6 Reasons Why Competency-Based Education Is Great for Working Nurses

Illustration of nurse in scrubs wearing graduation cap and working on a laptop.

Advancing your education has long been on your nursing career to-do list. Up to this point, a busy schedule and the inertia that comes with a regular weekly work routine have kept that plan on the backburner. But now that you’re seriously considering academic programs, you’ll be happy to know that one innovation in online learning, competency-based education (CBE), could make your return to school much more manageable.

With the right balance of flexibility and structure, this learning format provides plenty of potential benefits for working nurses. So what are those benefits? We’ve asked Dr. Lynn Bilder and Dr. Kari Luoma from the Rasmussen University School of Nursing to help highlight how this format can benefit working nurses. But before we get into the specifics, let's start with the basics of what CBE is.

What is competency-based education?

Competency-based education is a type of course format found most often in higher education that aims to shift the focus away from how much time a student spends in the classroom and more toward demonstrating what the student actually learned.

So how is that different from the traditional experience? After all, those tests, quizzes, labs and papers you worked on before seemed to be measuring what you’ve learned in a traditional format. In a CBE program, those methods can still all be used to gauge your understanding—but they don’t all have to be completed one step at a time and at a pace set by an instructor.

In a traditional program, an entire class moves at the same pace, covering topics in a predetermined order. In a CBE course, you’ll have everything you’ll need to complete your coursework from day one, giving you greater control over when and how you get your work done. As long as you have all assignments complete and submitted by the end of the course term, you can set the schedule. 

6 Reasons working nurses will love CBE courses

Now that you’ve got the basics of how a CBE course works, let’s dive into the reasons why this format could appeal to you.

1. Nursing schedules require flexibility

We don’t need to tell you that a nurse’s schedule can be tough to work around. If you’re working night shifts, four by tens, weekends or other schedules outside of normal business hours, finding time to go to class can be a struggle. That problem goes out the window with online CBE courses. Not only can you skip the commute, but you can also complete homework at your own pace.

If you want to chip away at courses in between shifts, you can. If you want to load all of your project work into your off days, you can. And if something unexpected comes up during a week, you don’t have to worry about losing points due to missing an arbitrary deadline—you just make time to complete it before the term ends and move on.

2. You’re rewarded for prior knowledge

As a working nurse, you know a thing or two about the job. But that’s not always acknowledged or rewarded in traditional formats.

“In a traditional course, everybody progresses at the same time and pace,” says Dr. Bilder. “Whether or not you master the content, the course moves on.”

With CBE, however, you can receive credit for showing competency in subjects you may have already learned or have some familiarity with. For example, Bilder points out, you might breeze through sections three and five of a course because you’ve already practiced them at work, then go back and spend more time on the sections that are new to you. No matter your background, the only way to progress in your coursework is to successfully demonstrate each skill or competency covered in a unit. This assessment-based approach can help students better allocate their time.

“It’s a big change for educators to allow students to tackle content in any order,” Bilder says. “Students can spend more time where they need it and less time where they don’t.”

3. Course material is designed to be practical

Designed with working nurses in mind, CBE Nursing courses at Rasmussen University encourage students to build on their experiences.

“Students can use examples from where they’re working,” says Dr. Bilder. “If someone had, for instance, leadership experience or many years of patient care, they can apply that previously learned knowledge to real-world deliverables.”

In other words, these courses’ projects and assignments often allow you to draw from your experiences in order to apply and demonstrate what you’ve learned.

“This makes it easier for students to contextualize what they’re learning,” says Bilder.

4. You have room for setbacks

If all this talk of experience has you thinking you’ll need a decade of work under your belt to thrive in CBE, think again. Though this format is designed to reward your existing skills, it will also help you dive deep into the knowledge you want to develop without punishing an early academic misstep.

Students in CBE nursing courses at Rasmussen University have the ability to attempt course projects up to three times. While a traditional course may give you one chance to submit something before you’re on to the next topic, students in these courses are provided with a detailed rubric that makes clear what needs to improve. If you aren’t satisfied with your score, you can see exactly what needs attention and submit an improved version.

Instead of students taking a bad score on an assignment and moving on, Dr. Luoma says this approach can really help students develop their knowledge and identify where they’ve fallen short.

“Students have the opportunity to improve and really grow,” says Dr. Luoma.

5. Structure is built in

Hearing about how students in CBE courses can set their own paces might leave you wondering about one of the common struggles in any academic format: procrastination. But don’t let the high level of flexibility fool you into thinking CBE courses are an unstructured free-for-all. Rasmussen University students can expect regular check-ins with their instructors to determine where they’re at in the process of completing their coursework. These check-ins present opportunities for students to see if they are generally on track with pacing, ask questions and share any concerns they might have. 

The format of the CBE coursework itself can help provide structure as well. From day one, students are able to see how each course is broken up into competency modules covering a specific subject area. These modules include resources like informative videos and articles as well as ungraded knowledge checks that can help students identify the areas they’ll need to shore up. Often, courses feature a final project that helps connect all of the skills and competencies they’ve learned by applying them to a practical work situation.

“In meeting those competencies, students learn through real-world deliverables—things hospitals would expect of a nurse at this level,” says Dr. Luoma.

6. Interaction and independence are balanced

While some may be perfectly content to get their work done with minimal interaction, that doesn’t mean students should expect to be on their own in this format. Rasmussen University CBE courses feature weekly live sessions that provide opportunities for students and faculty to connect and go over any questions students may have about the material. Can’t make it during that time? Each session is saved so students can go back and listen when it’s convenient for them.

Additionally, you’ll always have the option to reach out to faculty directly—they’re more than happy to help answer any questions or concerns you might have or provide tips and advice for managing your classroom workload. Combine this with optional online tutoring, 24/7 tech support and practicum components completed in your own community, and you’ll have an excellent mix of both interaction and independence.

Is competency-based education right for you?

Going back to school while working can be difficult, but advancing your education is a worthwhile investment. CBE courses can give you the best shot at doing both well. With the right balance of flexibility and structure, CBE courses can reward experienced nurses for what they already know and allow them to focus their attention on subjects they’ve yet to master.

Learn more about the Nursing CBE options at Rasmussen University:

Hannah Meinke

Hannah Meinke is a writer at Collegis Education. She enjoys helping people discover their purpose and passion by crafting education and career-related content on behalf of Rasmussen University.

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This piece of ad content was created by Rasmussen University to support its educational programs. Rasmussen University may not prepare students for all positions featured within this content. Please visit www.rasmussen.edu/degrees for a list of programs offered. External links provided on rasmussen.edu are for reference only. Rasmussen University does not guarantee, approve, control, or specifically endorse the information or products available on websites linked to, and is not endorsed by website owners, authors and/or organizations referenced. Rasmussen University is a regionally accredited private university.

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