Competency-Based Education: A Paradigm Shift in Higher Learning

CBE A Paradigm Shift in Higher Learning

We need a paradigm shift in higher learning. For over a century, the Carnegie Unit has been the cornerstone of American education, providing a time-based standard for student progress. However, as the landscape of education evolves, the limitations of this model become apparent, prompting educators to explore innovative alternatives. One such model gaining significant traction is Competency-Based Education (CBE). In this post, I’ll delve into the merits of CBE and offer some practical tips for higher education professionals looking to pilot this transformative approach. 

Rethinking Education in the 21st Century

The traditional education model often propels students forward collectively, irrespective of individual learning paces or abilities. The disruption caused by events like COVID-19 has underscored the need for a more adaptive and personalized approach. We know that each learner is different, and they come with a variety of learning needs as well as life and work experiences. For too long, we’ve used a cookie cutter, one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and learning — particularly at the higher education level. Enter Competency-Based Education, a paradigm that requires learners to demonstrate their understanding and skills through rigorous assessments rather than mere attendance. It also requires faculty members, administrators, and other staff to rethink their roles and how they support students through their academic journey.

Unveiling the Essence of CBE

Competency-Based Education isn’t about taking the easy route; it’s about embracing a different and more effective methodology. Instead of passively absorbing information, students are challenged to showcase their knowledge and abilities through high-quality assessments. This approach is inherently standards-based and is built on evolving educational and/or industry-specific standards. This is far different from what most faculty members are used to, when they alone decide what content to teach in their classes, how students will meet their expectations, and the pace at which students may progress through a course. 

Key Principles of Competency-Based Education

Traditional learning and CBE learning share a common goal of wanting students to be successful. It’s how they meet that goal that’s different. Here are some key “big picture” ways where a competency-based model is quite different from a traditional course-based model:

Competency-based education is a paradigm shift in higher learning.

A Paradigm Shift: Tips for Piloting CBE in Higher Education

I’ve presented at conferences on this topic, and multiple times have been approached by a college dean or department chair who was interested in bringing the CBE model to their campus. Few realize that changing to this model — either retrofitting an existing program or creating a program from scratch — require a considerable paradigm shift not only to academics, but to infrastructure services (i.e., enrollment & admissions, registrar, bookstore, academic advising, etc.). I even had a dean once pull out a pen and small tablet out of her purse, waiting for me to give her three easy steps to CBE, as if it was a biscuit recipe. The truth is, competency-based education is a complex approach to teaching and learning. Once it’s in place, the payoff can be tremendous — but stakeholders must understand the cultural changes that must take place in order for CBE to become a long-term reality within their institutions.

Here are a few key tips for launching CBE at the higher education level: CBE is a paradigm shift in higher learning.

A Long-Term Commitment to Student Success

Competency-Based Education is not a quick fix, but a powerful, long-term solution to enhance student learning, achievement, and satisfaction. It truly is a paradigm shift in higher learning. I think it’s time to take the leap into a future where education adapts to the needs of the learner.


About the Author: A former public school teacher and college administrator, Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher provides consultative support to colleges and universities in quality assurance, accreditation, educator preparation and competency-based education. Specialty: Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP).  She can be reached at: 

Top Photo Credit: Kaleidico on Unsplash 

One-Room Schools in Today’s Classrooms

One-Room Schools

Note: This is an update of One-Room Schools: Outdated, or Ahead of Their Time? (January 29, 2018).

One-Room Schools from Childhood

I’ve always been fascinated by the old one-room schoolhouses. I think it all started when my younger sister and I would walk up our country road and play for hours on the site of an old school, long since abandoned. That school must have educated every boy and girl for miles around, and those children grew up to be postal carriers, soldiers, bankers, farmers, and teachers.

In that school and others like it, students from multiple age groups and grade levels worked and learned together. In many instances, older students taught younger ones, with the teacher providing guidance as needed. Classics frequently served in the place of textbooks, and students applied what they were learning in the context of what was relevant to their lives. They developed a body of knowledge, but even more importantly, they learned how to apply that knowledge to solve problems. Sounds to me like those teachers may have influenced the thinking of Benjamin Bloom as he developed his Taxonomy that’s still alive and well today.

Ahead of Their Time

It was a simpler time, and yet many of the methods found in those one-room schools were ahead of their time. Today we often hear about new techniques and methods for helping students learn. We talk about concepts such as competency-based, proficiency-based, and personalized learning. I would argue that besides a homeschool environment, one-room schools were the birthplace of individualized instruction.

And the performance-based assessments that we often use today? Students in one-room schools often had to demonstrate what they knew through projects such as planting an herb garden appropriate for local soil; raising goats for meat and dairy; making apple butter; building a machine shed that could stand up to wind; or providing first aid.

Like the competency-based educational model, Simousek points out that most one-room schools adhered to the “time is variable/learning is constant” mantra, whereby learners worked on topics and skills until they could successfully demonstrate their proficiency before moving on. In other words:

 What students learn is more important than how quickly they learn it.

 We also know that students are more actively engaged and achieve more when there is a community of learners. Moreover, we know they excel when teachers and parents work closely together. This requires strong relationships, communication, and trust–none of which develop overnight—they take time. That’s another benefit of the one-room school model: Students remain with one teacher for multiple years, allowing rich bonds to form between teacher, pupil, and families. Quite frankly, it’s something that’s often missing in schools today. However, the concept of “looping” has been introduced in the past few years as a “new” instructional practice designed to foster learning. The basic premise? To enhance student learning and development by working with the same teacher 2-3 years in order to build trust, communication, and relationships. Not really a new concept after all.

