By Megan Walker-Young, Junior Consultant, WGU Labs


Competency-Based Education (CBE) isn’t new to higher education, but it might be new to you. You might hear about it more since new industry standards mandated requiring member schools to switch to a CBE model. So what exactly is CBE? Let’s debunk common misconceptions!


Misconception #1: CBE Is Just Skills-Based Learning.

CBE is about skill-based learning, where learning maps directly to job-ready skills, but it’s also so much more! CBE is based explicitly on competencies. A competency is obtained knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes that can be successfully applied and repeated. Competencies are aligned with industry standards to prepare students for successful outcomes in the real world. 

Courses still have syllabi and are often broken down by topics or modules. The learning experience is aligned to help learners prove mastery through explicit and measurable assessments which validate competencies and give timely relative feedback to faculty and learners to help them grow in their mastery processes.


Misconception #2: CBE is Self-Paced.

CBE and self-paced are often mistakenly put together, however, there isn’t an unlimited amount of time for students to master competencies. CBE schools have specific start and end dates for terms or semesters like a traditional college. Instead of sticking to a class cohort where students participate in readings or discussions together at set times, CBE is oriented and driven in partnership with students. They make goals with support from faculty and staff about when they hope to master a competency during the semester rather than having a faculty-assigned due date. Here’s why this matters:

In WGU’s BS Nursing-Prelicensure program, for example, students take a Medical Dosage Calculation course to learn how to solve equations to determine proper medicine dosages and medicine administration for patients. Tony, a student with prior experience as a pharmacy technician, may master calculations quickly due to consistent practice at work but may need more time to understand or consistently repeat the details involved in administering medication to patients in a clinical setting. Whereas Toshi, a medical assistant, may prove mastery in safe medication administration, but is new to dosage calculations and may need more time to achieve competency. Tony and Toshi have a deadline for course completion, but one may reach it sooner than the other. Working with a CBE model allows courses to meet students where they’re at, rather than students meeting a course where it’s at.


Misconception #3: CBE Programs Don’t Give Out Grades

CBE programs often use a standards-based grading that align to traditional grade-level standards. For example, if a student receives marks proving proficiency for a competency, this may be equated on a GPA scale at a 3.0. Students whose competency was marked as “Exemplary” may be equated to a 3.5-4.0. These alignments allow universities to indicate an equivalent grade or GPA on transcripts. Other universities can use this grading alignment to determine applicable transfer credit. 

Some schools are developing shareable competency dictionaries or badge systems to share with employers. These definitions and badges share transferable information that can be understood by employers and match with recruiting resume-scanning software to match people with jobs aligned with their competencies.


Misconception #4: CBE Can Only Work For Certain Programs.

Some programs may align easier with CBE, but ease doesn’t limit which programs can work on a CBE model. Technical programs like cosmetology and electrician training are prime examples of learning programs designed around the application of knowledge and skill, and could easily move to a CBE curriculum model.

Transforming other programs might be especially challenging with their ambiguities. How do you even begin to convert a degree in Pop Culture or Memeology (yes, they’re real) to a CBE model? Let’s look at a unit in viral strategies! Students may master subject knowledge, such as marketing theories, through a multiple-choice exam and follow that with a project. A Memeology student might create a case study on viral content strategies and implementation. Students can create and launch a meme-centered campaign on school social media to test theory efficacy and strategy impact by tracking organic reach and impressions. Successful students come out with concrete examples that they can increase brand awareness through a content campaign.


CBE may be perceived by some to be a radical shift from traditional models of learning that is only appropriate for certain fields of training. Debunking misconceptions about CBE within your institution can help gain buy-in from key stakeholders as you launch your CBE transformation. What misconceptions are you debunking? 


Want to learn more about CBE transformation? Connect with our Learning and Design team to start your CBE transformation! Learn more at