What is Competency-Based Learning?

Competency-based learning (CBL) is tricky to define because it is incredibly fluid. Roughly, CBL is a student-centered academic framework focused on increasing transparency and removing educational barriers. CBL is innovative in allowing learners to earn credit through performance by demonstrating their professional skills and intellectual abilities. Flexibility is the heart and soul of CBL and is what differentiates these programs from traditional academia.

Structureless, Data-Driven Design

In higher education, most CBL models are direct-assessment programs designed around mastery-based progression. Meaning, they eliminate much of the classic structure associated with school (e.g., classes, deadlines, lessons, teachers, classmates, semesters, and sometimes even grades). Rather than linking credit to seat time, participation, or effort, learners can only move forward by demonstrating their coursework competency. 

Highly Visible Formative Assessments

The transparency in CBL is rooted in the use of formative assessments over summative assessments. Traditional academic frameworks overuse summative approaches (e.g., earning grades via memorization & test-taking). Cultural barriers & demotivation are inherent to summative evaluation as it overvalues performance. Grades penalize students without any opportunity to identify challenges in advance. Conversely, formative evaluation utilized by CBL is an ongoing, collaborative process focused on developing skills and improving capacity in a guilt-free environment.

Personalized Learning is Student-Centered

CBL emphasizes nonuniform progression based on the understanding that each student has unique skills and abilities. This personalized approach is what makes CBL student-centered. By design, CBL offers tremendous potential to control the cost and duration spent earning a degree. In other words, students have the freedom to move at their own pace. Individuals can move quickly through areas where they are proficient and spend extra time on topics where they fall short. Delineating coursework from a timeline makes it more relevant.

Mastery-Based Progression

CBL advocates argue that mastery-based progression helps to close the gap between academia & the workplace. Whether or not higher education adequately prepares graduates for a career has been hotly debated in recent decades. CBL increases career readiness by aligning credit with skills and abilities rather than effort or time. This vocational focus ensures that only individuals who demonstrate competency are eligible to earn credit.

The Future of Academic Reform

Although CBL is not a new concept, it is beginning to gain attention as a viable academic reform option. The higher education system has long underserved the American public, has proven inadequate at preparing students for the real world and carries radically unsustainable costs. CBL programs are affordable, and they churn out capable, qualified individuals that can positively contribute to society. Moreover, CBL builds educational equity by minimizing cultural bias and making higher education accessible to individuals who would not have otherwise had the time or money to pursue it.

Does a Learning Model Warrant Recognition?

Absolutely. Although CBL makes education more flexible and affordable, the process can be incredibly overwhelming. Removing structure frequently becomes a recipe for disaster among procrastinators or those who thrive on engagement. We understand that CBL students face severe challenges beyond those of the average online student. Virtual learning is undoubtedly arduous. However, CBL students are often subject to more laborious curriculums with less support than students enrolled in online courses. Exceptional self-reliance, discipline, and resilience are needed to be successful in a CBL program. Students who demonstrate academic excellence amid these additional obstacles should be honored and celebrated!

What is Missing From CBL?

The Current Conversation: Two Paths, One Destination

CBL offers such dramatic benefits over course-based programs (e.g., time and tuition savings) that it seems too good to be true. Even though these programs are not new, people outside of academia are rarely familiar with them. Prospective students ask, “Is this the real deal? Is it a scam? Is it a knock-off? Is it accredited?” They think if a program is inexpensive, there must be something wrong with it.

To alleviate these concerns, schools expend a great deal of time and energy emphasizing sameness between CBL and online courses. It tends to be described as “an alternate path to the same destination,” which is accurate. Students must understand only the learning frameworks differ, but the outcome (i.e., degree) will be the same.

Schools often have to bend over backward to convince students that CBL is, in fact, a viable, worthwhile option with tangible benefits. It would be counterproductive to advertise CBL as a more difficult path to the same degree riddled with extra hurdles.

Chi Beta Lambda Adds: These Paths Are Unequal

Overemphasizing parallels between CBL and course-based education can negatively impact the student experience.

When the overarching message is sameness, essential differentiators become inadvertently minimized. Failing to acknowledge that CBL students often need to work harder to earn the same degree as course-based learners can invalidate the adversity they faced and devalue their accomplishments.

Academia should openly embrace CBL-related challenges.

Opportunities to improve these programs’ experience are hampered by a failure to acknowledge how frequently and severely individuals are struggling. CBL is due for a culture change with a focal point of continuously improving the experience. The industry owes a higher level of accountability to learners, educators, & institutions regarding the challenges they endure throughout the CBL journey.

An academic honor society exclusively for CBL speaks volumes about these programs' difficulties & how they should be regarded.

Students who demonstrate outstanding scholarship in CBL programs should be eligible for exclusive academic recognition. XBΛ is here to say, “CBL is, in fact, very different from course-based models; high performance in such programs warrants special honor.” Commending those who thrive in CBL characterizes both these programs and the individuals who participate in them as formidable.