What is Competency Based Education?

Aug 31, 2021 12:23:18 PM / by Kristen Capuzzo

Competency-based education (CBE) has been around for decades in many different industries and has long been used in vocational technical schools and trades. In recent years, competency-based education has been increasingly used in online/hybrid settings with learning technology. This method of learning is not only effective but also flexible and adaptable for a variety of learners. Teaching to different competencies yields results that are near impossible in traditional learning models/environments. Competency-based learning is especially effective for talent training programs with adult learners.

Recently, there has been a significant movement to increase the use of competency-based education programs, particularly in community colleges across the country. CBE is particularly effective at developing specific skills and competencies quickly to prepare learners for jobs and careers with on-the-job skills. Colleges must be careful, however, when implementing competency-based education programs that they are implementing high-quality programs that are truly focused on competency, and they should be wary of programs that are not, at the core, competency-based.

Competency-based education follows eight elements of quality including principles, standards, and performance indicators. As studies in learning and the use of CBE has been improved and updated throughout the years, new levels of each element of quality have been incorporated into the 8-element framework. Performance indicators range on a scale from initial, emerging, developed, to highly developed.


8 Elements of Quality in Competency-based Education

There are eight elements of quality within any competency-based education program. These elements form the basis of the entire program and include principles, standards and performance indicators. Within the performance indicators, the Competency-based Education Network (C-BEN) has defined the four levels as initial, emerging, developed, and highly developed. The following elements give more information and details as to how each piece of a CBE program is developed and implemented. 


Demonstrated Institutional Commitment to and Capacity for Competency-based Education Innovation

The principle of this element is that each institution needs to spend time building a strong, and quality foundation to support a competency-based educational approach. There needs to be an overall philosophy recorded and a true commitment to the ideologies of this approach. Investments need to be made both financially and logistically to support the success of learners. Some of the major standards for this element involve all levels of leadership at the institution being aware and supporting the creation, improvement, and growth of a CBE approach. The faculty and staff members at the participating institutions need to understand the approach and develop a model that works with the learner experience. A level of commitment has to be established amongst all members to support them in this learning process as well as improve it for future students. The final component is a system that has to be created to collect feedback from participants. This includes any areas of learner performance involving diversity, employment rates, and long-term success of learners. This first element is crucial to any competency based education program as it sets the foundation for the rest of the process and determines whether or not the program will be efficient. 


Clear, Measurable, Meaningful and Integrated Competencies

The principle of this element is that each competency is clearly explicitly recorded for each learner to understand exactly what needs to be achieved to master that skill. Within each competency is a theory and application of that theory to prove a level of mastery. Also, each competency is related to the learning outlets in the program and can support a learner in their journey to be proficient in that competency. Some of the major standards for this element are that the competency is representative of the true nature of that skill/ability and balances both theory and the application of mastering that skill. The competency needs to also be developed from a wide variety of diverse sources, through repeated application, and from varying levels of experts including faculty, communities, other learners, or in-industry professionals. This gives a broader and more informed level of input. The competency needs to be relevant and up to date with the current world and job market such that the learner can demonstrate competency as required by an employee in a job. If you’re training software engineers and you’re making them use a library built internally for a university that is never used in industry, this isn’t competency based learning for that specific programming language. The competency also needs to be specific enough and encompass a learner's experience and how they will reach completion to the assessment stage. Also, the competency needs to relate to levels of cognition as defined by industry standards. One example of this is seen when a program doesn’t require a student to deliver production-ready code by having to find and solve the bugs in their code. This element focuses on the core competencies and what they mean for the institution as well as the learner who will be developing them.


Coherent Program and Curriculum Design

The principle of this element focuses on the learner and personalization of the program design. At the core of a CBE approach is the program design containing competencies that will be important for learners to understand post-graduation. They must be non-discriminatory and non-biased so that all learners have the same access to success throughout the entirety of the program. The model needs to include very clear and specific pathways to fulfillment. The complexity of each competency needs to be equal to the required achievements for the credential. Some of the standards involve a clear understanding of each pathway and illustrations as to how to progress.

