The pros and cons of competency-based learning in higher education

Friday, August 04, 2017 12:54

Katherine Hockley by Katherine Hockley

Competency-based learning (CBL) in higher education would put more of a focus on mastering skills than gaining credits based on week-by-week modules.

Is this a direction we should be considering for degrees? There are many pros and cons to this approach, so let's consider them here. 

Pros of competency-based learning 

  • Flexible learning is one of the biggest benefits of competency-based education. In mastering a skill rather than completing credits, students are able to take it at a pace that suits them. It also allows for those with experience in certain areas to advance more quickly.

  • Accessibility to learning is increased. Someone who works full-time is able to choose how and when they interact with their course; they won't be penalised for any attendance issues.

  • There is also the view that CBL is a more practical tool that readies you for the workplace. Certain professions already have this in place, such as those working in healthcare, and it is worth asking whether some degrees are not preparing students with enough experience to transition into a work environment with ease. 

  • Another pro would be that the role of the teacher would be transformed. Their main focus would be on student engagement and mentoring. 

competency-based learning

Cons of compentency-based learning

  • As any student or ex-student knows, motivating yourself to do any self-directed study is difficult. Procrastination in a course where learning is all self-directed is a big risk, and the structure here would need to be able to support and engage learners in a much more impactful way than in traditional learning. 

  • There is also a worry that competency-based learning only nurtures hard skills. Soft skills are lost, such as learning to work as a team and dealing with strict deadlines. How could this be balanced? 

  • There may be inter-departmental disagreements. Each department would have to decide on what counts as an important skill that needs to be mastered and how to measure when someone has successful mastered that skill.

  • Standards would need to be put in place as well as getting buy in from the people in power. However, at our event this year 'Accelerating Digital Transformation in Higher Education,' the University of East London gave a presentation on competency based education, where they said: "[CLB] was met initally with reservations but soon became popular with academics."

Although it may be an arduous process for competency-based learning to be adopted, the pros of the approach may be worth looking into to help improve student satisfaction. Perhaps only elements of the learning strategy need be adopted into HE, such as ensuring hard skills are developed and by increasing the opportunity for flexible learning.

Read more higher education blogs