Competency-Based Education, Part 2: Definitions

“Competence-based education focuses on leading students to a combination of knowledge, skills, and attitudes that enables them to carry out a specific function.”

Curriculum March 17, 2022

Defining competency-based education shows the depth of this educational model. Levine (2021) describes CBE as an educational framework and process that takes education from a systems-focus to a student-focus, while Curry and Docherty point out that CBE describes what learning is to occur instead of what teaching is to occur. It is where learning is constant, while time is variable (Vasquez, Marcotte, & Gruppen, 2021; Sturgis & Casey, 2018). It focuses on leading students to a combination of knowledge, skills, and attitudes that enables them to carry out a specific function (AACN, 2021; DLN, 2015). 

CBE is an educational model that includes: 

  • Student readiness for advancement demonstrated through mastery 
  • Organization around specific transformational endpoints 
  • Explicit, measurable, observable learning that empowers students
  • Objective expectations and grading connected to practice-based demonstration of abilities, including creation and application 
  • Defined structure and process for performance
  • Frequent, timely, differentiated feedback that allows highly contextual, individualized learning
  • Opportunities for students to develop growth-focused reflection skills 

At its core, CBE is learning together as opposed to a more traditional approach where a teacher teaches, and the student learns. CBE can be scaffolded using Bloom’s taxonomy, threaded within and across grade levels, building toward mastery and integrating the necessary knowledge, skills, and attitudes. In its truest form, CBE blurs the lines of grade levels, and focuses on learning progression at a mastery level. It is not a skills checklist but the integration of cognitive learning into application.

Competencies can be objectively observed and measured, clarifying grading, progression readiness, and student support. According to The College of New Jersey, it should be measured in a way that demonstrates progression as a student moves through a unit, grade level, or entire program. 

The differences between standards-based, concept-based, and competency-based education are nuanced. Standards-based education often represents a learning continuum, with a focus on content, while competencies imply more than content and demonstration of skills. Concepts-based education is a structural organization of knowledge to be learned. Information is linked to past learning and learning can be applied in different contexts (AACN, 2021). However, learning outcomes may not be explicit in observable, measurable criteria, reflecting a content focus instead. Competency-based education requires students to transfer their learning to specific contexts. Progression is based on students showing what they know (Bailey, Phillips, Schneider, Strugis, & Vander Ark, 2015).

Rationale for CBE

Equity is a critical component of CBE. Expectations are clear, every student achieves the same learning outcomes, and future teachers can expect the same competencies from students (AACN, 2021). According to Abromeit, competencies clearly define what students are expected to learn and the focus is on integration and transfer of learning to more complex competencies. Students should be able to identify which competencies they have mastered, which ones they need to develop further, and which ones are gaps for them. This sense of driving learning instead of receiving knowledge, is a powerful motivator for students and helps to foster critical thinking.

This is article is the second part of a series of six articles. Watch for part three next week!

Read part 1

Abromeit, J., (2016). 1st and 2nd waves of competency-based education [Unpublished manuscript]. Alverno College, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Wasn’t sure how to link this in the last paragraph since it’s unpublished)


Sharon Aka

Sharon, PhD, is a consultant full time, currently working for 4 organizations: Adjunct Faculty at Andrews University in the graduate leadership department, Adjunct faculty at Notre Dame of Maryland University - leading their School of Nursing Competency-based Curriculum Revisioning, a researcher and author with the NAD Center for Research and Evaluation, and works half time for the General Conference as a contractor with the Virtual Exhibition Team and the Adventist COLLECTIVE. Sharon worked as the Associate Director of the Adventist Learning Community & Associate Director for the North American Division Office of Education. Sharon is a Registered Nurse by trade, with 16 years experience as Surgical Nurse and Nurse Educator at The Scarborough Hospital in Toronto, Ontario. She also has 11 years experience as a Professor of Nursing and Professional Development Specialist for faculty at Humber Institute of Technology & Advanced Learning in Toronto, Ontario.

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