This post has been updated by Karen Yoshino, Principal Strategist at Blackboard.

I am amazed at how quickly time has passed since Deb Everhart wrote the October 2014 blog below tying CBE to student learning outcomes. In my view, the assessment of student learning outcomes laid the foundation for higher education to tackle CBE by developing a vocabulary and conceptual framework. While both CBE and outcomes assessment focus on the specifics of what students know, think or are able to do, the unit of measurement differs. And while the terms can be used interchangeably, in practice we think of them as related but different in how they are applied. So, where outcomes assessment focuses on the program as the unit of measure, CBE focuses on the learner as the unit of measure. Stated another way, outcomes assessment occurs across courses (or learning units) and CBE assessment occurs within the learning unit.  In outcomes assessment sampling student work is a reasonable approach because it is a research effort to answer the question: “did the program deliver on learning goals and outcomes?” Assessment in CBE, however, requires that each learner be assessed for performance on each competency. The question answered by CBE assessment is “has the student mastered the competencies required by our program?”

Arguably, assessment is the heart of CBE because it allows both learners and instructors or coaches to track performance on a competency-by-competency basis as they progress through a program of study. This also means that assessment in CBE is much more specific and granular than in a non-CBE course. Our approach at Blackboard is to define competencies as a statement of the nature of knowledge, skill, or ability that’s required. Competencies are aligned with specific topics or content that will be assessed. For lack of a better term, we call these assessable topics subcompetencies. When all of the program competencies and subcompetencies are laid out learners are easily able to understand what they will master and at what level. From the perspective of the faculty, program, and instructional design, once program competencies and subcompetencies have been defined, the alignment of existing or creation of new assessments makes perfect sense as does the presentation of content and learning objects. All of this work should be done before designing and building the courses or learning units. The reason for laying out the program framework before building content is to iron out overlaps and omissions in the curriculum and assessments – thereby avoiding a common complaint from students that they covered the same material in different courses within a program. Placing the completed framework into your LMS is the last step in preparing for the delivery of a learning unit.

Assessment takes at least three major forms in CBE programs. The old concepts of quizzes, mid-term exams and final exams change from methods of judgment to an assessment system designed to help learners construct knowledge through a learn-practice-assess pathway. Students engage the content presented in a learning and can take low- or no-stakes formative assessments to build their knowledge and skills and prepare for a summative assessment. In many programs more than one attempt of the summative assessment is allowed so that learners can re-engage and master the content. Some learning units, particularly those that learners are likely to have mastered in the workplace or prior formal learning, can have assessments designed to demonstrate mastery at the beginning of the learning unit so the learner can demonstrate mastery and quickly move on to the next learning unit.

Finally, CBE assessment practices should be carefully designed to work across initial and future programs. Many important decisions need to be made. What is the required level of mastery? How many points will be assigned to challenge and summative assessments? What does rubric design look like? What will competency performance look like in the SIS? Maybe I’ve been thinking about and working with CBE too long, but it strikes me this is how we always should have thought about assessment.

Competency-based education ebook


The below post was originally published on 10/30/14 

Author: Deborah Everhart

Competency based learning requires faculty and academic leaders to focus on learning outcomes. Traditionally, educational curricula are based on content areas structured by courses, credit hours, and terms, and students’ learning outcomes vary based on how much they learn in a given amount of time. “Backward design,” focusing on the end goals first, helps us rethink our educational strategies so that all learners can succeed in mastering competencies, regardless of time.

How do we accomplish this shift in perspective? Blackboard has been analyzing competency based education models, practices, policies, and trends through independent research and now in joint competency based education research with the American Council on Education. One clear finding is that even though different competency based education programs take different approaches, they share the common characteristics of being learner-centric, outcomes-based, and differentiated. These characteristics help us understand competency based education in practice.

Effective design of competency based education programs starts with well-defined learning outcomes, continues with analysis of how to scaffold learning activities toward achievement of these outcomes, and then aligns competencies to content, assessments, rubrics, and other resources, with analytics to track performance. Faculty, designers, and academic leaders

  • Develop robust sets of learning outcomes and competencies
  • Reorient curricular design to start with learning outcomes rather than starting with time/term structures
  • Build high-quality sharable resources, assessments, and rubrics designed to support learning outcomes
  • Foster authentic assessment that includes demonstrated mastery of competencies
  • Effectively identify risk in students’ progress toward learning achievements and provide appropriate interventions
  • Support transparent analysis of learning outcomes at every level of the institution
  • Achieve short-term and long-term academic performance improvements focused on outcomes rather than inputs

Let’s look at a few examples that demonstrate competency based learning outcomes-based practices.

