Innovate and Evaluate: Expanding the Research Base for Competency-Based Education | American Enterprise Institute
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Competency-based education (CBE) has garnered significant attention lately from reformers and policymakers. Put simply, CBE awards credit based on what students have learned rather than how much time they spend in class. Competency-based programs identify specific competencies, develop assessments to measure mastery of those competencies, and then award credit or other credentials to those students who meet or exceed benchmarks on those assessments.
CBE programs give students flexibility to move at their own pace, which could potentially shorten the time to degree and enhance affordability. CBE credentials may also more clearly signal to employers students’ knowledge and career preparedness.
Clearly, the benefits of expanding access to CBE could be substantial. But what does existing research suggest about the likely effect of reforms to promote CBE? In this paper, we analyze 380 studies of postsecondary CBE and prior-learning assessment listed in the Department of Education’s Education Resources Information Center database. We reviewed each study’s methodology (i.e., quantitative or qualitative) and topic (i.e., program design, student characteristics, student outcomes, and policy environment).
We found that existing research leaves important questions unanswered. What types of students enroll in CBE? How do students fare in CBE programs, and do particular groups do better than others? Are CBE graduates more attractive to potential employers?
Our analysis uncovered more than twice as many qualitative studies (228 articles) as quantitative ones (102). The studies in our sample tended to focus on questions of design and practice, describing the manner in which providers have identified competencies, developed assessments, and structured courses and programs. Far fewer articles explored data on questions about who actually enrolls in CBE and how students fare in terms of learning, completion, and labor market success. A substantial number of studies (56) examined assessment in CBE, including questions about the design, results, and validity of different assessment techniques.
We also looked at the relationship between methodology and content. We found that qualitative studies typically described program design (113) or prescribed best practices for program design (97). Quantitative studies examined program design (47) and student outcomes (42).
However, the research on outcomes was limited. Many of these studies looked at students’ self-assessments of their own competencies after a competency-based course or program. Few examined outcomes such as retention, graduation, or job-placement rates. Only a handful looked at CBE in comparison to a counterfactual; just 13 compared CBE outcomes to those from traditional programs.
The paper concludes with some recommendations for future research. We suggest that researchers should use the ongoing expansion of CBE programs as an opportunity to launch a research and development agenda. Specifically, we suggest that researchers work with CBE providers to answer the following basic questions:
- How do the demographics of students who enroll in CBE compare to those enrolled in traditional programs?
- What do success rates in CBE programs look like, especially relative to comparable programs? Do students who earn credit via prior-learning assessment perform comparably in subsequent coursework?
- How do employers view CBE graduates? Do they see CBE credentials as being more informative than traditional degrees?
Higher education is under increasing pressure to change. The combination of soaring costs, stagnant completion rates, and an uncertain labor market for recent college graduates has given rise to a sustained push for innovation, both at existing colleges and via new postsecondary providers.
In the ensuing national debate, few ideas have received more attention than competency-based education (CBE), which has been around for decades but has reemerged as a favorite innovation of reformers and policymakers. Simply put, competency-based models award credit based on what students can prove they have learned rather than how much time they spend in class. CBE programs identify specific competencies, develop assessments to measure student mastery of those competencies, and then award academic credit to students who meet or exceed benchmarks on those assessments.
Source: American Enterprise Institute