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The PROs and CONs of competency-based learning

This post has been updated on May 14, 2020.

Going to college and getting a degree used to be equal to having greater chances at a better life. But life doesn't come with any guarantees. The economy is always shifting, so long-term plans like pursuing a college degree need more flexibility than ever.

The 37 or so millions of American adults with some college but no degree definitely know what I’m talking about. Graduating higher education while having a full-time job and/or a family seems almost impossible for too many students.

The traditional education model makes no compromises: you’re either all in, or you’re out.

Students need to attend certain courses at certain times and be assessed in certain ways. All these “certains” are established by the higher education institution, and all aspects are convenient for it and its faculty. Students have almost no say in making these arrangements.

But being a spouse, raising a child and having a job in order to sustain that family — and pay for the university tuition — are not frivolous things that can be easily compromised either. That’s why so many adult students seem to be stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to pursuing higher education while having work and family commitments.

And when something is imperative to be compromised, that something is too often the college degree.

But this doesn’t have to be the case. Competency-based education might be the best solution in these circumstances. On top of this, more and more universities offer competency-based learning programs to address the needs of all their students.

NEO Guide: Competency-based learning

What is competency-based learning?

If we consider the actual terms, educators refer to the same idea while using more than one synonymous phrase: competency-/proficiency-/mastery-/outcome-/performance-/standards-based learning/education/instruction.

No matter the exact words, competency-based learning is different than traditional education through a number of defining aspects. The most important one is that the learner and the learner’s needs are at the core of everything.

Time is not the best measurement for learning

The college degree is directly based on what the student actually knows, and not on how much time it took them to learn something.

The credit-hour was never meant to become the standard measurement of higher education, yet everyone in the system knows that it is exactly that. Well, students following a competency-based learning program are not tied to credit-hours. They can earn the needed credits in half the time — or even less — than what the university considers necessary for the average student.

They can achieve this because they don’t have to take some classes or parts of classes that teach skills they already master.

A competency-based learning program is made up of a number of independent learning modules that are part of a larger learning goal. The students take up one module at a time.

If their background knowledge or work experience helps them navigate more easily through some learning modules, they can focus only on those modules they can’t quite master yet, and finish the program sooner.

It’s all about mastery

Another flaw of the credit-hour is that it doesn’t prove mastery.

Students earn the same number of credits as long as they get a passing grade. But we all know there can be a big difference between a D and an A+ student. That difference, when translated into actual knowledge, means that some students are allowed to go on to more advanced-level classes even though they don’t master everything they should in order to ace those classes.

A small knowledge gap will lead to more, bigger knowledge gaps. And when these gaps become overwhelming, the student will eventually drop their studies.

In a competency-based learning system, this simply doesn’t happen. There are no grades. Students can move on to the next learning module only after they prove mastery of the current one. Not a moment sooner.

Knowledge gaps have no place here.

Students are offered the most relevant and diverse learning materials, they get specialized support from teachers, and they are not pressured by time. Proving mastery is entirely up to them.

Flexibility is key

Competency-based learning allows for the biggest degree of flexibility for students.

They are the ones who set their learning pace: when they learn, where they learn, how much they learn in a session, or how fast they go through a learning module.

Students also set when exactly their learning is assessed. If they know they haven’t reached mastery yet, they don’t have to take an exam.

This all means that they can go to work, they can have busy weekends with personal events and family commitments, and go to an exam only when they know they’ll pass it. They can’t possibly be unprepared for an exam if they are the ones to set the exam date.

When working students can take ownership of so many aspects of their learning process they are more likely to get the degree they are studying for.

Read more: How e-learning can benefit working students

Competency-based learning puts so much more control into the hands of the learner it seems too good to be true. So let's dive into more advantages of the competency-based education, but also into the challenges those who want to implement it have to overcome.

The PROs and CONs of competency-based education

Adopting a competency-based learning program or considering shifting the entire functioning of an educational institution based on it is an attractive and also challenging perspective. The outcomes could be great, but things could also go wrong.

