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Competency-based education (CBE): 5 things I wish I knew

March 28, 2018 by Laurie Dodge

Hard to believe it has been over seven years since the University of Massachusetts Global team started designing our first competency-based education program, UMass Global MyPath™.  

One of the best things about starting this new initiative is that we did not know what we did not know.  One might call that a blissful state but it was short-lived and soon we were relying on experts in CBE and looking closely at existing programs and approaches.  We pretty quickly had a long list of questions to address and decisions to make about how we wished to design our CBE program from big questions like what degree program should we design first to smaller questions (but still important) like can students start the program once a month, once a week, or less often?     

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Here are the 5 things I wish I knew when building a competency-based education program, with the distinct advantage of having seven years to see how it all worked. 


I wish I knew all of the specific requirements with detailed examples of each approving body.  Institutions may also need state-level approval as well as professional accreditor approvals.  It would be incredibly helpful if we knew the numerous detailed requirements at the very beginning of CBE program design. 

 University of Massachusetts Global’s regional accreditor is the WASC Senior College and University Commission so we knew from the get-go that we needed regional accreditor approval for our first CBE program. Keep in mind, regional accreditors do differ in regards to what’s required for approval. 

University of Massachusetts Global also planned for a review by the U.S. Department of Education for direct assessment. The U.S. Department of Education determined that UMass Global’s “regular and substantive interaction” policy between full-time faculty and students meet the definition of distance education. We are one of the only direct assessment CBE programs with this distinction, Upon approval from the regional accreditor, institutions seeking student financial aid for CBE programs that are based on competencies, as opposed to the credit-hour, must obtain approval from the U.S. Department of Education. I highlight this approval as there are specific requirements that CBE programs must have in their design. 

Tip: Make a list of the needed elements and ensure they are compliant with requirements, especially if your institution is seeking student financial aid for CBE.    


I wish I knew how hard and time consuming it is to build home-grown objective tests that are reliable, valid and psychometrically sound.  

Since my background is in assessment, I felt relatively prepared for the CBE approach to assessment.  But the importance of assessment in CBE programs is exponentially significant in that this determines if a student has mastered a competency and can continue to progress.  Assessments must be defensible, strictly aligned to the goals and objectives and learning material, fair and equitable.

There are many approaches to CBE assessment including objective-based, performance-based, standardized examinations.  Institutions may wish to select a variety of choices in one CBE program or solely rely on performance or project-based assessments that are evaluated through rubrics.

Tip: Build alternative forms so students can take the assessment again if they failed at their first attempt. Objective tests take a long time to develop psychometrically sound assessments AND you have to build three or four of these for each competency. 


Student Support.  

Build in a strong communication flow and sharing of information among faculty, coaches, and tutors to ensure it is seamless for students. 

Students in CBE programs are typically supported by coaches and faculty. But these position titles differ from institution to institution in their roles and responsibilities. Who provides academic support in writing, in math, in accounting, etc…?  Who helps to keep students engaged in their work?  What role does technology play in supporting students?  

University of Massachusetts Global students receive academic support from discipline-specific full-time faculty while receiving counseling on competency progress and program requirements from academic coaches.  And there is a, Online Math and Writing Center (OMWC) with professional tutors to help students.

Tip: Thinking about the roles and responsibilities of each position and how information is shared will greatly enhance student success.  


Rhythm of Learning.  

My own rhythm of learning may be muddying my view so I talked to my colleagues about this. Perhaps there is a middle ground between totally self-paced and a prescribed schedule. I like the idea of setting an individual learning plan where a student and coach plan out the milestones and deliverables with a planned graduation date.  

CBE programs typically have some version of self-pace in their delivery model.  Programs have a start date and completion dates may be fixed or open.  Some programs permit students to self-pace taking as long as they wish to complete a competency while others may have set schedules for completed activities within the start-to-finish dates.

To honor students’ choice in setting their own pace and acknowledgement that students do learn different material/content at various speeds, University of Massachusetts Global students  can start any day of the year and are required to attend 24 weeks (6 months) of instruction per period Of course, students can take longer (and obviously shorter) than six months to complete their competencies. If competencies are completed shorter than 6 months, students, with support from the academic coaches, have the flexibility to add in additional competencies within the same period for no additional costs. And I like that we give students that flexibility but some students may need a bit more assistance in setting the pace (or discovering their rhythm).

Tip: Encourage students to enjoy the flexibility to set their own pace but also encourage them to have a plan to follow.  


To be a CBE student.

I wish I was a recent graduate of a CBE program so I know what it feels like. 

There is nothing like walking in someone else’s shoes to know what how it truly feels. This way I could better plan and design the learning journey and activities.  I could have a better idea of when a competency is too big (it takes me forever to make progress) or too small (really? I finished in 3 days?).  I would know how important (or not), it is to have connection with follow students even though the program is online and self-paced.

Tip: I can make this wish come true - I know. You can too. Perhaps in 2018 I will know what it feels like to be a CBE student.



Laurie Dodge, Ph.D., is the vice chancellor of Institutional Assessment and Planning and vice provost at University of Massachusetts Global. She oversees program outcomes assessment, program review, curriculum processes and the academic catalog.


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