UCC Mainstream Online

Competency-based education would give college students new options

The U.S. education system revolves around providing training and knowledge to students, one class period at a time, but an emerging alternative may one day give many students a new level of control over learning.

Competency-based education allows students, for better or worse, to take their education into their own hands. Students work at their own pace through their courses, taking an assessment for each competency a class provides.

 “You earn your degree through demonstration of skills and knowledge in required subject areas through a series of carefully designed assessments,” Western Governors University explains on their website. “You’ll take tests, write papers, and complete assignments. But rather than focus on seat time or credit hours, we make sure you graduate as a highly competent professional.”

A student in a general geology class could be required to take separate assessments in rocks and minerals, earth processes and fossil dating, each which represent a core competency in the course. Along the way, the instructor would act akin to a tutor, guiding the student toward acquiring the necessary skills and knowledge to pass each assessment.

Traditionally, students who do well from the first day of a credit-based class easily outperform students who must catch up later, regardless of how proficient the slower students are by the end. This means a credit hour system favors participation rather than results because everyone is required to remain in the class the same number of hours.

Competency-based education acts similar to certain GED courses containing students with varying degrees of knowledge. Because a GED instructor is unable to teach these students en masse with a lecture since they are all at different levels, the instructor must rely on individually working with students and determining when they are ready to take a specific test to evaluate competence.

One benefit to having a system devoid of credit hours, is that failure is not met with a bad grade. Instead, students continue working until they are proficient enough to re-attempt the assessment at a later time. This could be helpful to those who suffer from test anxiety.

Competence-based education may especially benefit UCC due to the college’s demographics. Because UCC has a significant number of older individuals, competency-based education has many advantages.

Because students would be able to work at their own pace, working students would have the opportunity to choose a schedule that works best with their education. Additionally, if they already have previous experience and skills, they can quickly progress through a course.

However, competency-based education may not be for everyone.

Students may find the lack of a direct path and time period for success discouraging, and a lack of pressure to produce results may cause them to feel less motivated. Additionally, because assessments would be standardized, students may be turned off by the strict compliance needed to pass through a course.

Additionally, educators would have a hard time organizing group assignments due to the differing levels of experience each student would have. Class size would also need to be small as well due to the one-on-one nature of the teacher, student relationship.

“Oregon has a great reputation nationally for exploring a shift to competency education”

—Lillian Pace,
Sr Director, KnowledgeWorks

With a focus on educational reform, Oregon appears to be a prime example of a state open to alternatives. Legislators have already passed legislation to use proficiency grading for the K–12 level.

One group pushing for competency-based education in kindergarten and grade schools is KnowledgeWorks, a national education policy advocacy group located in Ohio that recently attended March’s 2014 NW Proficiency/Competency Conference in Portland.

“Oregon has a great reputation nationally for exploring a shift to competency education,” Lillian Pace, senior director of national policy at KnowledgeWorks, said via email. “It was rewarding to meet some of the educators and policy leaders who have put Oregon on the map.”

While competency-based education could offer exciting new opportunities to students, Oregon does not need to jump head-first into using a competency-based model for colleges and universities.

The first step Oregon can take is to begin offering classes and eventually degree programs which are obtained through competency-based learning. Should such classes and programs succeed for students, the state could then phase in more of these options, and if Oregon is to succeed with ambitious educational goals like 40-40-20, more options will be essential.