE model is its ability to accommodate the realities that people master subjects at different rates and bring diverse levels of prior experience and knowledge to that mastery” (Johnstone & Soares, 2014, p. 16). Students are able to expedite their graduation by demonstrating prior skills or knowledge which in turn creates savings for the student. Effective CBE programs implement an orientation program that prepares students for the unique approach of CBE and increase their chances of success and acceleration in the program (Johnstone & Soares, 2014; Book, 2014).

Focused on mastery

Students in a CBE program are expected to demonstrate a “high level of proficiency against a fixed standard” (Abner, Bartosh, Ungerleider & Tiffin, 2014, p. 13) prior to advancing to the next level of learning in the program. This creates an assurance that a student earning an accreditation meets more than a minimum requirement in order to earn their degree.

CBE is certainly distinct from a traditional program, but as universities and colleges adopt this pedagogical approach the intent is to maintain or increase the accountability of a program while also providing increased flexibility and cost savings to the student. As more programs emerge in the U.S. and Canada, the viability and demand for these programs will become apparent.

Keep an eye out for more articles related to competency based education in the coming weeks on LC2.


Abner, B., Bartosh, O., Ungerleider, C., & Tiffin, R. (2014). Productivity Implications of a Shift to Competency-Based Education: An environmental scan and review of the relevant literature. Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario. Retrieved from

Book, P. (2014). All Hands on Deck: Ten Lessons from Early Adopters of Competency-Based Education. Boulder, CO: WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies. Retrieved from

Ford, K. (2014). Competency-Based Education: History, Opportunities, and Challenges. UMUC Center for Innovation in Learning and Student Success. Retrieved from

Johnstone, S. & Soares, L. (2014) Principles for Developing Competency-Based Education Programs. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 46:2, 12-19, DOI: 10.1080/00091383.2014.896705

Martin Mulder (2012) Competence-based Education and Training. The Journal of Agricultural Education and Extension, 18:3, 305-314, DOI:10.1080/1389224X.2012.670048 

Schuwirth, L. & Ash, J. (2013). Assessing tomorrow’s learners: In competency-based education only a radically different holistic method of assessment will work. Six things we could forget. Medical Teacher.35: 555–559

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