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Competency-Based Learning: Is it the Future?

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Have you ever heard of competency-based learning? A majority of students or prospective students probably have not. When you think of college, you think of the traditional mode of delivery. You have to complete about 120 credits for a bachelor’s degree, and each 3 credit class is a semester long. Whether you are sitting in a classroom on campus or going to an online school, nearly every college in the country operates this way. However, there is a new form of education that is starting to gain popularity. Competency-based learning is a flexible approach to teaching and learning that emphasizes the mastery of core skills rather than abstract learning.

Many people in higher education (and even secondary education) do understand some of the student complaints about the traditional education model. Most of what is learned in college is forgotten shortly after an exam. That is just how the human brain works. Competency-based education, in theory, helps retention because it focuses on skills that are essential to each individual’s life goals. For example, the schools that are experimenting with competency-based learning are predominantly online schools. Online schools offer flexibility, interactive learning programs, and the ability to master skills at the student’s own pace. Competency-based learning breaks away from the traditional semester-based learning, which allows students to actually have the time to master skills at their own pace.

After interviewing some former college students, I received a mixed assortment of opinions on competency-based learning. In theory, it seems like a great idea, because it would provide more skilled professionals, lower tuition costs (and national student loan debt), and promote retention. On the other hand, some former students were concerned that less structure would make it harder for college students to be motivated to complete the requirements for a degree. While the few schools that are currently offering this approach promise personal mentors, innovative learning environments, and/or dedicated faculty, there is concern that students would lose motivation without formal structure.

Where do you stand on this issue? Would competency-based learning be a learning model you are interested in? If the early returns are promising, competency-based learning could become the future of secondary and higher education.

By Ryan Laspina
Senior Specialist, Red Flags and External Reviews at APUS

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