What Is Competency-Based Education? A Beginner’s Guide for Students

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School is school, right? A teacher explains a concept, you do a little additional reading, do some practice work and then take tests every few weeks until the class ends—then rinse and repeat for another course. For those familiar with the routine, it may come as a surprise that an alternative approach to education is gaining popularity—competency-based education (CBE). This educational style is at the heart of our flexible Empowered Learning™ courses.

But what is competency-based education, exactly? This article will help you get you up-to-speed and answer some of the most common questions students may have about this innovative learning format.

What is competency-based education?

Competency-based education is a method of academic instruction and evaluation based upon students demonstrating their mastery of a subject. This method focuses on having students “show what they know” and applying the concepts they’ve learned to evaluations that show they’ve truly grasped the subject.

How does CBE differ from traditional learning models?

By the description above, you’re probably thinking to yourself, “Wait, how is that any different from what I’ve been doing in school my entire life?” You’re not wrong in that many, or even most, of the classes you’ve taken in your life have required you to demonstrate your mastery of a subject to earn a letter grade. But what makes CBE so appealing is how the learning is paced.

The dirty little secret found at the foundation of nearly every college is that the standard unit of measuring academic progress, the credit hour, is a pretty arbitrary way to measure learning. In a traditional credit-hour system, more emphasis is put on the amount of time a student spends “in seat” rather than the content that is actually learned.

The CBE format allows institutions to separate “time in seat” from academic proficiency. If you already know a concept from previous life experience or prior learning, you have the option to work ahead and demonstrate that you know your stuff without having to wait for the rest of the class to catch up. Put simply, students are able to show what they know, when they know it.

Who benefits from the CBE model?

While students from all backgrounds and experiences may find the Empowered Learning™ CBE model appealing, it is an especially attractive option for adult learners. Oftentimes adult learners have life experience and practical knowledge that can help them quickly advance through a CBE course.

For example, imagine going back to school for an Accounting degree after spending years running a small landscaping business. The odds are strong that you’ve picked up on some of the basics of bookkeeping and other fundamental concepts. You’d have the ability to prove your knowledge in these areas immediately, breezing by those lessons and moving one step closer to graduating.

How do CBE courses work?

Most CBE courses are offered in an online format. This is yet another benefit for working adults to seamlessly fit their coursework into their already-busy schedules.

So how does that work, exactly? Check out the video below for an introduction to online Empowered Learning ™ courses and how they utilize the competency-based education format:

Do CBE courses include interaction with instructors and other students?

Absolutely! While competency-based courses may allow some students to make it through a course with minimal interaction with their instructors, that isn’t the norm. Instructors will often host live lectures (that are also recorded) where they cover a topic and answer questions from students. And like instructors in traditional learning models, they are available and willing to help if you are having trouble with a particular area.

“I can honestly say the instructor made all the difference in my experience,” says Rasmussen University Business Management student Marcia Smeby. “He took the time to engage students and reach out at every level. The instructor made the class feel inclusive and encouraged a lot of conversations.”

How are CBE courses graded?

“Proving your competency” sounds great, but how does that work in practice? At Rasmussen University in particular, courses are broken down into key competencies or subject areas. For example, a Professional Communications course may include a competency for workplace presentations as well as competency modules for professional negotiating and written communications.

To earn credit for these competencies, students are typically tasked with projects that apply what they’ve learned. An example of this might be writing and recording a professional presentation.

Are there deadlines in CBE courses?

Yes and no. The Rasmussen University Empowered Learning ™ CBE courses do have an overall “deadline” for completing course work, but how you spread out your work over that timeframe is up to you. If you want to clear your schedule for a week at the end of the course and focus solely on your assignments, you can! (Although you’d lose the opportunity to revise with faculty feedback and resubmit to try for a higher grade.) If you’d prefer to frontload it and finish it all early, then that’s fine too. Or you can chip away at your work throughout the term as time permits. You have a lot of flexibility on the timing with your learning.

Can a CBE format help save me money?

The beauty of college credit being awarded based on competence, not time, is that it gives students the ability to prove their knowledge and potentially bypass courses. At Rasmussen University, students often have the option to supplement their standard CBE courses with self-directed assessments that allow them to earn credit and “test out” of courses they may already have a handle on.

These self-directed assessments are similar in structure to CBE courses, but there are a couple of key differences. First, the self-directed assessments offered at Rasmussen University are not eligible for financial aid, while the Empowered Learning ™ CBE courses are eligible. Second, the self-directed assessments are done much more independently—you can still ask clarifying questions of a faculty member, but since these are a way to test out of a course, the expectation is that you are already equipped to handle the work and can complete the assessment on your own. These self-directed assessments can save you money as you’ll pay a relatively small fee of $99 for each attempt.

What do employers think of competency-based education?

Like with anything new or different, it’s understandable if you’re a little wary of what a potential future employer might think of a CBE student. The reality is most employers don’t have the time or resources to dive deep into how a school handles its curriculum. The route you took to obtain the required education isn’t as important as your demonstrated ability to do the job.

This is also precisely where CBE shines—the project-based evaluation of these courses means students will have tangible work products that show what they’ve learned. This is great for job-seekers who may not have as much relevant work experience to highlight in a resume or interview situation. Being able to point to academic work where you’ve applied what you’ve learned in a realistic scenario can be more convincing to an employer than a bullet point on a resume.

What do students think of the CBE course experience?

Flexibility and the ability to work ahead are great, but it’s no good if the overall experience is lacking. While not every competency-based education program is the same, Rasmussen University students have reacted well to their Empowered Learning ™ CBE courses. Smeby says her experience in these courses has been a positive one.

“These courses are great for someone like me,” Smeby says. “I have kids, a husband and a job; I volunteer and I don’t have a lot of time to sit in a classroom, but I absolutely have time to sit on my computer at night and take these courses.”

Smeby’s busy schedule led to her placing a premium on flexibility—something CBE courses have accommodated well. “The traditional online classes are already flexible but the CBE classes were even more flexible, and they catered to my learning style,” she explains.

Does competency-based education sound right for you?

Now that you know more about what competency-based education is and how it works, does this format sound like an ideal fit for you? If so, you’ll want to check out the Rasmussen University Empowered Learning™ page for more detailed information about the competency-based learning options we have to offer.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published in 2018. It has since between updated to include information relevant to 2021.

Will Erstad

Will is a Sr. Content Specialist at Collegis Education. He researches and writes student-focused articles on a variety of topics for Rasmussen University. He is passionate about learning and enjoys writing engaging content to help current and future students on their path to a rewarding education.


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