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Instructional-Design Theories and Models: Volume IV, The Learner-Centered Paradigm of Education

Edited by Charles M. Reigeluth, Brian J. Beatty & Rodney D. Myers       2017

Chapter 2

Principles for Competency-Based Education

Richard A. Voorhees & Alice Bedard-Voorhees

Editors' Foreword

Preconditions (when to use the theory)


  • CBE can guide the mastery of all content.


  • Self-motivated and older learners tend to do better in CBE, as do students with previous CBE experience.

      Learning environments

  • CBE is easier to implement in environments where time is flexible.

      Instructional development constraints

  • Individual competencies must be identified, which requires significant development time.

Values (opinions about what is important)

      About ends (learning goals)

  • Learning is both explicit and measurable.

  • Each individual student’s successful learning is highly valued.

  • The learning experience should be driven by a documented gap between what the learner knows and what she or he needs to know.

      About priorities (criteria for successful instruction)

  • Effectiveness is more important than efficiency or appeal.

      About means (instructional methods)

  • Time is only a proximal measure of learning.

  • Allowing each student sufficient time to learn is highly valued.

  • Demonstration provides proof that learning has occurred.

  • The instructor’s role should be transformed from the keeper and purveyor of information to facilitator of learning.

      About power (to make decisions about the previous three)

  • Learners should play a critical role in establishing assessment expectations.


Universal Principles

     1. State competencies based on desired learner performance

  • The statement of each competency should indicate its domain (cognitive, affective, or psychomotor), its level in Bloom’s taxonomy, its measurement context, its criteria and threshold for learner mastery, and how it should be adjusted to the prior experiences, traits, characteristics, and needs of the learner.

  • Each competency statement should use active and specific language unambiguously.

  • Competency statements should be clear, with tight definitions of what the learner needs to demonstrate, and compatible with other competency statements.  This requires consensus on vocabulary and performance assessment.

  • Complex competencies should be decomposed into observable behaviors and measurable competency statements.

  • The learning outcomes and expected performance should be clearly understood by the learner and teacher before the instruction begins.

     2. Use scaffolding to support achievement of an entire set of competencies. 

  • Scaffolding should be used to demarcate a clear pathway or map showing alternative sequences for the learner to achieve a set of competencies, as well as linkages among the competencies.

  • The sequence of competencies should be adjusted based on learner experience.

     3. Structure competencies to accelerate learning.

  • Learner progress should be based on mastery rather than time.

  • Competencies should be customized to fit the preexisting knowledge of each individual learner.

  • The structure of the CBE program should not be too elaborate.  Exclude superfluous steps to mastery of a competency.

     4. Competency assessments should be criterion-referenced, personalized, and flexible.

  • Competency assessments should be criterion-referenced rather than normative (comparing students to each other).

  • The methods and techniques by which competencies are assessed should be flexible, be designed to fit the individual, and provide teachers and learners a framework to experiment.

     5. Competency statements determine appropriate assessments.

  • Learners should know a priori how they will be assessed.  This will help them to direct their own learning.

  • Competencies should be assessed frequently to inform the learner and teacher.

  • Assessments should be guided by predefined rubrics that specify the level of performance required.

  • Assessment (including by self and peers) should be done through demonstrations of learning.

  • Higher levels of learning should be assessed by decomposing them into part tasks that can be demonstrated and measured.

  • Learners should participate in determining how they will be assessed.

  • CBE should assess the extent to which learners can generalize or transfer a given competency to diverse situations.

     6. Balance the use of locally and commercially developed assessments.

  • Commercial assessments may not provide guidance to improve student learning.  In such cases, faculty-developed assessments should be developed and used.

  • Commercial assessments should only be used if they accurately and meaningfully measure mastery of the student’s education goals.

     7. Implement a CBE Tracking System.

  • Systematic recording of each learner’s mastery of competencies is critical and more difficult than recording accumulated credit hours and clock hours.

  • Try to find or create technology tools to use for competency tracking.

     8.  Successful CBE instruction requires evaluation.

  • Evaluation of the CBE instruction should be an integral part of the instructional process and used to improve the instruction

  • Frequent assessment of competencies should guide the recalibration of competencies based on previous learner performance.


Situational Principles

  • When only part of a program changes to CBE, some features cannot be implemented, such as organizing instruction around tasks instead of courses, student progress based on learning rather than time, student records in the form of lists of competencies attained rather than norm-referenced grades, and use of direct rather than indirect assessment.

  • The assessment of a higher-order competency may make it unnecessary to assess its sub-competencies.  Conversely, continuous assessment of sub-competencies as they are learned may make it unnecessary to have a final, higher-order assessment.


Implementation Challenges

  • CBE requires changes to the traditional instructional and business models in education.

  • Teachers’ mental models, knowledge, skills, and desire to engage in the change all need to be developed for successful CBE.

  • Full implementation of CBE requires significant resources, leadership, and other capabilities.

  • Learners and faculty may resist the shift to CBE.

  • Continuous improvement will be an important element in CBE implementation.

  • Administrative support is key to CBE implementation and whether CBE can be scaled or sustained.

  • When an organization decides to move toward locally developing assessment, formal training of faculty and staff are required.

  • It may become necessary to rearrange or streamline the course structure.

  • It may be difficult to strike the right balance between granularity (unique competencies) and interoperability (general competencies).

  • Insufficient technological tools are available to support the student and teacher in CBE.

  • Accurate measurement will require teacher training.

  • Given the complexity of implementing CBE, periodic use of an organizational evaluation checklist may be helpful.

                                                                                                                               –  C.M.R., B.J.B & R.D.M.

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