Just like with any other big decision, a PROs and CONs list could ease the decision a little.

What’s in it for students

A lot! Really. They get so much more control over their learning process.

They decide how much time they can put into studying, and when to be assessed. If they already know something due to prior studies or work experience, they don’t have to spend too much time on those topics; they can immediately get assessed and then move on to other learning modules.

This means education for them is much more affordable since the fee they pay is not calculated based on seat time but on proof of mastery.

If students can fit studying into their schedule of work and family time — not the other way around — and study when it’s most convenient for them, their retention rates get higher and their academic performance improves.

When they get the degree, it can eventually be translated into a promotion, a raise, or even a better job.

The challenges for students

While competency-based education sounds like a dream for many students, not all of them are cut for it.

Students must be self-directed learners, must have some experience or at least an immense passion for their chosen field of study, and they must be motivated to succeed. They need to put in the necessary time and some substantial effort to earn the degree they want, not just check the box of attending some courses.

If you’ve ever been a student, you know how hard these things can be at times.

What’s in it for teachers and faculty

By allowing students to take ownership on their learning, the role of the teacher will transform. It will include more coaching and mentoring and fewer reminders of assignments due. Teachers will be the ones to

  • set the desired learning outcomes in their areas of expertise,
  • provide engaging learning materials,
  • create addictive learning experiences and
  • provide targeted support for students.

So they’ll have their hands full. But they’ll also get more data on the student learning process, which means that they’ll be better able to identify the strengths and weaknesses of each student. In other words, teachers can better adapt their instruction.

Read more: Delivering personalized instruction: Focus on the teacher

In the end, educators will have the satisfaction of providing society with successful graduates that can prove their knowledge and worth.

The challenges for teachers and faculty

Identifying and agreeing upon the most important skills and competencies students should acquire at the end of a competency-based learning program could be a challenge to all faculty.

Then they will have to identify and agree upon aligning those sets of competencies to learning resources. Then, they need to decide on the best methods of assessment and the best way to track student performance. Last but not least, the need to set how they’ll provide support to struggling students.

Read more: Next Generation Learning: Assessments

It’s safe to assume these processes of identifying and especially agreeing upon all aspects of a competency-based learning program will not happen exactly smoothly.

What’s in it for educational institutions

Adopting a competency-based approach to education can lead to great benefits for schools and universities.

Institutional leaders can see increased student satisfaction in their learning program and overall higher graduation rates. Also, these programs can attract a higher number of potential students, especially those that need a lot of flexibility from their studies.

The challenges for educational institutions

Since competency-based education can mean many things to many people, the leadership of educational institutions might have a hard time adopting it on the best terms. They already need to comply with state standards and district standards and sometimes these standards need to be changed in order to incorporate competency-based learning.

What’s more, if subject-matter organizations get involved in identifying and agreeing upon all those aspects mentioned under faculty’s challenges — which could be very useful at that stage — educational institutions will need to comply with industry standards as well.

Beyond this, they need to make many significant changes to established processes like the methods of instruction, assessment, reporting, or graduation. Since change is a process, not an event, these initiatives can spread along large periods of time.

Closing thoughts

Competency-based learning seems like the ultimately student-centered education. It surely has the potential to engage all those millions of some-college-no-degree adults and support them in getting that degree and improving their chances of a better life. What’s more, it can prevent millions of other students that are still in the system but seriously consider compromising their degrees.

The PROs and CONs list of competency-based education is pretty balanced. Making the transition to this kind of approach to education raises quite some challenges to all major stakeholders: students, teachers and faculty, and educational institution leadership. But the advantages that promise to come along are also luring.

While some are afraid of the many things that can go wrong, others are convinced that competency-based education will eventually become the norm.

What’s your opinion on this subject? Do share your thoughts in the comments section below.

NEO Brochure: Reshaping how students learn using competency-based learning - and how an LMS can support this

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