Instructor overlooking student shoulder at a computer

The Faculty Role in Competency-Based Education vs Traditional Education



“The teacher is a mediator between the knower and the known, between the learner and the subject to be learned.”

-Parker Palmer, To Know as We Are Known

One of the prevailing and unfortunate myths surrounding competency-based education vs traditional education is that faculty are not as important in competency-based education and the role of the instructor is de-emphasized. Some faculty fear that CBE will be used as a way to minimize the role of full-time faculty and lead to a further adjunctification of higher education. Closely related is the fear that the quality of student learning in a CBE program is less than that found in more traditional programs because the role of the instructor has shifted from being the primary conveyer of knowledge to that of a guide helping students navigate mastery. These myths and fears are just that, though – myths and fears. The strongest CBE programs still rely on faculty to be at the heart of the program, responsible for the development of the competencies and curriculum, and providing students with critical input as they develop knowledge and mastery.

In many ways, the fundamental role of faculty in a CBE program is not that different than in a traditional program—they are ultimately responsible for the quality of the program and engaging with students in a way that helps those students achieve mastery. In his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire posited that the most successful teachers are those that understand that learning is a two-way endeavor in which students take on the role of teachers and teachers take on the role of students. The result of this convergence of roles, Freire writes, is “acts of cognition, not transferals of information.” It is liberating for both students and faculty.

Faculty involved in CBE programs are intimately involved in Freire’s “acts of cognition,” perhaps even more so than their colleagues in more traditional programs. With its emphasis on personalized and contextualized learning, learning outcomes, competency mastery, and authentic assessments, CBE pushes faculty to work with students where they are rather than force students to keep up with an artificial pace set by the faculty member.

CBE presents five distinct challenges to the role of instructors:

#1. The Overall Role of the Instructor Changes in Competency-Based Education vs Traditional Education

In CBE the role of the instructor may shift in some fundamental ways. At many campuses, faculty are expected to be Jacks and Jills of all trades—teacher, subject matter expert, advisor, mentor, role model, assessment developer, assessment administrator, grader, etc. But for those CBE programs that are unbundling the role of the faculty, instructors can focus on the things that they do best and were trained to do—be subject matter experts who develop curriculum and work individually with students.

#2. With CBE, the Calendar Changes, With “Time to Mastery” as the New Variable

Related to the change in role, there is also often a change in pacing for instructors. In the traditional course, even those that might be accelerated, there is a common course calendar that all students follow. But in most CBE programs mastery is the constant while time to mastery is the variable. And while pedagogically sound, it adds another layer of complexity for faculty who now must track and respond to students who may be at very different places in the curriculum. As a result, many institutions utilize coaches or mentors who can supplement the faculty instructional role and assist in tracking students.

#3. CBE Gives Faculty the Opportunity to Rethink the Framing of the Curriculum

CBE rests on the ability to clearly define competencies and the level of student performance associated with the mastery of those competencies. Most faculty have at least some understanding of how to develop learning outcomes, but few have been given the opportunity to align their core expectation for student learning across all of the courses in their program. And for those programs that do have clearly defined program level learning outcomes, course level outcomes may not be aligned. Faculty involved in CBE must carefully think through program and course competencies and their alignment. Additionally, CBE curriculum development tends to be a more cooperative effort where faculty work collectively to design a cohesive curriculum that is free of gaps and overlaps.

#4. Instructors Are Forced to Consider What Assessments Work For CBE

Although the typical faculty member is a subject matter expert in their field, it does not always mean that they have expertise in assessment. In fact, with the exception of psychometricians, few instructors receive this sort of training during graduate school. Assessments take on even greater importance in CBE programs where evidence of student mastery is so critical and the assessments need to be closely aligned to the competencies.

#5. Instructors Will Need Professional Development and Support to Be Successful With CBE

The result of all of the ways in which CBE impacts instructors is an even greater need for professional development and support. Teaching in a CBE program is often a radical shift for many instructors. The ways that they relate to students in their more traditional classes, whether they be online or face-to-face do not always translate well into the CBE context. Faculty need both the opportunity to learn new skills and explore a different, but still equally important, role as well as the emotional support of a community to help them adjust to this changing role.

There are a number of types of professional development that can benefit CBE faculty, including:

  • Creating communities of practice so faculty can share experiences
  • Providing training in competency development, assessment design, and mentoring and relationship building
  • Assisting faculty in understanding how to effectively use technology platforms for student success
  • Space to express and overcome fears and doubts
  • Opportunities for applied research

Competency-based education can invigorate faculty. It gives faculty the opportunity to rethink what they’ve been doing and think about how it can be done differently—something faculty often don’t have the space or time to do. As my colleague, Karen Yoshino, has observed, CBE gives faculty the chance to “articulate the work they have been doing for years in an entirely different framework. It’s energizing.” Those of us who have taught became professors because we love our disciplines, we are passionate about students, and we want to help others learn and have better lives. Competency-based education, with its focus on individualized learning and close relationships between faculty and students, has the ability to cure the “narration sickness” that Paulo Freire wrote about in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, allowing faculty and students to co-create knowledge.