Table of contents

Expert Guide on Implementing Competency-Based Education (CBE) in Higher Education


What is Competency-Based Education (CBE), and why it is vital for the future of learning.

The future of education needs to prioritize competencies, underscoring not just theoretical knowledge but practical application in varied, real-world situations.

Here's a startling truth: As of June 2023, 40% of recent graduates find themselves underemployed, meaning they're working in positions that don’t fully utilize their skills or qualifications, even after dedicating years to their studies. This disconnect between students' academic journeys and the current job landscape raises a crucial question: Are our traditional educational models genuinely preparing students for the dynamic job market we see today?

Integrating CBE demands a nuanced understanding of its intricacies for universities, community colleges, and technical training institutions.


Employers are now placing a premium on tangible skills, concrete abilities, and practical experience over the prestige of university diplomas. The pivotal question for industry leaders has evolved from "Where did you study?" to "What can you do?"

So, where does this leave higher education institutions? The overarching message is clear: the future of education needs to prioritize competencies, underscoring not just theoretical knowledge but practical application in varied, real-world situations. This is where Competency-Based Education (CBE) comes to the forefront, presenting an approach that bridges the learning gaps between education and the demands of the job market.

For institutions like universities, polytechnics, and community colleges, integrating CBE demands a nuanced understanding of its intricacies. And that's precisely what this guide aims to offer - a comprehensive resource with practical, step-by-step guidance to support the transition to a competency-based system in higher education.

Competency-Based Continuing Professional Development is a strategic approach that aligns professional development with actual workplace needs, regulatory requirements, and personal career objectives.

This guide provides a structured overview of the key aspects of implementing and managing a Competency-Based Education program in Higher Education.



Main Take Aways from this Guide

  • Employers are shifting value from traditional degrees to tangible skills and practical experience due to a gap between academic learning and job market requirements. CBE presents a learner-centric model prioritizing skill mastery over time-based learning.
  • CBE emphasizes skill and knowledge mastery before progression, contrasting sharply with the fixed pacing and evaluation methods of traditional education. The method recognizes and credits learning from varied environments, ensuring tailored and flexible educational journeys.
  • For students, CBE offers personalized learning, real-world applicability of skills, acknowledgment of past experiences, and potential economic and time efficiency benefits. Institutions adopting CBE can stay relevant, attract diverse students, gain detailed insights into student progression, and build robust industry relationships.
  • Implementing CBE involves training faculty, planning competencies and outcomes, structuring curriculum, employing technological solutions, customizing student learning, implementing robust assessment methods, and ensuring continuous review and improvement.
  • Besides higher education, various sectors like corporate training, regulatory colleges, and government agencies utilize CBE for its adeptness in ensuring practical and demonstrable skills and knowledge, catering to specific and critical competencies required in professional environments.
  • Shift iQ offers a platform to enhance CBE efforts, providing features to boost competency assessments, manage competency frameworks, design CBE courses, and streamline course catalogs and registrations, aligning technological capabilities with CBE’s distinct demands and functionalities.

What is Competency-Based Education?

Competency-Based Education (CBE), or Competency-Based Learning, is an educational model that focuses on students demonstrating specific skills or knowledge areas before progressing. Instead of being pushed forward based on a set timeline, students move on once they've demonstrated they truly understand a topic.


How Competency-Based Education Works

Competency-Based Education operates on a dynamic, learner-focused approach.

Unlike conventional learning models, which rely heavily on time-bound courses and standardized testing, CBE underscores mastery of specific skills or knowledge areas (competencies). A student progresses upon demonstrating proficiency in these areas, regardless of the time spent.

With CBE, the whole learning process is in your hands, and progression is dependent on skill, rather than time, creating a tailored, efficient, and flexible learning journey. In other words, it’s not about “when” you learn it, but “how well” you learn and apply it.

Let’s illustrate with two examples.


