How to Get Started With Competency-Based Education: An Institutional Perspective


Competency-Based Education (CBE) is not a new concept. It has been around for decades, particularly in areas like professional education. However, in the last few years, we have seen a new surge around this approach, especially from higher education institutions.

The has been a lot of debate, with supporters claiming that CBE programmes are tailored according to students’ needs, giving them the possibility to learn and progress at their own pace. It also boosts student’s employability right after graduating, as it clearly outlines which skills and competencies have been mastered.

CBE opponents think that “competency” itself is too vague a term and there is confusion on what it really means. Also, while it is relatively easy to identify clear competencies in technical areas, it would be almost impossible to create a CBE programme for subjects like history or literature. Moreover, the way a CBE is designed has a flaw: a student could get stuck at one particular stage for a long time, without being able to complete their instruction in a timely manner.

All these pro and cons are valid points, and it pertains to faculty and the institutions to define if and how a CBE programme is a viable solution for their students. But if you wished to explore the potential of using Competency Based Education within your institution where would you start?

First things first, let’s start by establishing some common ground: what do we mean by Competency-Based Education (CBE)? Broadly, it is the transition away from an education system based on “seat time and scheduled exams”, towards a more flexible structure that allows a student to progress by demonstrating mastery of the academic content, regardless of time, place or pace of learning.

This approach implies a disruptive innovation, as it requires new academic systems and institutional processes, a significant re-design of administration and an adjusted financial model. For instance, from an academic perspective, they require time to re-think, map and adapt an orthodox course design to a CBE format, ensuring the competencies align to the new assessment model.

It is important to note that these changes occur throughout the entire institution and are not limited to teaching and learning only. However, while it’s important that these needs are acknowledged, they should not stop the innovation.

The first step for institutional adoption is the creation of a cross-institutional task-finish group to define from the institutional perspective some foundational points:

  • What is CBE (for our institution)?
  • What is the evidence base for successful deployments?
  • What are the tangible benefits for students, staff and the institution?

This group should also be tasked to set the overarching vision and present the evidence for implementing CBE to staff and students within the institution.

The second step is to select a small number of existing programmes to redesign and rapidly prototype to better understand what CBE might look like within your curriculum portfolio, create local examples and champions. It will help answer:

It will help answer:

  • What is an effective development model?
  • Are current staff capacity and capabilities within the institution fit for purpose for CBE?
  • To what extent do existing policies, processes and procedures need to change to enable CBE within the institution?

The third step which runs parallel with step two is reach out to employers, accreditors and potential students to better understand the types of competencies which are needed, and how these might be evidenced.

Whatever is (or will be) your approach to CBE, it is important to realise that it is not a question of all or nothing. There are many opportunities to start exploring its use within existing modules, complementing traditional taught and delivered programmes with competency-based elements. For instance, how about using CBE to rethink how you currently develop and integrate employability skills within programmes of study, and how these employability skills are taught and assessed?

The possibilities are numerous and CBE could be the right answer to some of your students’ educational needs.