One-Room Schools Today

There are actually still a few hundred one-room schools in the United States today, many located in very rural and remote areas. However, a charter school in Gainsville, Florida was started in 1997 specifically with the one-room school model in mind. Focusing on meeting the needs of high achievers, the One Room School House Project (ORSH) serves students through eighth grade. In addition, some modern-day homeschools are perfect venues for the one-room schoolhouse model.

While I recognize the benefits of larger schools today, I have to wonder if perhaps we need to reconsider the benefits of smaller schools designed around the one-room schoolhouse model. Even in our fast-paced, mobile society, I believe there is still a need for schools that serve as community anchors; that can truly provide individualized instruction and support for all learners; and that prepare students to interact with others in a positive way. Maybe an old-school approach is worth another look today.



About the Author: Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher has expertise in educator preparation, accreditation, online teaching & learning, and competency-based education. A former public school teacher and college administrator, Roberta is now an educational consultant. 


Top image credit: Lena Road Schoolhouse


Regardless of What It’s Called, Empowering Students to Take Charge of their Own Learning is a Good Thing.

“A student who understands what it means to own their learning has an internal drive to get things done.” This comes from the administrator of a rural school in Idaho who’s unlocked the key to powerful learning. This approach is often referred to by many different names, such as:

  • personalized learning
  • proficiency learning
  • demonstration learning
  • individualized instruction
  • competency-based learning


However, while these terms are often used interchangeably, they are not all one and the same. Here’s an at-a-glance chart that may help:


Questions to Ask

Sample Classroom Applications

Personalized Learning

Individualized Instruction


What do my students need to know?

What are my students intrigued by? What sparks their curiosity? How do each of my students prefer to learn?

How can I provide each of my students with the kind of experiences they need to learn and thrive?

–Curriculum could be based on specific learning standards for each content area, but in its purest form it could be based on the mission of the school or even each student’s learning goals.

–With guidance, students actively participate in setting their own learning goals.

–Project-based, theme-based or interest-based learning

–Experience-based learning opportunities (including internships & apprenticeships)

–Pairing students with a mentor who has expertise in a given area

–Small group or individualized meetings with learning coach, advisor, or mentor

–Work products can take many forms (portfolio, blog, video, book, music, event, etc.)

Proficiency Learning

Competency-Based Learning




What do my students need to know?

How will I know if each of my students has met academic expectations?

What should I do if I have an advanced learner who breezes through the material?

What should I do for learners who are struggling with specific concepts or skills?

–Curriculum is typically based on district-adopted learning standards for each content area.

–A specific level of proficiency (or competency) is identified for key learning goals and objectives.

–Student learning is measured through carefully constructed formative and summative assessments.

–Proficiency/Competency is determined by performance on those assessments.

–Students can progress onward after demonstrating proficiency/competence.

–Struggling students are provided additional instructional support, and then are reassessed. Cycle is continued until proficiency/competency is demonstrated.

Demonstration Learning What do my students need to know?

How will I know if each of my students has met academic expectations?

How will I know if each of my students has met academic expectations?


–Curriculum is typically based on district-adopted learning standards for each content area.

–A specific level of performance is identified for key learning goals and objectives.

–Student learning is measured through a combination of formative and summative assessments.

–In many instances, students can select from a menu of assessment choices.

–Depending on age and grade level, examples of culminating demonstrations of learning could include: portfolio, blog, video, poem, art show, recital, podcast, write a letter to the editor, etc.

Mastery Learning

Mastery learning was purposely left off the chart. This approach is often used interchangeably with proficiency and competency-based learning, and while it does share many attributes to those approaches, it is not the same. There is a difference between demonstrating one’s proficiency or competency in a given skill and mastering that skill. For example:

  • I am proficient in using Microsoft Excel, but I have not mastered it.
  • As evidenced by my harvest this year, I am a competent gardener but most certainly not a master gardener.

Mastery learning represents a much higher bar of expectation—it goes above and beyond that of proficiency or competency. To master something means you have become an expert in a given skill, and that approach doesn’t seem to fit within an empowerment-based learning model.

While terms can be confusing, here’s the bottom line:

Students should be empowered to take an active role in their own learning. As a result, they achieve success not because someone is forcing them to move at a certain pace or memorize a set of dates for a test the next day–they learn because they want to, and they learn in a way that feels comfortable. Furthermore, teachers can provide richer, more meaningful feedback to their students because they can customize learning experiences as needed. School leaders are able to make more thoughtful decisions about schools and school systems, and parents/caregivers are elated because they see their children enjoying school in a way they never did before.

Regardless of what it’s called, an empowerment-based approach can lay the foundation for all students to stretch their minds in a rich and meaningful way, experience success, and develop a lifelong love for learning.

Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher is a national leader in quality assurance, educator preparation, and empowerment-based learning. She supports educational institutions and non-profit agencies in areas such as accreditation, competency-based education, and teacher/school leader prep programs design.  Roberta also writes about academic excellence and can be contacted for consultations, webinars, and on-site workshops through her site (