Two Types of Competency-based Education: Traditional and Non-traditional

Note: Thank you to my colleagues, Dr. Vanessa Preast and Mr. Rich Loose, for their editorial work on all the posts I have shared. They provided invaluable insight.

Before diving deeper into competency-based education, I present my experience on the topic. Since 2012, I led development of the framework for competency-based education in one institution and coordinated major revisions of the competency based curricula in three degree programs at another institution. During this process, I collaborated with faculty, learned more about the competency models, competency-based education, and how to adapt learning analytics systems for assessing the attainment of competencies. I have shared my experience by authoring several scholarly publications. Our 2015 article explained a curriculum mapping process which allowed us to utilize a learning analytics system for curriculum evaluation. Our 2016 article explained how to conduct the curriculum alignment process at course level in a Master of Public Health course. Our 2017 book chapter provided a framework for evaluating the competency-based curricula.

This essay is a warning about the recent hype in competency-based education and the potential to breed misconceptions within the general public. I classify competency-based education within two categories: traditional and non-traditional. I fear that the recent hype for competency-based education causes the public to shift their understanding to see competency-based education as applying only to non-traditional programs which are tailored towards the needs of each individual rather than seeking the same standard competencies for all graduates within a certain field or profession.

Traditional competency-based degree programs offer the same curriculum to every student in the same program. The modules or courses are aligned with certain competencies in these models. Students attain competencies by completing the courses successfully. Many professional and vocational degree programs with special accreditations fall into this category, and many more professional fields continue to show interest in this competency-based curriculum.

Non-traditional competency-based programs are more individualized and may be called “flex” or “direct assessment” programs. The process begins as each applicant demonstrates competency attainment by completing assessments of prior learning, such as submitting their previous coursework, certificates, learning portfolios, etc. If the applicant attains certain competencies, this person is awarded with partial or full course credit for those areas. The student fleshes out the rest of his or her “personalized” curriculum by completing the courses or specific modules to attain the remaining competencies. It is difficult to locate information about the competency models these non-traditional programs utilize. The definition of competency may be not more than a theme or focus area the program is focusing. The assessment of competencies may not be focusing beyond cognitive domain.

Competency-based education existed long before the recent non-traditional models (see Ford, 2014). In the past, competency-based education was referred as outcome-based education because the outcome was competency attainment. Also, nontraditional models which award credit for prior learning existed long before latest non-traditional competency-based education (see Mandell, 2000). If both already exist, why focus on comparing traditional and non-traditional competency-based education as separate entities? Because, we need to ensure applicants clearly understand that not every competency-based degree program has prior learning assessment and will allow them to follow a shorter curriculum for graduation.

Here are a few examples of one-sided description of competency-based education from prominent resources. First, U.S. Department of Education website provides a description for competency-based learning ( It implies that competency-based learning and personalized learning can be used interchangeably. Second, EDUCAUSE provides their definition of competency-based learning ( This definition also reinforces a one-sided understanding in the field on competency-based education.

Competency-based education is more than the non-traditional versions advertised in media. Without emphasizing both traditional and non-traditional versions of competency-based education, we may create an incomplete understanding for competency-based education. We must define our approaches carefully to ensure that our stakeholders clearly understand what we mean when we discuss competency-based education.


Ford, K. (2014). Competency-Based Education: History, Opportunities, and Challenges (pp. 1–21). University of Maryland University College Center for Innovation in Learning and Student Success. Retrieved from

Mandell, A. (2000). Prior Learning Assessment Corner: Saving What is Messy: PLA in a World of Testing. The Journal of Continuing Higher Education, 48(2), 48–50.

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