First, imagine Sarah, a working professional with years of experience in the marketing industry but without a finished degree. Through CBE, Sarah doesn't need to start from scratch. She demonstrates her proficiency in areas she's already well-versed in, like marketing strategies, and quickly moves on to areas she wants to develop further. This format allows Sarah to blend her learning with her work and other commitments, earning her degree based on competencies she's mastered.


Next, consider Jayla, a college-bound coding enthusiast. Before even setting foot in a college classroom, Jayla had developed multiple mobile apps. With CBE, she doesn't get stuck in beginner coding classes; she proves her foundational knowledge and skips ahead. This allows Jayla to delve deeper into areas like cybersecurity, utilizing mentorship from faculty and accessing diverse online resources. Her progression is based on her ability to showcase her skills, rather than attending a fixed set of classes.


How does CBE Differ from Traditional Educational Models?

The competency-based education model represents a fundamental shift from traditional learning models. How does this play out in practice? Let's explore the differences in the table below:

Traditional Education
Competency-Based Education


Fixed, with all students advancing at the same rate

Flexible, allowing students to progress at their own pace after mastering a competency


Primary teacher-directed

Combines teacher direction with student-centered learning


Mostly through exams and assignments at set intervals

Continuous, performance-based assessments to affirm mastery of competencies

Credit Hours

Awarded based on time spent in class

Awarded upon demonstration of competency, not restricted by time constraints

Learning Recognition

Limited recognition of learning that occurs outside of school

Recognition and validation of skills and knowledge gained from various settings

- inside and outside the classroom

Competency Based Education provides a student-focused approach that can be tailored to individual needs, offering a more holistic and flexible method of education. It is not a one-size-fits-all solution but provides a responsive framework to facilitate comprehensive learning.


Benefits of Competency-Based Learning

Competency-Based Education provides a student-focused approach that can be tailored to individual needs, offering a more holistic, flexible, and inclusive method of education. It is not a one-size-fits-all solution but provides a responsive framework to facilitate comprehensive learning.

Benefits for Students

  • Personalized Progress: Students can learn at their own pace, ensuring they truly grasp each topic before moving on.
  • Real-World Skills: CBE helps prepare students for the workforce by emphasizing tangible skills over theoretical knowledge.
  • Valuing Past Experience: Any relevant prior learning or experiences can be credited, saving students time and effort.
  • Learning on Your Terms: CBE accommodates varied schedules, ideal for adult learners or those balancing work and study.
  • Clear Expectations: Students have well-defined goals, ensuring they know what's needed to succeed.
  • Economic Efficiency: Students might complete their education faster and more cost-effectively by proving their competencies early on.

Benefits for Higher Education Institution

  • Staying Current: CBE ensures educational offerings are relevant and in tune with the modern job market.
  • Attracting a Diverse Student Base: The flexibility of CBE draws a broader range of students, keeping them committed to completion.
  • Detailed Student Insights: Institutions gain a clearer understanding of student progress and areas that might need support.
  • Optimized Resource Use: Institutions can pinpoint and cater to the specific needs of their students more effectively.
  • A Modern Reputation: Embracing CBE can position an institution as a cutting-edge leader in education.
  • Building Industry Relationships: Aligning curriculum with industry needs paves the way for valuable partnerships.

Understanding the advantages of CBE is one thing; implementing it is another. How do you transition from theory to practice?

Here’s a guide to help you take the next steps.


Implementing Competency-Based Education: A Step-by-Step Approach

As you've explored Competency-Based Education, you may be asking yourself: Where do I begin? Below, you'll find a straightforward, step-by-step guide to implementing CBE in your institution.

