Competency-Based Education and the Classroom Challenges


What is Competency-Based Education?

Competency-Based Education (or CBE) is a system-wide school model in which students work towards attaining mastery of specific core competencies or skills within a subject area. Although it may sound relatively new to many educators, it has been talked about since the late 1980s1 with regards to vocational education and has recently become more mainstream.

As opposed to a more traditional approach to education in which a student’s learning progression is measured based on seat time, CBE is based on the mastery of predetermined “competencies” which focus on outcomes and real-world performance. Those of us who are familiar with the cutting edge of STEM education would also recognize this as analogous to 21st Century Skills education, which is built upon heavily researched methods regarding how students learn best.

Recently, many different education institutions have begun offering content that focuses on teaching and learning with regards to CBE. These resources can help explain what CBE is:


Without the proper support, it can be challenging to design learning opportunities that reflect the principles of CBE. Teachers may fall back into old methods when they find themselves in new and difficult situations. It is the general consensus that any course can be designed using CBE principles so long as:

  1. The course or field of study includes robust and valid competencies.
  2. Students are able to learn at their own pace (asynchronous at times) and are supported in their learning by an instructor/facilitator.
  3. A variety of effective learning resources are available at any time and are reusable.
  4. Assessments are secure and reliable/valid.2

Here are a few resources that can help reduce your footwork when trying to design in a new space:


When it comes to assessment, CBE breaks away from the end-all be-all summative assessment and traditional letter grading system that many of us as teachers are used to administering and also participating in as former students ourselves. CBE leans more towards a pass/fail system with opportunities for achieving mastery more than one time after the initial assessment.

Because CBE seeks to have students demonstrate or show their mastery of a skill or concept, the assessment of their mastery can come in a variety of forms. This means that there is an element of student choice with regards to how individual students can display mastery. Assessing that mastery can be done via a rubric, a set of completion milestones, or even custom metrics that you and an individual student agree upon in some cases.

Here are some resources to see what assessment could look like in a CBE class:

Monitoring Student Progress

Because CBE moves away from the traditional letter grade system and high-stakes summative assessments, it can be difficult for teachers to monitor student progress throughout a unit when they don’t have a series of homework, lab, classwork, and quiz grades to gauge (although this can be used as a sort of formative assessment). 

Monitoring student progress in CBE is truly where the idea of ‘teacher as a facilitator’ actually comes to the front and center. Teachers must be able to track student progress in different masteries, which means constant and open communication between teachers and students.

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Final Thoughts

Transitioning to a competency-based education model can be a challenging task, especially when so many of us are spending so much of our time in the virtual classroom rather than the physical classroom. While many of the differences can seem daunting, in truth, it is what we do as teachers every unit: we track our students’ performance and knowledge as the unit progresses. 

The difference is, CBE asks that we allow our students to show their mastery in a variety of ways at their own pace, which at times can include multiple attempts to achieve mastery. 

Think of it like this: if you fail your driver’s license test, do you just get an F for driving and move on with life? NO! You go back, practice and learn more, and then try to show what you have learned by taking the test again. 

It’s the same with CBE. The ways in which students can show mastery are inherently designed to allow students to play to their strengths. In a competency-based model, there are multiple pathways for students to achieve mastery with personalized learning opportunities along the way.

We look forward to helping you on your pathway to moving into the CBE space! Please check out one of our previous blogs on CBE for more information, and stay tuned — the topic for our next blog will be CBE and Parents: Challenges, FAQs, and Resources.

1Burke, J. W. (Ed.). (1989). Competency-based education and training. Psychology Press.
2Johnstone, S. M., & Soares, L. (2014). Principles for developing competency-based education programs. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 46(2), 12-19.

Picture of Nikolas McGehee

Nikolas McGehee

Dr. Nikolas McGehee received his doctorate in Exceptional Learning and STEM Education from Tennessee Technological University. He has worked as a high school science teacher, university researcher, analyst, and project manager, as well as a STEM Education program manager. His professional career is focused upon improving educational processes and products by performing sound research and making data driven decisions.

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