Competency-Based Education: Curriculum

Competency-Based Education

Competency-based education (CBE) is gaining traction in K-12 schools and higher education institutions across the United States, but it’s a very different way of approaching teaching and learning. Educators need to be aware of that before they commit to the CBE model. 

What is Competency-Based Education? 

Before we can understand what competency-based education is, it’s important to know what it isn’t: 

Competency-Based Education

Seat Time vs. Proficiency

Students attend class for a specified length of time in a traditional time-based model. In most K-12 schools it’s an academic year. In most colleges or universities, it’s for a semester lasting 15 weeks. Students attend class, participate and complete their assignments, and earn grades. At the end of that term, they receive a final grade and move on to the next grade level or next course. It’s very different with competency-based education. 

First, because students learn at different rates, seat time has very little relevance. Some can grasp material very quickly and are ready to move on, while others need more time to learn at their own pace. 

Second, competency-based education requires students to demonstrate what they know and are able to do. Learners earn credit and move on when they have shown they’re proficient in clearly defined competencies. Students demonstrate what they know through assessments. These assessments are closely aligned to learning objectives. 

Major Pillars of Competency-Based Education

There are six major pillars that anchor a solid competency-based education program:

  • Curriculum
  • Instruction
  • Assessment
  • Faculty Training & Support
  • Student Orientation & Support
  • Parent/Caregiver Orientation & Support (for P-12 Schools)

Educators must plan for all six of these pillars when building a competency-based education program. If not, student learning will suffer and as a result, school officials will likely abandon the model before really giving it a chance to succeed. 


Curriculum Basics in Competency-Based Education

There’s a reason why curriculum is the first pillar of CBE: It serves as its foundation or core, and it drives every other aspect of the model. Curriculum is the “what” of education. It’s what we want students to know—sometimes referred to as their knowledge base, their content knowledge, or their scope of learning. 

We have learned over the years that curriculum should be standards-based in order to provide students with a coherent, cohesive, and sequential body of content over time. However, not all states use the same standards. 

Elementary and Secondary Curriculum Standards

Some standards commonly used by P-12 schools include:

 Higher Education Standards

Colleges and universities typically rely on state-specific content standards or specialty professional association (SPA) standards such as those from the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) for science teachers, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) standards for nurses, or other industry-specific standards such as the Microsoft Technical Certification standards.


First, the Standards. Then, the Competencies. 

After selecting the standards, educator develop the competencies. Similar to learning objectives, these competencies clearly define what students should know or learn and what we want them to be able to do with that knowledge. Competencies must be specific enough to be measurable. 


Competencies are the cornerstone of the entire curriculum ultimately. It’s important to get them right. 


Educators must first make sure that the curriculum is solid before moving on to the next pillar, that of instruction. In other words, it’s similar to building a new house: A contractor must take great care in laying the foundation, because the success of everything else depends on it. 




About the Author: Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher has expertise in higher education quality assurance, educator preparation, and competency-based education. A former public school teacher and college administrator, Roberta is now a higher education consultant. 


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