Another essential component is the use of appropriate levels of cognitive mastery for the learners within the reasonable amount of time allotted. The competency and credential-level also needs to be decided upon with all academic requirements relative to skills, abilities, knowledge, and intellectual behaviors. Each learner needs to be able to define what the expectations are and should have a clear understanding of what success looks like. An example of this could be reviewing the syllabus or rubric beforehand and having a learner repeat back some of the indicators of success. This could be as simple as a short quiz on expectations, so everyone is on the same page from the start. The learning environment and communications needs to be accessible to all learners and their individualized needs. Also, the faculty needs to be accessible to all students since they play an essential role in program delivery. The program also needs to contain a level of variety within the activity opportunities so that each student has a personalized learning experience. This element stresses the importance of accessible education, clear expectations, and a personalized pathway to success for all learners.

Credential-level Assessment Strategy with Robust Implementation

The principle of this element is the idea that a system needs to be in place to accurately assess what learners are capable of. The assessments should be aligned to previously mentioned ideas of cognitive levels and competencies. This strategy enables the institution's professionals to use a wide range of assessment styles to determine mastery in students. Some of the standards in this element involve the authenticity of assessments and their measurements for how the students learn and apply their knowledge. The faculty needs to ensure that the appropriate amount of support was provided and that the rubrics were followed for determining levels of achievement. Biases need to be assessed and avoided at all levels. Students are given multiple opportunities to apply their level of knowledge throughout the assessments in this strategy. An example of this is seen in the style of exams such as when a multiple choice exam is given, but learners need an option to demonstrate their ability to apply a concept. These assessments will also serve as a tool for feedback and improvement of programs after reflecting upon measurements of student successes. These assessments also must take into account the personalized and individualized nature of each student in the learning journey.

Lastly, it is important that technology is ethically implemented to prevent delays or inaccurate readings of feedback and measurements of success for each student. This element encompasses the importance of assessment strategies with a CBE program and implementing them in a manner that is fair and equitable for each individual student, while obtaining feedback for future learners. 


Intentionally Designed and Engaged Learner Experience

The principle of this element stresses the importance of placing the learners and their needs above all else. By centering the CBE program around the learners’ entire journey from before the program start date to their status as an alumni, the overall results will be far greater than just an outcomes-based focus. The investment that faculty makes in understanding students and their needs, interaction preferences and support processes will lead to a greater return on investment in the CBE program. The level of support offered to students needs to be well-rounded and encompass a wide range of staff members and processes. Some of the standards for this element include a structuring of projects around the learners understanding and makeup.

Expectations are to be clearly set involving institutional policies as well as program structure, so learners are all on the same page. The metrics to measure performance need to be unbiased and non-discriminatory so that every student receives the same experience. The support system needs to be flexible enough to accommodate learners of all levels and strengths. The learners need to be able to access and engage with those individuals and experts that can assist them through certain components of their program.

Lastly, a technological system should be used to monitor students' access and ability to engage and understand the expectations throughout the learning journey. This element ensures that each student can receive the same formats of communication with support staff and that the program is suited and tailored specifically to a learner.


Collaborative Engagement with External Partners

The principle of this element is to engage with meaningful partners to support the efforts of CBE learners in the program as well as goals of the institution. They serve as collaborators for CBE competencies and understand how to evaluate the effectiveness of assessments within the program. These external partners also serve as a method to endorse these programs as trusted sources, once determining the validity and success of the program. Some of the standards for this element include collaborations between external partners and faculty/staff through investments and mentorship. These partners are integral to the developments of the program in areas of instruction, assessments, training, and opportunities for employment or internship.

Partners should be selected in a manner of relevance to the specific CBE program and only if they will be beneficial to the goals of the institution and learner success. Most importantly, the external partners are great resources for professional development and future employment of students. 


Transparency of Student Learning

The principle of this element involves the learner having a full and extensive understanding of competencies and ways to achieve success within the program, prior to starting the program. Each and every aspect regarding mastery, assessment, and performance are clearly laid out, diagrammed, and described to students. All information is available to the learner and able to be articulated to any interested party or stakeholder. In the case of colleges and universities, a transcript is even provided to show external sources exactly what is covered in the curriculum and what has been mastered and how.



