Benefits of Competency-Based Learning for College Students

  • Find a bachelor's degree

    Bachelors Degree Center is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Key Infor­ma­tion:

  • Self-paced online pro­grams using com­pe­ten­cy-based learn­ing can sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduce the time and cost required to earn a degree.
  • CBL offers a per­son­al­ized approach, allow­ing stu­dents to learn at their own pace and focus on areas of inter­est and need.
  • Imple­ment­ing CBL in high­er edu­ca­tion requires sig­nif­i­cant adjust­ments in cur­ricu­lum design, assess­ment strate­gies, tech­nol­o­gy inte­gra­tion, and admin­is­tra­tive poli­cies. Despite these chal­lenges, many insti­tu­tions are mov­ing toward CBL to pro­vide more rel­e­vant and flex­i­ble learn­ing opportunities.

It’s no secret that col­lege can be very expen­sive. Reduc­ing the time you need to fin­ish your degree is a great way to min­i­mize your costs. One way to do that is to get your degree in a self-paced online program.

Often, self-paced learn­ing uti­lizes com­pe­ten­cy-based activ­i­ties to eval­u­ate your progress. Com­pe­ten­cy-based learn­ing (CBL) is straight­for­ward: you’re eval­u­at­ed based on pre­set out­comes and real-world per­for­mance. So, if you mas­ter the mate­r­i­al quick­ly and can demon­strate your learn­ing, you can move on to the next sub­ject more quick­ly, too.

CBL is not a tra­di­tion­al method of teach­ing and learn­ing. In fact, there are many dif­fer­ences between the two:

Com­pe­ten­cy-Based LearningTra­di­tion­al Teach­ing & Learning
Indi­vid­ual learn­ing activ­i­ties that are dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed based on your inter­ests and abilities.A one-size-fits-all cur­ricu­lum with lit­tle personalization.
Work at your own pace.Work at the professor’s pace.
Grad­ing is based on your per­for­mance relat­ed to spe­cif­ic com­pe­ten­cies. If you don’t mas­ter a com­pe­ten­cy, you’re often giv­en the oppor­tu­ni­ty to relearn them.Grad­ing is based on assign­ments and exams rel­a­tive to pre­set cur­ricu­lum standards.
For­ma­tive assess­ments are giv­en through­out the semes­ter or quar­ter and dri­ve the pro­gres­sion of your learning.Many tra­di­tion­al col­lege cours­es revolve around mul­ti­ple large sum­ma­tive assess­ments, like a midterm and final.

In oth­er words, self-paced CBL offers you the advan­tage of faster learn­ing, more rel­e­vant learn­ing, and a more per­son­al­ized learn­ing experience.


The Core Principles of Competency-Based Learning

At its core, com­pe­ten­cy-based learn­ing is all about the indi­vid­ual learn­ing expe­ri­ence. Rather than par­tic­i­pat­ing in a set cur­ricu­lum, you progress through your cours­es based on your needs and inter­ests. In this regard, CBL is high­ly flex­i­ble and allows you much more free­dom to learn the spe­cif­ic knowl­edge and skills that are rel­e­vant to your future goals.

More­over, CBL also focus­es on trans­fer­able skills. Nurs­ing pro­grams are excel­lent exam­ples of this. Rather than spend­ing the entire pro­gram in a class­room lis­ten­ing to lec­tures about nurs­ing prac­tices, you spend a sig­nif­i­cant time in clin­i­cals work­ing side-by-side with prac­tic­ing nurs­es and real patients. So, you learn the basic com­pe­ten­cies in class and then have oppor­tu­ni­ties to trans­fer those skills in med­ical settings.

The process of trans­fer­ring skills is a key com­po­nent of mas­tery. This is anoth­er impor­tant part of CBL. Rather than being test­ed once to assess your com­pe­ten­cy, CBL gives you mul­ti­ple chances to demon­strate your mas­tery of a con­cept, tech­nique, or sub­ject. This, in turn, relates to the flex­i­ble pac­ing men­tioned ear­li­er — you can move quick­ly through con­cepts you mas­ter and ded­i­cate more time to con­cepts that require a lit­tle more of your attention.