STEP 1: Train Faculty and Staff

Teaching Competency-Based Education isn't just about developing new lesson plans or course outlines - it's about embracing a whole new way of thinking. Here's a quick roadmap:

  • Prioritize Equity in Learning: At the heart of CBE lies the principle of equity. Every student should have an equal chance at achieving success. But remember, equal doesn't mean identical. Instead of offering the same resources to every student, the focus should be on understanding each student's unique needs and addressing them. This ensures that every student, regardless of their background or prior knowledge, can achieve the set competencies.
  • Dive Deep into Comprehensive Training: Transitioning to CBE isn't about just modifying lesson plans. It requires a deep understanding of its philosophy and methods. To make this transition smoother, offer thorough training sessions for your faculty. These sessions should cover everything from the foundational principles of CBE to practical techniques like personalized instruction and competency-based assessments.
  • Continuous Support is Non-Negotiable: Introducing CBE is just the first step. To ensure that it's effectively implemented in the long run, continuous support for faculty is crucial. This could mean refresher courses, workshops, or even regular discussions where educators can share their experiences, challenges, and solutions. The goal is to create an environment where educators feel equipped and confident to deliver CBE to their students.

Now that you’re equipped with the tools to prepare your faculty for the CBE journey, it’s time to delve into the next stage: designing your competencies and outcomes.

STEP 2: Plan your Competencies and Outcomes

Transitioning to a competency-based model involves more than just changing how you teach; it's about reimagining the very foundation upon which your educational program is built. Central to the competency-based education format is transparency of learning objectives and expected outcomes.

  • Defining Learning Objectives: Start by clearly articulating the learning objectives - these are the essential skills and knowledge areas you expect students to demonstrate mastery of by the end of the program or course.
  • Establishing Outcomes: Each competency should then be broken down into specific learning outcomes, which provide measurable objectives detailing what students should know or be able to demonstrate. It's beneficial to think of competencies as the broad goals and the outcomes as the steps to achieving these goals.
  • Involving Stakeholders: Remember, competencies shouldn't be set in isolation. Gather input from diverse groups, including faculty, industry professionals, and even alumni. Their insights can ensure that the competencies and outcomes you set are both academically sound and relevant to real-world applications, particularly in the job market.

Establishing competencies and outcomes is a solid starting point, but the real task lies ahead: bringing this framework to life in your curriculum. Let's unpack this process and set you on the right track.

STEP 3: Structure your Curriculum

Crafting a curriculum for Competency-Based Learning is a deliberate process. With the key competencies and outcomes already defined, the next phase is ensuring that the curriculum flows in a way that helps students achieve these milestones.

  • Map Out Content to Outcomes: For each competency and its associated outcomes, identify the academic content that will help students achieve mastery. This could include lectures, readings, practical exercises, or group projects. Ensure that each piece of content directly contributes to one or more outcomes.
  • Design Flexible Modules: Since CBE allows students to progress at their own pace, organize your academic content into modular units. Each unit should align with specific outcomes, allowing students to focus on mastering one competency before moving on to the next.
  • Integrate Assessments: Regularly check in on student progress. Incorporate various assessment types - quizzes, assignments, presentations, or hands-on projects to evaluate their understanding and application of competencies.
  • Offer Supplemental Resources: Recognize that students may need additional support in certain areas. Provide supplementary materials or resources for those who need extra help mastering specific competencies.

But what happens when we combine these competency based courses with technology? Transitioning to the next phase, let's explore how educational technology can be your best ally in delivering a top-notch student experience.

STEP 4: Embrace Technological Solutions

Imagine having a tool that could seamlessly structure and deliver Competency-Based Education in an efficient, scalable manner. Learning Management Systems (LMS) have proven to be that magic wand. Let's take a deeper dive into how an LMS can serve as a critical foundation for your CBE implementation:

  • Simplified Course Management: With an LMS, all course materials and assignments are in one place, making it easy for educators and ensuring students can readily find what they need.
  • Tailored Learning Experiences: An LMS empowers educators to craft dynamic learning paths. If students demonstrate mastery of a topic, they move forward. If they struggle, additional resources are at hand -all automated.
  • Real-time Progress Monitoring: Gone are the days of waiting for grades. LMS allows educators and students to track progress instantly, facilitating timely feedback.
  • Competency Focused Assessments: An LMS offers a range of assessments that align with CBE's focus, from quizzes to hands-on tasks.
  • Boosted Interaction and Teamwork: LMS tools foster student collaboration, promoting discussions, group projects, and shared learning.
  • Consistent and Scalable Learning: As your institution grows, an LMS ensures every student gets a consistent learning experience, no matter when or where they're studying.

