Competency-based education (CBE) isn’t new to higher education, but might be new to you. You may have heard about it more recently, as nursing industry standards now require member schools to switch to a CBE model, and other fields with technical standards have started shifting as well. 

CBE provides many benefits for learners, including enabling greater personalization, more applicable preparation for the future, effective assessment of skills, and greater flexibility. Studies have also proven that CBE improves competency levels and student engagement. Despite the advantages and rising popularity of CBE, there are also a number of persistent myths. To better understand CBE, let’s debunk some of the common misconceptions!

Misconception #1: CBE Is Just Skills-Based Learning

It’s common to interchange competency and skill, yet knowing how the two terms are different and complementary is essential as you consider implementing CBE. Whereas skills are narrowly focused, competencies combine multiple skills applied to real-world situations.

Competencies can be expressed as knowledge, attitudes, motivations, or self-perceptions. Within the CBE model, competencies are aligned with industry standards to prepare students for successful outcomes in the real world. The learning experience is designed to help students prove mastery through explicit and measurable assessments that evaluate competencies and provide timely feedback to help them grow. This alignment could look like nursing students analyzing the results of a community health needs assessment to identify challenges and factors that influence those challenges, then writing a public service announcement (PSA) to address the problem. The skills involved are abilities like critical thinking and data analysis. In the context of the project, students would combine those skills into specific competencies related to providing safe, quality care and demonstrate mastery in the real-world activity of a PSA. 

Misconception #2: CBE Has No Deadlines

CBE is often mistaken for allowing students unlimited time to master competencies and upending class time requirements. While examples of “pure” CBE might strive to remove time constraints, that is not feasible or functional in most traditional education structures. In practice, most CBE schools have specific start and end dates for terms or semesters like a traditional college. Instead of sticking to a class cohort where students participate in readings or discussions together at set times, CBE is oriented and driven in partnership with students. They make goals with support from faculty and staff about when they hope to master a competency during the semester rather than having a faculty-assigned due date. 

In WGU’s BS Nursing-Prelicensure program, students take a Medical Dosage Calculation course to learn how to solve equations to determine proper medicine dosages and medicine administration for patients. For example, Tony, a student with prior experience as a pharmacy technician, may master calculations quickly due to consistent practice at work but may need more time to understand how to administer medication to patients in a clinical setting. Toshi, a medical assistant, may prove mastery in safe medication administration but is new to dosage calculations and may need more time to achieve competency. Tony and Toshi have a deadline for course completion, but one may reach it sooner than the other. In some CBE models, the student who accelerated might move on to the next unit or course and potentially reduce the time to completion or cost of their program. However, many higher education institutions have adopted CBE models that keep specified end dates for courses. 

Misconception #3: CBE Programs Don’t Give Out Grades

It’s common to assume that CBE programs only assess mastery of a competency. In reality, CBE assessments parallel standard grading practices to fit within the education system as it is today. For example, if a student receives marks proving proficiency for a competency, this may be equated on a GPA scale at a 3.0. Students whose competency was marked as “Exemplary” may be equated to a 3.5-4.0. These alignments allow universities to indicate an equivalent grade or GPA on transcripts. Other universities can use this grading alignment to determine applicable transfer credit.

Some schools are developing shared competency dictionaries or badge systems to help employers. These definitions and badges share transferable information that employers can understand and correspond to recruiting resume-scanning software to match people with jobs aligned with their competencies.

Misconception #4: CBE Can Only Work for Certain Programs

It’s easy to limit the application of CBE to technical programs like cosmetology and electrician training. The foundational knowledge in these fields is often more clearly defined than in other areas, so people unfamiliar with the flexibility of CBE may incorrectly believe they are the only programs suited for the model. But as long as a program has defined outcomes, it can align to CBE.  

A prime example is a degree in Pop Culture or Memeology (yes, they’re real). A Memeology student might create a case study on viral content strategies and implementation. Students can create and launch a meme-centered campaign on school social media to test theory efficacy and strategy impact by tracking organic reach and impressions. Successful students come out with concrete examples of increasing brand awareness through a content campaign.

CBE may be perceived by some to be a radical shift from traditional models of learning. In reality, CBE is a model that enables a more meaningful learning experience that helps learners prove they have the competencies they need in their careers. Identifying and debunking misconceptions about CBE within your institution can help gain buy-in from key stakeholders as you launch your CBE transformation. 

Learn more about how our Learning and Design team can support your CBE transformation!