Innovate and Evaluate: Expanding the Research Base for Competency-Based Education

Competency-based education (CBE) awards academic credit based on what students can prove they have learned rather than the amount of time spent in class. The model has received substantial attention from higher education leaders and policymakers, yet we still cannot answer many basic questions: Who enrolls in CBE programs? How much do they cost? How do their student outcomes compare with other, more traditional programs?

This paper examines over 380 journal articles on CBE from the Institute of Education Sciences’ Education Resources Information Center database, finding that most studies use a qualitative rather than quantitative methodology and focus on questions of design and best practices rather than evaluation. Quantitative research exploring student characteristics or student outcomes was uncommon; studies comparing student outcomes in CBE with traditional post-secondary programs were rare.

Given the interest in and activity surrounding CBE, there is a significant opportunity to build on this evidence base. Researchers should partner with CBE providers to study important questions that can inform decision making by policymakers and institutional leaders.

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