Benefits of Competency-Based Learning in Higher Education

High­er edu­ca­tion inno­va­tions like CBL and oth­er flex­i­ble learn­ing pro­grams come with many ben­e­fits for stu­dents like you:

CBL Fea­turesBen­e­fits for Students
Flex­i­bil­i­ty in LearningWith edu­ca­tion­al flex­i­bil­i­ty, you can work at your own pace and mas­ter con­cepts on a timetable that fits your needs. This flex­i­bil­i­ty is advan­ta­geous for adapt­ing to work and life sched­ules, too.
Tai­lored Edu­ca­tion ExperienceThe per­son­al­ized edu­ca­tion expe­ri­ence takes your indi­vid­ual learn­ing style and needs into account. For exam­ple, if you’re a visu­al learn­er, the expe­ri­ence can be adjust­ed to include more visu­al learn­ing expe­ri­ences. As anoth­er exam­ple, if you’re a strong his­to­ry stu­dent and not so strong in math, you can work quick­ly through his­to­ry course­work and take more time to mas­ter math concepts.
Enhanced Skill Acqui­si­tion and RetentionCBL focus­es on mas­tery-based learn­ing, so you con­tin­ue work­ing on a con­cept until you can demon­strate under­stand­ing. This repeat­ed appli­ca­tion of con­cepts and tech­niques helps you retain infor­ma­tion bet­ter as well. Accord­ing to the Nation­al Library of Med­i­cine, skill acqui­si­tion in edu­ca­tion is supe­ri­or in mas­tery-based pro­grams than tra­di­tion­al programs.
Improved Stu­dent Engage­ment and MotivationHav­ing the auton­o­my to guide your own learn­ing and pur­sue learn­ing expe­ri­ences that are rel­e­vant to your inter­ests and goals makes it eas­i­er to be engaged in the learn­ing process. What’s more, stu­dents in adap­tive learn­ing pro­grams like CBL show a high­er lev­el of moti­va­tion to learn, too. The Nation­al Library of Med­i­cine notes that mas­tery-learn­ing builds con­fi­dence through auton­o­my and the relat­ed­ness of the mate­r­i­al to each student’s goals.
Bet­ter Prepa­ra­tion for the WorkforceAcquir­ing hard skills is yet anoth­er of the CBL ben­e­fits you can expe­ri­ence. If you want to be a teacher, for exam­ple, CBL focus­es on com­pe­ten­cies relat­ed to the prac­tice of teaach­ing (e.g, class­room man­age­ment) as well as the mas­tery of the sub­ject mat­ter (e.g., math, sci­ence, his­to­ry, etc.). With this kind of work­force prepa­ra­tion, you will be more mar­ketable for jobs after grad­u­a­tion. This is true in any field, not just teaching.

Implementing Competency-Based Learning in Higher Education

A sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenge in imple­ment­ing CBL in col­lege and uni­ver­si­ty set­tings is the time it takes to devel­op. CBL requires a back­ward design from desired com­pe­ten­cies to the mate­r­i­al pre­sent­ed in class. This neces­si­tates a sig­nif­i­cant time invest­ment from the faculty.

Relat­ed to that point is the time need­ed to adjust assess­ment strate­gies. Gone are the one-size-fits-all exam-based assess­ments pop­u­lar in tra­di­tion­al edu­ca­tion in favor of indi­vid­u­al­ized com­pe­ten­cy-based assess­ments that can more accu­rate­ly eval­u­ate learn­ing outcomes.

There are tech­no­log­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions as well. Tech­nol­o­gy is a cru­cial com­po­nent of the indi­vid­u­al­ized learn­ing expe­ri­ence. Imple­ment­ing new sys­tems on cam­pus and for online stu­dents takes time and mon­ey, just like the oth­er adjust­ments col­leges must address to make CBL a success.

