What is a competency based master’s? Competency based degree programs explained

In a rapidly evolving job market, the conventional educational model is facing scrutiny for how well it equips students with essential skills for the future.

Competency-Based Education (CBE) is an educational model that shifts the focus from time spent in a classroom to the mastery of specific competencies.

Aimed at bridging the gap between academia and real-world professional demands, CBE offers a flexible, cost-effective, and highly targeted approach to earning a master’s degree.

Whether you’re a student contemplating an advanced degree or an educator looking to innovate, read on to learn why CBE is a compelling alternative that merits your attention.

What is Competency-Based Education?

Competency-Based Education (CBE) is a learning model that focuses on students demonstrating competency in specific program learning outcomes rather than spending a fixed amount of time in a classroom.

In this approach, students are provided with all the course material upfront and are given an overall deadline to meet.

The model allows for self-paced learning, enabling students to progress as quickly or as slowly as they wish.

Students must demonstrate their mastery of the material through various assessments, which can differ from course to course and may include exams, essays, or other forms of evaluation.

The CBE format is particularly advantageous for those who have pre-existing skills or knowledge in a given area, allowing them to move more quickly through the curriculum.

This competency-based model offers flexibility and can be more cost-effective than traditional educational settings, making it an appealing choice for many students.

What is a competency based master’s

A competency-based master’s is an advanced degree program that focuses on the mastery of specific skills or competencies rather than the traditional model of time spent in a classroom.

In this educational model, students are provided with all the course material upfront and have the flexibility to progress at their own pace.

Assessments are designed to evaluate mastery of these competencies and can vary in format, including exams, essays, or project-based evaluations.

This approach aims to make education more aligned with real-world demands and can be more cost-effective.

How Does Competency Based Education Work?

Unlike traditional models, CBE allows for self-paced, individualized learning. Students receive all course material upfront and proceed at their own pace.

Assessments focus on mastery of these competencies rather than traditional exams, employing diverse methods like project-based evaluations and portfolios (Xue et al., 2015).

The approach aims to equip students with essential skills for future work and life, such as problem-solving and critical thinking (“The Vietnamese educators and students’ perception”, 2021).

In this model, teachers shift from being the primary knowledge source to facilitators of learning, offering targeted instruction and feedback. While promising, successful CBE implementation requires careful planning, institutional support, and teacher training (Mmari et al., 2020). 

CBE has the potential to bridge the gap between traditional academia and real-world professional demands, offering a more flexible and potentially more effective educational experience.

How Are Competency-Based Courses Assessed?

Competency-based courses are assessed in a different way compared to traditional educational models.

Instead of focusing on time spent in class or accumulating credit hours, these courses measure student success based on their mastery of specific competencies.

Assessment TypeDescriptionPurpose
Readiness AssessmentsMeasure a student’s foundational knowledge and skills before beginning the course material.To ensure that students have the required foundational knowledge to tackle course content.
Embedded AssessmentsEvaluations, such as quizzes, projects, or presentations, occur throughout the course.To gauge a student’s grasp of each specific competency as they progress through the course.
End-of-the-Term AssessmentsComprehensive examinations or final projects evaluating the overall competency level achieved by the student.To assess whether students have mastered all competencies and can apply them in real-world settings.

Readiness assessments play a crucial role in competency-based education, as they gauge a student’s preparedness to begin the course material. These assessments ensure that students have the necessary foundational knowledge and skills before diving into more complex concepts.

Throughout the course, assessments are embedded to evaluate a student’s grasp of each competency. These assessments can take various formats, such as quizzes, projects, presentations, or practical demonstrations.

As students progress, they are able to demonstrate their understanding and mastery of these competencies. The end-of-the-term assessment typically evaluates the overall competency level achieved by the student.

This can involve a comprehensive examination or a final project that showcases the application of all the competencies learned throughout the course. The use of competency-based assessments helps ensure that students are able to apply their knowledge and skills in real-world settings, as they are constantly tested on their ability to meet specific competencies rather than simply covering a broad range of content. 

What Are the Benefits of a Competency Based Degree?

A competency-based degree offers several advantages that align education with real-world demands.

  1. It provides a clear framework with measurable competencies, helping students stay focused on their learning goals. This approach also supports personalized learning; students can progress at their own pace, making tuition more cost-effective as they earn a degree.
  2. Emphasizing real-world application, the competency-based curriculum prepares students for specific job market needs by focusing on practical skills
  3. Assessment methods, like project-based assessments, promote critical thinking by requiring students to solve real-world problems.
  4. Achieving competency milestones enhances students’ self-efficacy, boosting their overall motivation and confidence in their ability to earn a degree and succeed in their chosen field (Darling-Hammond et al., 2019).

What Are the Drawbacks of a Competency Based Degree?

One significant challenge in competency-based education is defining competencies in a way that’s both precise and universally accepted, which impacts the reliability of the degree program.

A focus on specific skills can lead to a curriculum that lacks breadth, potentially impairing students’ critical thinking and adaptability. Implementation is resource-intensive; institutions must invest in training and technology, increasing tuition costs without necessarily earning immediate benefits.

The individualized, self-paced nature of competency-based programs complicates scalability and standardization, making it difficult to maintain consistency or transfer credits between institutions.

Assessments in competency-based settings often prioritize mastery of skills but may not capture complex aspects of learning, such as critical analysis, that traditional exams might evaluate more effectively.

So while competency-based education aims for thorough skill acquisition, the system presents challenges in terms of defining those skills, balancing curriculum, resource allocation, and assessment reliability.

These issues need to be addressed for competency-based education to fulfill its promise as a more adaptive and career-oriented alternative to traditional degree programs.

How to choose a great competency degree program

When selecting a competency-based education program, careful consideration is paramount to ensure an efficient and effective educational journey. It’s crucial to research and assess various aspects of the programs being offered.

A primary factor to investigate is the assessment structure – whether the program relies on a single exam per class or numerous smaller assessments per credit.

Inquire about the flexibility of the program in terms of pacing, as some universities might impose restrictions on the number of classes completed within a given time frame.

Financial aspects are equally vital; determine whether tuition is charged on a per-credit basis or as a flat rate per semester, which can significantly impact overall costs.

To gain a comprehensive understanding, ask about the average graduation times and explore student experiences.

A well-informed decision should prioritize programs that allow:

  1. self-paced learning,
  2. affordability,
  3. and a credible path to the desired degree.

Wrapping up 

Competency-Based Education (CBE) offers an innovative and tailored approach to advanced education that is increasingly relevant in today’s fast-paced, ever-changing job market.

By focusing on the mastery of specific skills and competencies, this educational model provides flexibility, cost-effectiveness, and a greater alignment with real-world professional demands.

However, like any model, it has its own set of challenges, from defining precise competencies to ensuring reliable assessments and scalability.

As educators and institutions work to refine and implement CBE, it holds the promise of transforming the landscape of higher education, making it more responsive to the needs of students and the job market alike.

The Author

Dr Andrew Stapleton has a Masters and PhD in Chemistry from the UK and Australia. He has many years of research experience and has worked as a Postdoctoral Fellow and Associate at a number of Universities. Although having secured funding for his own research, he left academia to help others with his YouTube channel all about the inner workings of academia and how to make it work for you.