At its core, an LMS is more than just a mechanism to streamline the administrative aspects of CBE. It profoundly enriches the learning journey, enabling learning to be more engaging, interactive, and molded to the individual needs of each student.

STEP 5: Customize Learning for Students

At the heart of competency-based education is a simple idea: making learning fit each student's needs and style. Let’s break down how to make this happen:

Understand your Students’ Needs

An initial assessment can enable a deep understanding of their existing skills and learning preferences. This initial snapshot doesn’t only offer insight into their current capabilities but serves as a foundational point from which their personalized educational journey can be thoughtfully mapped out.

Craft Personalized Learning Paths

Use the information from your initial assessments to create a plan for each student. This involves accelerating the pace for those who exhibit proficiency in certain areas while simultaneously ensuring that ample support is extended to those who need a little extra time or different methodologies to master a competency.

Leverage your LMS

This is where the adept utilization of technology, specifically a Learning Management System (LMS), becomes invaluable. Smart use of third-party adaptive learning tools within an LMS can help tailor academic content and pacing based on real-time student performance, thereby ensuring a dynamically responsive learning experience.

Recognize Different Learning Abilities

It’s important to recognize and celebrate the diverse learning styles that each student brings to the table. Incorporating a variety of materials, such as videos, readings, and hands-on tasks, ensures that every student can find a method that resonates with their own learning style. This diversity in learning resources not only accommodates different preferences but also enriches the learning environment with a spectrum of perspectives and approaches.

Competency-Based Education is based on the simple idea of making learning fit each student's needs and style.

Keep your Students Engaged

At the same time, maintaining a continuous feedback loop and grounding learning experiences in real-world scenarios plays a crucial role in keeping the educational experience relevant and engaging. Engaging students with assignments that mirror actual professional or life scenarios, particularly ones that align with their goals, enhances the applicability and retention of learned skills.

Prepare Additional Resources

In instances where a student might be struggling or where their learning path takes an unexpected turn, being equipped with additional resources and guidance ensures that the support they receive is not only timely but also tailored to navigate through the challenges they’re facing.

Remember, it's all about making sure learning works for each student. And as we move forward, we'll dig into how assessments in CBE ensure we're on the right track.

STEP 6: Implement Assessment Methods

Assessments in Competency-Based Education aren't your typical tests and grades. They're about confirming that students really grasp those essential competencies. So how do we do this effectively?

Align your Assessments with your Competencies

First, it’s important to always remember that assessments should directly assess the specific competencies identified. This is done by clearly aligning assessment methods with the set competencies. This might seem difficult at first, but ensures the implementation of CBE is successful and efficient. The objective herein is to evaluate student knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSA) against desired competency and outcomes frameworks.

Offer Multiple Assessment Formats

Moreover, effective assessments offer students multiple ways to demonstrate their competency. There's immense value in variety here; you might want to consider creating a mix of assessments, including projects, presentations, exams, and even simple class participation or discussion boards.

  • Projects can engage students in creative problem-solving.
  • Presentations can hone communication skills.
  • Exams can test knowledge retention.
  • Class participation can promote active learning and collaboration.

The magic word when it comes to assessments in CBE is 'Authenticity'. We want our assessments to not only evaluate but also emulate the kind of challenges and tasks the students would face in their respective fields.

Revisit Assessment Methods as Needed

Finally, remain open to revising the assessment methods as required. You may find out either through instructor feedback, student input, or data evaluation that your initial assessments aren't perfectly aligned with your intended outcomes. It's not just okay, but highly encouraged to revise these measures as you learn more about your learners' progress.

Up next, we’ll explore fine-tuning your competency-based approach for long-term success.

STEP 7: Continuously Review and Improve

The Competency-Based Learning model should always be changing and improving to make sure students are learning what they really need for the jobs they'll have in the future.

Engage Stakeholders for Insightful Feedback

To keep things fresh and relevant, it’s critical to check in with teachers, students, and industry professionals. Surveys or chat sessions are simple methods you can use to collect feedback and learn about what’s working and what’s not.