CBL requires adjust­ments to admin­is­tra­tive poli­cies as well. For exam­ple, high­er edu­ca­tion insti­tu­tions might have to change reg­u­la­to­ry poli­cies, finan­cial aid qual­i­fi­ca­tions, tuition pric­ing, and more. Mak­ing changes like this often involves mul­ti­ple stake­hold­ers and a lot of over­sight since changes can sig­nif­i­cant­ly impact bud­get­ing and oth­er resources on campus.

Hav­ing said that, CBL has been imple­ment­ed suc­cess­ful­ly at col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties through­out the U.S., espe­cial­ly those offer­ing online learn­ing options. A few well-known exam­ples include the following:

  • South­ern New Hamp­shire University
  • Uni­ver­si­ty of Phoenix
  • Capel­la University
  • North­ern Ari­zona University
  • Walden Uni­ver­si­ty

The Future of Competency-Based Learning

The future of CBL in high­er edu­ca­tion appears to be bright. Edu­ca­tion­al trends indi­cate that more and more col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties are imple­ment­ing CBL pro­grams. In fact, the Amer­i­can Insti­tutes for Research reports that 47 per­cent of the high­er edu­ca­tion insti­tu­tions sur­veyed are in the process of adopt­ing CBL. 

With more and more self-direct­ed learn­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties avail­able at the col­lege lev­el in the com­ing years, it’s rea­son­able to assume that the num­ber of stu­dents attend­ing col­lege might increase. After all, more rel­e­vant learn­ing that’s direct­ly tied to one’s career goals is a strong moti­va­tion for get­ting an education.

Addi­tion­al­ly, the Coun­cil for Adult and Expe­ri­en­tial Learn­ing notes that a whop­ping 86 per­cent of col­lege fac­ul­ty report a need for increased skills-based learn­ing. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the same study found that only 22 per­cent of insti­tu­tions had com­plet­ed the imple­men­ta­tion of CBL. This is like­ly due to the dif­fi­cul­ties of imple­ment­ing a whole­sale change in teach­ing and learn­ing, like those dis­cussed earlier.

Anoth­er effect of this push toward CBL is an eval­u­a­tion of seat time and cred­it hours. Specif­i­cal­ly, finan­cial aid oppor­tu­ni­ties go hand-in-hand with cred­it hours, which makes CBL pro­grams less effec­tive to meet each student’s needs. There very well could be a new type of cred­it-hour equiv­a­len­cy devel­oped in the com­ing years to make the finan­cial aid sit­u­a­tion for CBL learn­ers more effective.

On a glob­al scale, CBL can help address many holes in the work­force. You can grad­u­ate with spe­cif­ic skills need­ed for your cho­sen pro­fes­sion and do so with mas­tery of those skills, rather than a cur­so­ry knowl­edge of them. With that comes a more edu­cat­ed and skilled work­force that is bet­ter equipped to meet con­sumer needs and wants now and in the future.


As dis­cussed above, the ben­e­fits of CBL are many: it’s faster and cheap­er, more rel­e­vant, and pre­pares you bet­ter for your career. Though imple­ment­ing CBL in high­er edu­ca­tion comes with some sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenges, the ben­e­fits are hard to ignore for you, oth­er stu­dents, and the high­er edu­ca­tion sys­tem at large. There are also ample ben­e­fits of CBL pro­grams for employ­ers, who are able to hire more com­pe­tent, moti­vat­ed, and skilled workers.

Whether you’re a stu­dent, an edu­ca­tor, a col­lege admin­is­tra­tor, or some­thing in between, CBL and oth­er forms of self-paced and mas­tery-based learn­ing are worth a deep­er look. This could be the wave of the future; explor­ing CBL oppor­tu­ni­ties now can help you ride that wave!