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What is Competency-based Education (CBE)?

Competency-based education is a system of instruction where learning becomes the constant and time becomes the variable. CBE focuses on content mastery rather than mere content completion. Besides instruction, CBE focuses on meaningful assessments, fast feedback, and is intensely data driven.

It’s Complicated

Defining competency-based learning is complicated by the fact that educators not only use a wide variety of terms for the general approach, but the terms may or may not be used synonymously from place to place. A few of the more common synonyms include proficiency-based, mastery-based, outcome-based, performance-based, and standards-based education, instruction, and learning, among others [from edglossary.org]

CBE is a shift from the “sage-on-the-stage” model to a “guide-on-the-side” approach. CBE, as a model, focuses on mastery of content rather than completion.

CBE Comes in Many Forms

While there is no one way to describe competency-based education, one thing is certain: CBE focuses on outcomes. There is no one-model-fits-all approach to CBE. Each institution either designs their own systems and strategies or adopts an existing model created by state education agencies or outside educational organizations. How well each model succeeds is ultimately informed by the metrics and the data collected. Data collected, as the CBE program grows, will allow institutions to refine their chosen model. Continuous refinement ensures student success, faculty engagement, and program effectiveness.

“By enabling students to master skills at their own pace, competency-based learning systems help to save both time and money.”

US Department of Education

Why Use Competency-based Education?


Students profit from a competency-based course design by focusing on mastery of the chosen subject rather than mere completion. Seat time becomes irrelevant and outcomes are paramount. This gives students the confidence that the skills they learn in school will translate to qualifications sought by employers. The benefits to students are many which include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Allows flexible entry / early exit programs allowing students to accelerate
  • Allows multiple modalities – hybrid, in-class, and online
  • Makes for better student engagement and student success
  • Makes the awards much more affordable and accessible to students
  • Allows the students to progress and accelerate at their own pace

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Institutes of higher education benefit from competency-based education (CBE) in many ways:

  • CBE enables student success and student retention and allows for meaningful faculty-student engagement
  • Students have better outcomes upon completion as they have proven mastery of content thus enabling better pathways to employment
  • CBE can lead to increased diversity by offering programs in varying modalities
  • CBE allows institutes define a clear and well-defined pathway to degree attainment and completion
  • Improved industry-academic alignment
  • Cost savings in the long term


CBE can benefit employers in many ways:

  • An effective CBE program engages industry from the beginning by seeking validation of curriculum, competencies, learning materials, and meaningful assessments
  • Industry engagement leads to better alignment of learning outcomes and local and regional employer needs
  • Enables institutions and industry to form partnerships for student employment upon completion
  • Provides a visible learning map for industry to view when considering student employment;
  • Employers hire students who have learned how to focus on actual outcomes rather than mere completion
  • Provides employers with a better trained workforce