Some of the standards of this element include credential-level competencies clearly articulated to all parties. The progression and experiences of a learner, assessment demos, and learning activities are clearly shown to all parties. There is a clear path of communication with the competencies and their alignment to certain external components including future employment requirements such as certificates or licenses.

Lastly, the transcript from the institution is descriptive and encompassing graduate capabilities and competencies. This element stresses the need for full transparency among all stakeholders in a CBE program including the learner, faculty/staff, and external partners.’

Particularly in the case of technical programs, learners should be able to provide employers with a portfolio of their work displaying and proving their competencies and abilities.


Evidence-Driven Continuous Improvement

The principle of this element is to keep track of all the data pulled from program participants and use it in effective ways such as program improvements. It can be used to determine how programs are persisting and the levels of completion among program participants. In this feedback, the institution can identify gaps in performance and make progress towards a solution. Some of the standards of this element include adopting a process for continuous improvement and collecting data and sharing results with all stakeholders. Also, the initial goals of the program are upheld from the beginning and approaches are adjusted based on what is or isn't working. Learner outcomes are analyzed and used to determine where resources should be allocated. Based on this feedback, the institution can direct faculty, staff, and learners in a manner that is effective and planned. Overall, this element is important for the long-term continuity of CBE programs and to ensure that learners can continue to receive the same experience in their learning journey through a CBE program.


What is Not Competency-based Education and Why

At the core, you’re not developing competencies when in lecture-based learning. In traditional learning models with lecture-based learning, learning is designed solely to achieve knowledge transmission, and not develop competencies. Knowledge transmission is not effective and generally has retention rates between 5 and 10%, with most learners never having to apply concepts or principles in complex scenarios reflective of the real world. By teaching with the intent for students to simply repeat information back on an exam or test, students are not developing the skill and ability to actually develop competencies. They are simply memorizing information, which does not equate to performing the actual skill. One example of this is evident in learning how to swim. If a person wants to learn to swim, they would not attend a lecture. They will learn how to actually swim by getting in the water.

The same concept applies to skill development: you have to apply your learning, do it in practice, and get as close as possible to a real-world scenario that one would do on the job. Developing the skill of structured problem solving is like swimming: you have to do it; sitting in a lecture won’t develop the skill. Carpentry programs are competency-based, as are art programs, learning surgery, becoming a doctor or nurse practitioner: it's not so far fetched, then, to say that computer programming, building software, should also use competency-based learning.

Competencies also range in levels. America created a simple framework for levels of competency in cybersecurity, and each training program sets their competency level according to the framework. The same can be done fairly easily in computer programming and building software, though it takes an expert with hands-on experience and a deep background in learning science to identify clearly what those levels are and how to identify them in a learner.

With that, learning models that use mostly lectures and include some hands-on projects are not competency-based learning either. At the core, they generally do not develop competency for a given skill set to a level required to perform job duties without aid or input from someone of a more advanced level. Arguably the best competency-based programs are the ones that have learners essentially performing job duties on their own within the learning program before they actually transition into a job.



As a tech talent training program, competency based learning is an essential component to ensuring learners are knowledgeable and skilled upon program completion. For each element of quality as described above, there are key considerations such as who is involved in the action items as well as what resources may need to be developed for learner success. What learners know and what learners are able to do are two different things and this is why the CBE model is so important. By informing the learning journey and building in flexibility and support for learners, there is equitable learner achievement. Using CBE to assess learner competencies is an effective way to see true performance and monitor/implement solutions to be developed. The learning lifecycle will vary from learner to learner but CBE enables them to develop relevant and essential skills to progress towards their educational goals, whether it is a degree or certificate. With such a high level of transparency in a CBE program, there is a smaller gap in expectations of students and institutions. Competency-based education is a highly effective method of learning that clearly defines what a student truly understands about a specific competency and can perform.


Kristen Capuzzo

Written by Kristen Capuzzo

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