Robust, integrated sets of goals and competencies

Competency based learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum—at educational institutions, it’s embedded in curriculum, program, and credential structures that require different definitions of goals. For example, the “backward design” of a competency based education program takes into consideration not only students’ learning outcomes, but also program outcomes, institutional outcomes, and accreditation standards. Our competency based education lexicon, developed in collaboration with the American Council on Education, provides definitions for these different types of goals:

Accreditation standards are used by institutions and programs to evaluate quality and effectiveness and foster improvement. Accreditation is a voluntary system of self-regulation carried out by peer review in which an institution or program is found to meet or exceed a set of accreditation standards. Accrediting agencies are non-governmental but recognized by the U.S. Department of Education to be “gatekeepers” for federal financial aid. Competency based education programs seek accreditors’ approval through some combination of regional, professional, or trade-based accrediting agencies.

Institutional outcomes are observable and measurable statements about what an institution delivers and expects to see in its graduates. They reflect the design and delivery of the co-curriculum and curriculum for the institution’s degree programs, guiding the mission and activities of the institution and providing a framework for institutional evaluation and improvement. Competency based education programs are designed to support and align with the institution’s overall goals.

Program outcomes are similar to institutional outcomes, but defined at the level of specific academic programs. They describe what a student knows, thinks, or is able to do as a result of their experience in the program. Program outcomes often roll up to institutional outcomes, both of which often support accreditation standards. Competency based education programs are generally designed to meet the goals of academic programs.

Student learning outcomes are observable and measurable statements of what a student knows, thinks, or is able to do as a result of an educational experience. Student learning outcomes are generally at the same level of granularity as competencies, and sometimes the terms are used interchangeably.

A competency is a specific skill, knowledge, or ability that is both observable and measurable.

Occupational skills are the knowledge, abilities, and skills required to perform a job.

Effective management of goals takes into account these interrelationships and the need to analyze and measure performance at multiple levels of the institution. Blackboard provides state-of-the-art infrastructure for managing competencies and other sets of goals all in the same framework. Goals from different sets can be associated with each other so that the design of competency based programs directly supports the evaluation of performance against program, institutional, and accreditation goals. Having clear alignment between competencies and accreditation standards is particularly important when competency based programs include substantive changes that need to be approved by an accrediting agency.

Authentic assessments aligned with competencies

Authentic assessment that evaluates real-world competencies and the ability to perform in complex scenarios makes competency-based learning more meaningful. For example, a team project that requires analyzing the business impacts of population shifts demonstrates realistic problem solving, and the assessment could even be embedded in a work context. This type of assessment requires more thorough demonstration of competencies than an objective assessment, which is typically delivered as a test with pre-determined right and wrong answers. Authentic assessment also provides learner-centric benefits such as collaboration with peers and genuinely valuable evidence of learning that can be used in a professional profile.

When authentic assessment is delivered in a context with robust sets of competencies, students, faculty, and academic leaders have transparent insights into the relationship between competency mastery and other, broader goals. Blackboard makes it easy to align competencies and other types of goals to learning materials, assessments, and rubrics, with powerful analytics to track performance. For example, an assessment could be aligned to competencies, occupational skills, program outcomes, and accreditation standards. The same assessment can award a badge for mastery achievement, show students the occupational skills they’ve demonstrated, and also roll up into evidence collection for accreditation and program improvement purposes. Each goal or competency aligned to the assessment can optionally be shown to students, in this case to help them understand the competencies and occupational skills, but not show them the accreditation standards.

Rubrics for consistent, transparent evaluation

The complexities of rich, authentic assessments call for well-defined frameworks for performance evaluation. Rubrics aligned to competencies provide an easy-to-use yet powerful structure for faculty and assessors to evaluate student work consistently and provide individualized feedback. Consistent use of rubrics enables learner choice, since learners could be working on different assessments to master the same competencies, but their performance would all be evaluated using the same rubrics that clearly define the criteria for mastery.

And when competency based education programs differentiate instructional roles, such that faculty subject matter experts might not be evaluating assessments, specialized assessors can all apply the same definitions of competencies by using the same rubrics.

Rubrics can be used not only to evaluate learning outcomes, but also to gather evidence and perform third-party evaluation of program effectiveness. In-depth, over-time analysis of competency based education programs yields insights into how these programs can be continuously improved to better meet learners’ needs.

Check back here to learn more about the third key characteristics of competency based learning: differentiated.



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