Competency-Based Education

What is competency-based education (CBE)?

  • Competency-based education is an innovative approach in higher education which focuses on learning as the constant rather than time — what students can do with what they know. It began in the 1960s as a way to link learning outcomes to real-world applications.
  • Students are empowered by being provided with direct and measurable learning objectives which emphasize creation, application, integration, and transfer of knowledge. They receive rapid, differentiated support. Assessments are meaningful, positive learning experiences.
  • The U.S. Department of Education has identified three approaches to competency-based programs: a course/credit-based approach, a direct assessment approach, and a hybrid approach. Purdue's transdisciplinary studies in technology program incorporates a hybrid approach. (See the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions' "Common Framework for Defining and Approving Competency-Based Education Programs.")

What is a competency?

  • A competency is an individual capability, proficiency, skill, behavior, value, and/or body of knowledge.
  • Each primary competency consists of several embedded sub-competencies, each incorporating three progressive levels: developing, emerging, and proficient.
  • Competencies may exist within courses at a fine-grain level (similar to a course’s individual credit hours) or at a high, broad level which spans courses.
  • Because they integrate multiple skills, behaviors, values, attitudes, and bodies of knowledge, competencies apply not merely to coursework but also to future roles and settings in life.

Purdue’s approach to CBE

  • Based on our research, we believe our transdisciplinary studies in technology (TST) program is the first to offer the combination of individualized plans of study (combining technical disciplines with humanities and business), close faculty mentoring of students, and a competency-based approach at a university with high research activities.
  • There are other institutions which offer CBE. Alverno College, for example, has been institutionally committed to abilities-based learning for some time, but their majors are traditional (e.g. biology, nursing, history). Many other CBE programs tend to be online and/or for non-traditional or adult learners.
  • Each faculty member serves as a mentor — a “guide on the side” rather than a “sage on the stage.” For students, faculty mentors augment academic advisors.
  • Highly individualized plans of study allow students to create personalized blends of technical disciplines from Purdue Polytechnic with humanities, social science, and business.
  • Studio/seminar learning environments comprise 35% of the plan of study.
  • Each student's electronic portfolio showcases mastered competencies.
  • Our transformation into the Purdue Polytechnic Institute is one of President Daniels' Purdue Moves initiatives. One of the goals in our transformation is to serve as a national leader in CBE by bringing this innovative approach to more programs aimed at traditional learning populations. In the coming years, guided by our experience in the new transdisciplinary studies in technology program, we hope to bring CBE to additional Purdue Polytechnic programs.
  • For the foreseeable future, CBE programs at Purdue will coexist with traditional credit hour-based programs. Transcripts will include letter grades, GPA, digital badges (in which earned competencies are recorded), and e-portfolios.

What does this mean for students?

  • Students will be able to individualize their learning through personalized plans of study, which blend Purdue Polytechnic’s technology-focused disciplines (computing and graphics, construction management, engineering technologies, leadership and innovation, and/or aviation technologies) with other fields, such as humanities and business.
  • Faculty mentors will guide students through their educational journeys.
  • Competency-based components and e-portfolios of completed projects will showcase to employers what students can do with what they know.

What does this mean for employers?

  • Employers overwhelmingly report they need graduates with not only technical competence but also skills for a thinking economy: complex problem solving, effective communication, critical thinking, and ethical judgment. Transdisciplinary studies in technology is designed to meet those needs. Our program will also strengthen students' ability to adapt and thrive in entirely new situations. These traits are essential to achieving lifelong success in the 21st century. [See the Hart Research Associates 2013 survey of employers, commissioned by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U).]

What CBE is not

  • A mode of delivery. CBE might include online components, but it is not online by definition.
  • Inferior quality. In fact, it may be more rigorous.
  • A guarantee of reduced time to graduation or lower expense. Learning is the constant, not time. Some students may need more time to achieve learning outcomes. In CBE, they achieve true mastery of all competencies before they advance.

Additional reading