Maximize the Utility of Learning Management Systems

Don't overlook your Learning Management System as a handy tool in this improvement mission. An LMS can show you where students might be getting stuck and what bits they’re acing without a hitch. By keeping a close eye on these performance levels, you can pinpoint exact spots in your program that might need a little extra attention or a different approach to make the learning stick.

Transform Feedback into Actionable Improvements

After collecting and analyzing your feedback, it’s crucial to actually do something with it. Think of it as tweaking the recipe to make sure we’re cooking up the best educational experience possible! If lots of folks are pointing out the same issues or challenges, it’s a sign to take a closer look and figure out how to make things better. This might mean changing up lessons, trying out new teaching methods, or even updating what skills we’re focusing on teaching to match what the job world needs.

Having unlocked the practical steps of implementing CBE, it’s time to widen our lens and explore other industries where CBE finds utility.

Feedback is crucial as a way to make things better. Keeping things fresh and relevant, checking in with teachers, students and industry professionals and changing up lessons or trying out new teaching methods.


CBE Use Cases Outside of Higher Education

Competency-based learning isn't just making waves in higher education -it's reshaping professional training across various sectors. Here's how:

Business and Corporate Training

Imagine a business world where an employee's growth and progression are dependent on their explicitly defined competencies - established through solid evidence rather than an individual's length of service. This is precisely what CBE brings to the corporate world. Acknowledging the importance of fostering expertise and skill-set, companies are increasingly leveraging CBE to drive staff development.

Regulatory Colleges and Professional Associations

Regulatory colleges lean towards CBE to ensure their members meet the specific standards and competencies required to thrive in professional practice. Would you not agree that a reassured verification of competency is critical for professions dealing with public welfare i.e., healthcare or engineering? With CBE, regulatory colleges can ensure professionals matriculating from their institutions possess necessary skills, knowledge, and abilities. CBE aids in precise and trustworthy certification processes, ensuring only competent individuals are granted practice licenses.

Government Agencies

Government agencies aim to serve the public effectively and efficiently. Through CBE, government agencies can ensure that their employees meet the skill demands required for their job roles. Such skill-demand can range from policy-making skills to service delivery, citizen engagement, and legislative interpretation. CBE offers government agency educators the flexibility of implementing individualized, ability-centered instruction. Beyond conventional education boundaries, CBE encourages express learning for those who can quickly master a skill, while also providing needed support to some learners until they acquire necessary competencies.

Shifting from a "teacher-first" to a "learner-first" instructional approach has applications way beyond college classrooms.

CBE is proving to be a game-changer, no matter where it’s rolled out.


Take the Next Step with Shift iQ!

Start your exciting journey into Competency-Based Education with Shift iQ, a platform crafted to boost and sharpen your CBE efforts.

With features tailored to meet the unique needs of modern CBE, Shift iQ isn’t just a tool - it’s a full ecosystem designed to take your educational delivery to new heights of accuracy and effectiveness.

  • Enhance Competency Assessments: Use our powerful assessment strategies to fully and accurately measure each learner’s proficiency.
  • Create and Oversee Competency Frameworks: Easily build and manage competency and outcomes frameworks, making sure your curriculum and assessments are perfectly matched and focused on key competencies.
  • Design CBE Courses and Programs with Ease: With deep CBE knowledge and powerful tools, simplify the creation of curricula, developing learning objectives, and aligning learning resources with competency frameworks.
  • Streamline Course Catalogs and Registrations: Make sure your course publication, scheduling, and student registration processes are smooth and mistake-free, improving the experience for both students and administrators.

The above is just a sneak peek into how Shift iQ intertwines with your CBE initiatives, not just meeting but proactively addressing the diverse needs of competency-based learning and administration.

Are you ready to transform your institution with Competency-Based Education? We’re here to help you every step of the way. You can reach us at +1 888 435-0981 or on our website at www.shiftiq.com

Last updated June 18, 2024
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