Roadblocks to Creating a Competency-Based Program

Competency-based education is such an intuitive and appealing concept that once we consider it, we start wondering, “Why did we wait so long?”

In competency-based education, students earn a degree upon demonstrating competency in their chosen field of study rather than upon spending 120 credit hours in school. Under this model, students work hard to attain mastery at their own pace rather than being kept in lockstep with a fixed time schedule. Additionally, in a competency-based system, students are enabled to take risks and aim high with their academic pursuits rather than playing it safe to preserve their grade point average. Following on this, students earn credentials for any competency they master; they’re not penalized for attempting things for which they may not yet be ready. Finally, in a competency-based system the faculty coach, mentor and challenge; the students are in the driver’s seat setting the direction and speed of their learning.

With all of these established and potential benefits, it’s paradoxical that competency-based programs remain the exception rather than the rule.

Major forces maintain the status quo and resist the disruptions of major paradigm shifts. For anyone considering adopting a competency-based model, it’s important to be aware of the challenges and be prepared to conquer them.

These challenges are of three types: upstream challenges to actually build the new model of credentialing; downstream challenges to integrate the new model in the existing system and inner challenges in making sure a complete and authentic paradigm shift takes place. Over the course of these two articles, I will discuss each of these issues in detail.

1. Upstream Challenge: New Model Requires New Tools

The credit hour concept is hard to change because it’s embedded in every process, every tool and every policy within the academic system.

After all, students’ tuition is calculated based on credit hours; financial aid is assessed and continued based on credit hours; student transcripts record credit hours; programs and degrees are accredited and compared using credit hours; faculty loading and compensation are based on credit hours delivered. In fact the whole concept of credit hour was introduced as an administrative tool rather than a measure of educational attainment.

Moving away from the credit hour, or even changing it, requires full support and cooperation from all units within the academic institution: registrar, financial aid, faculty and administration. Accreditation, federal and state agencies are also increasingly aware of and interested in supporting emerging competency-based programs — whether full-fledged or as experimental sites.

At Purdue University, the competency-based degree developed and proposed by the Purdue Polytechnic Institute has managed these challenges thanks to a convergence of support and willingness to make drastic changes to make this work. The degree came about as a grassroots effort by a group of faculty with full support from the University president and board of trustees. Together, they’ve worked for a year in gaining support and collaboration from many strategic academic and administrative partners on campus. In order to mitigate the risks, the competency-based approach is restricted for now to a new degree. This pilot approach is consistent with the process of innovation in industry.

2. Downstream Challenge: New Currency Requires New Exchange Banks

No degree is an island, and for now competency-based degrees will live in a predominantly credit-based world.

On the surface, this is a simple mechanical process by which we map between courses and competencies. Competencies are, after all, nothing but a manifestation of the outcomes we aim to achieve in courses. Thanks to the many accreditation and assessment requirements academic curricula are subjected to, this information is widely documented. The outcomes of a calculus class, for example, can be packaged into three or four relatively independent and self-contained competencies. A student who receives an A grade in a calculus class can be assumed to have met every one of the four competencies. A student who can demonstrate mastery of all four competencies will be given credit for the calculus class.

Overall, a “currency conversion” system needs to be established so students can transfer into and from a competency-based system. It’s also necessary to enable graduates to apply to graduate schools and jobs that still require a numerical grade point average. This need will persist as long as we live in a predominantly credit-hour/grade system.

The competency-based currency is in fact a much more accurate and reliable currency because it reflects the learning attained by students rather than the quality or rigor of the class in which they have learned it. It therefore eliminates debates about whether College X’s calculus class is as good as College Y’s calculus class, or whether a B grade from College X is equivalent to a B grade in College Y.

The definition of competencies and the definition of what constitutes an acceptable mechanism to prove or document attainment become very important. The establishment of such a currency will require a considerable investment and will be a continuously evolving process. At the Purdue Polytechnic, we are engaging in a collective effort involving all units to define the currency and the conversion mechanism hand in hand and in partnership with all players.

3. Inward Challenge: New Language Requires New Thinking

One of the touted benefits of learning new languages is that they open the door to different lines of perception and thinking. Conversely, these benefits are conditional upon directly thinking in the new language rather than reasoning in the native language and translating to the new one.

The same goes for competencies. The full benefits of a competency-based system come from thinking, designing, delivering and assessing in terms of competencies. This requires that we relinquish counting variables we fully control (faculty time, student hours) and focus on things that are desired but not controlled (students’ learning). This is a cultural transformation and a leap of faith in the students’ intrinsic motivation and ability to take the lead role in their education. The role of the faculty becomes to support and coach the student; the students take an increasing role in defining the content and speed of their learning.

At the Purdue Polytechnic, the faculty who have designed the curriculum have spent half a year in faculty development, primarily through discussions and debates. The faculty development is an ongoing process. This is a very important paradigm shift.


Overall, there are infrastructural challenges and we need to make initial investments to address them. The most important investment of all is a mind shift and cultural transformation around the role of the students in learning and the role of faculty and administrators in supporting them.

This blog was published in two parts at Evollution

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