Competency-Based Learning: Opportunity for Career Schools

Guest blog contributed by Dr. Larry Banks, the Provost and Vice President of Operations for the Daymar Colleges Group, which includes 35 career tracks, 16 campuses in Tennessee, Ohio, and Kentucky and online degree programs. He is also a consultant with Edushare, LLC, where he specializes in competency-based learning, retention, online, and blended learning systems.

Dr. Banks previously was Associate Provost at Western Governors University and Provost at Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions. Larry has a PhD in Business Administration and an MBA in Technology Management. He is married to Deana Banks and they have five successful children. For fun, Larry writes songs and plays lead guitar in a band. Last year, one of his songs won runner-up in the USA Song Writing Contest.

Connect with Dr. Larry Banks on LinkedIn.


There is no doubt about it; there is a great deal of pressure on for-profit colleges and universities to improve completion and placement rates. Hence there are many advocates for the competency-based education model. But there are those who suggest competency-based learning is only for vocational programs. Recently, I heard an educator say, “In 2013, the buzz was about MOOCs, and in 2014, the buzz will be all about competency-based education.” He went on to say, I have been doing competency based learning since 1979 and this will pass. He is partially right -- in a way, competency-based learning has always been a part of what educators do... particularly in the healthcare professions. That said, all of us, in one form or another, need to do a better job in learning outcomes assessment. 

Have you noticed, “The more things change, the more they don’t?” Technology is the disrupter. Now, technology makes it possible to do things “better, faster, cheaper, and deeper.” The DOE is proactively encouraging institutions to adopt various competency-based education models. But, there is confusion and misunderstanding as to just what competency-based learning is. Both the USDOE and accreditors treat competency-based and direct-assessment programs as synonymous. Technically, competencies are one type and level of student learning. They describe what a student must know or be able to do to be judged “competent” in a field. A direct assessment program is a program that uses direct assessment of student learning, no matter the type of learning or level at which learning is defined. With that said, competency-based programs are particularly appropriate for career education schools. In fact, competency-based learning is a significant opportunity for schools in our sector.     

Clearly, competency-based learning models and standards are in the “forming stage of development.” Accreditors are developing standards and some forward-thinking institutions are piloting various forms of direct assessment/competency-based learning models. Perhaps the following list will spark questions that we can address in a series of “Things to consider as you explore competency-based learning models”:

1. Independent assessment (the secret sauce)

2. Some models are self-paced, not all

3. The instructional process is assessment centered, not faculty centered

4. Assessments should be linked and vetted to learning objectives

5. Learning objectives are developed from job task analysis, advisory boards, associations, and faculty

6. Competency is demonstration and application

7. Some competency-based models are not tied to credits or time – and some are

8. Competency-based assessments have been around for a long time: NCLEX, Law, CPA, etc.

9. Don’t confuse outcomes with competencies – they are related

10. Creating an excellent assessment is an art and a science – a profession, too

It is worth noting that there is a group within higher education that thinks the “for-profits” will disrupt their efforts to develop excellent competency-based learning models. I think we can do it, “better, faster, cheaper, deeper and with quality.” 

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