Keeping Up With... Competency-Based Education

This edition of Keeping Up With… was written by Lindley Homol and Robert Miller.

Lindley Homol and Robert Miller are Reference and Instruction Librarians at University of Maryland University College. Email Lindley at and Robert at

What is CBE?

Broadly speaking, competency-based education (CBE) is an “educational process or program that measures students’ knowledge, skills, and experience through assessments instead of, or in addition to, measuring their credit or clock hours." [1] The “competencies,” or skills and knowledge that students must demonstrate, will depend largely on the program of study, but may include concepts such as problem solving, conflict management, and presentation skills.

What does CBE look like?

It depends entirely on the program. The wide array of competency-based programs can be divided into two overarching categories: prior learning assessment and competency-based coursework. [2]

The major shift recently has been in the second category. Some schools, like Alverno College, build the competencies into the regular coursework, while still relying on the credit-hour standard. [3] At the other end of the spectrum, programs like Capella University’s FlexPath break from the notion of seat time with a subscription model, in which students pay for access to the content for twelve weeks, and during that time may earn credit for as many courses as they can successfully complete. [4] Some of these fully competency-based programs offer other departures from the traditional course environment, such as bundling the learning resources with the course, and altering the faculty’s role in the learning process. For example, allowing students to work through course material at their own pace may serve to put faculty into an academic coach role, where their purpose shifts more toward providing feedback than instruction.

Why CBE?

Although CBE programs might not seem to share much beyond a name, they all highlight a flexibility and potential cost savings meant to attract adult and career-focused learners.

If students can complete competency-aligned courses at their own pace, skilled students may be able to advance quickly, drastically cutting down both the time to degree and the cost. Of course, the inverse is also true: less skilled students may take longer to advance through a CBE program, which could mean it would take more time and money for them to earn their degree than through a more traditional program.

Colleges and universities are also hoping that CBE will make their students stand out in a competitive job market. Unlike traditional courses, which vary based on the instructor and thus can provide students with a wide range of skills and learning experiences, programs relying on competencies reveal “identifiable skillsets and dispositions that mean something to an employer. As opposed to the black box of the diploma, competencies lead to a more transparent system that highlights student-learning outcomes." [5]

Why the recent increase in CBE programs?

CBE itself is not new. However, CBE was recently identified as a top trend in academic libraries [6], most likely due to the variety of new CBE programs being implemented by schools hoping to capitalize on the benefits CBE may offer to their students.

The influx of new CBE programs can be partially attributed to the government’s recent interest in their potential. Previously, institutions of higher education were largely tied to a seat-time standard as a condition of receiving federal financial assistance. This meant that students enrolled in fully competency-based programs, ones that relied on a subscription model rather than a credit hour standard, were generally ineligible for federal financial aid. However, in 2014 the U.S. Department of Education approved an Experimental Sites Initiative that allowed select higher education institutions to pilot competency based programs that remain eligible for federal aid, even if they divorce learning from seat time [7]. This initiative potentially opens the door for more radical CBE programs to be implemented on a wider scale than ever before.

Implications for Librarians

Depending on how CBE is implemented, librarians may face various challenges and opportunities:

  • Curated Learning Content: For CBE classes containing a curated set of learning materials (OERs, journal articles, etc.), librarians could collaborate with faculty to identify, organize, maintain, and even index the learning materials. Librarians might also help with copyright, judging whether an item can be included in a class, under for example, a Creative Commons license or fair use guidelines. At the outset of a project to gather learning materials, librarians might train faculty to recognize and deal with copyright issues.
  • The Independent Learner and Information Literacy: When a CBE program has students learning independently--reviewing course materials and submitting assessments according to a self-paced schedule--how does information literacy instruction take place? Kristin M. Woodward has written about her work providing library support for online competency-based independent learning at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. [8] Woodward’s library has been able to embed instructional materials in the online classroom for self-paced independent learners to access at their point of need. Embedded library resources, Woodward notes, will be most effective when faculty and librarians collaborate to ensure that library tools match the research needs of students.
  • CBE Assessments vs. the Traditional Research Paper: CBE typically emphasizes professional, workplace skills. Thus, learning assessments will tend toward job-related projects and reports, rather than a traditional academic research paper. That shift could affect information literacy instruction, reference services, and library collections. Although in certain disciplines, librarians would still be helping students find scholarly sources contained in subscription databases, CBE may bring with it an emphasis on other types of information resources that professionals use in the course of their daily work. Again, as Woodward points out, librarians have to work closely with faculty to match library instruction and resources to required competencies.

Because librarians have already thoroughly integrated the learning outcomes model into information literacy instruction, we should be in a good position to work in a CBE environment, whose learning assessments and demonstrations closely resemble outcomes (having learned x, the student will be able to do y and z). The Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education [9] enumerates various knowledge practices as ways in which a student demonstrates her evolving mastery of information literacy concepts and skills. This maps nicely to the assessments used in CBE. Librarians working with CBE programs, however, may find that their information literacy work will emphasize professional, workplace-oriented (rather than scholarly) modes of research and knowledge creation.


[1]  Advancing Competency-Based Education Demonstration Project Act of 2014, HR 3136, 113th Congress. (2014).

[2]  Kelchen, Robert. “The Landscape of Competency-Based Education: Enrollments, Demographics, and Affordability.” American Enterprise Institute. Accessed March 31, 2015.

[3] Alverno College. “Our Unique Curriculum.” Alverno College. Accessed April 9, 2015.

[4] Capella University. “A Revolutionary Way of Learning.” Capella University. Accessed April 9, 2015.

[5]  Weise, Michelle. “The Real Revolution in Online Education isn’t MOOCs.” Harvard Business Review, October 17, 2014. Accessed March 31, 2015. ttps://

[6] ACRL Research Planning and Review Committee. “Top Trends in Academic Libraries.“ College and Research Libraries News, 75, no. 6 (2014): 294-302. Accessed March 31, 2015,

[7] U.S. Department of Education. “U.S. Department of Education Expands Innovation in Higher Education through the Experimental Sites Initiative.” U.S. Department of Education, July 22,2014. Accessed April 9, 2015.

[8] Woodward, Kristin M. “Information Literacy in Competency-based Education: Reflections on the Flex Option at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.” College & Research Libraries News 76, no. 3 (2015): 118-121.

[9]  ACRL. “Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education.” (February 2, 2015).