Competency-based education is big right now, and it’s growing. We’ve designed a competency-based program for our own seminary. We’re supporters. But it’s not perfect. Designers of competency-based programs may forget their history. And sometimes the result is a program that focuses on discrete, unrelated skills rather than the big picture — like an assembly line where workers master welding or electronics without knowing what the end product will be. 


But seminarians, faculty, administrators, and boards are not assembly line workers. On the contrary, they need to understand the ultimate goals for their work — what the outcomes of theological education are, and how they are contributing to these outcomes. That’s why competency-based programs must be carefully designed with outcomes in view.


In fact, schools that value outcomes should be excited about competency-based education, because one of its key ideas is “backward design.” That is, you start with goals and then move backward, building toward those goals. When an educational program is thoughtfully designed in back-to-front fashion, everyone in the system knows why each piece is present. The assessment data are transparently rational. And that makes educational effectiveness possible. 


So in theory, a competency-based program is in touch with its bigger outcomes because its required competencies are working toward those outcomes. Yet outcomes can be slippery things. Our contention is that designers of competency-based programs face the serious temptation to ignore big picture goals in favor of smaller ones. By focusing inordinately on second-tier educational competencies that are more easily measured (like biblical knowledge), they sometimes miss top-level outcomes that are more significant (like the ability to teach biblical and theological concepts effectively in a congregational setting). And thus the supporters and providers of competency-based education, unless they move forward with their sight firmly on outcomes, can miss an important opportunity for rethinking higher education.


A history of competency-based education 


Back in the 1950s and ’60s, American educators conducted a protracted discussion about instructional objectives. Many pushed for educational programs that led to clear, quantifiable goals. The result was outcome-based education (OBE), championed by the likes of Ralph W. Tyler and Benjamin S. Bloom, whose “Bloom’s taxonomy” popularized the notion of “higher-order thinking.”  


Outcome-based education is a philosophical umbrella covering many expressions, from standardized testing to experimental programs to Common Core. 


Its initiatives vary in their acceptance and usefulness, but outcome-based education has nonetheless changed the educational landscape. Everyone today is interested in student learning outcomes — not measuring what is taught, but what students learn.


One of OBE’s first offspring was competency-based education (CBE), which was originally called “mastery learning” or “criterion-referenced learning.” CBE was put into practice by a cluster of colleges in the early 1970s, and in the world of college-level degrees, it was novel. It kept track of demonstrated student learning rather than mere clock or credit hours. And it was structured around discrete learning goals (“competencies”) rather than courses. 


Now, 40 years later, competency-based education is in the spotlight. Last October, more than 400 school officials gathered at CBExchange to find ways to advance their own competency-based programs in particular and the enterprise in general. In Trust covered this issue last summer with an article by CBE consultant Charla Long, who wrote that 600 institutions are doing competency-based programs now or are in the development process. Educational businesses like StraighterLine, Pearson, and Ellucian are investing heavily, and the U.S. Department of Education is paying close attention. 


Why now? It has a lot to do with the completion crisis. Competency-based programs offer hope for returning students, because it’s a good system for meeting them where they are, with partially fulfilled graduation requirements. CBE partitions learning into accessible segments, offers a flexible pace of learning, dovetails with prior learning assessment, does a good job transferring credits between institutions, and can lower tuition costs or spread them out over a longer time.


Returning students love it, and they’re not alone. And it’s true that marginal and marginalized students have much to gain from competency-based education, because it offers tangible solutions for the growing number of nontraditional students.


Eyes on the outcomes


The key feature of competency-based education is, of course, competency. And in CBE, a “competency” has a distinct meaning: It’s a defined learning unit — a discrete set of knowledge, an attitude, a disposition, or an ability. In CBE, a unit of competency supplants the credit hour or course as the basic measurement of student progress. Its size makes it relatively easy to name and assess. And equally important, since each competency functions as a kind of mini-certification, it is portable.


But the very feature that makes CBE so useful is what imperils it. Its orientation to competencies — that is, the naming and assessing of encapsulated learning units — attends to the small picture. But what about the big picture? What happened to the outcomes?


When it comes to outcomes, the temptation for designers of competency-based programs is to add them up in a string. History + Bible + theology + Greek + Hebrew + clinical pastoral education equals a minister.


But addition is what got traditional programs into trouble in the first place. Bundling a group of courses did not result in an integrated education. The summation of credit hours did not necessarily result in mature, well-prepared students. 


So in recent decades, schools added student learning outcomes to their traditional academic programs. But outcomes were hampered from the outset by being superimposed atop existing courses, and sometimes faculty became frustrated at mounting levels of bureaucratic analysis. This was colorfully illustrated by one critic who recently called such outcomes “inane counting exercises involving meaningless phantom creatures” (See Robert Shireman’s article “SLO Madness” in the April 7, 2016, issue of Inside Higher Ed).


Ironically, competency-based education risks falling into the same trouble — at least in the way it tends to be talked about. By starting and ending with competencies, we neglect the higher-order outcomes. By casting competencies as the new micro-courses and micro-credits, we settle for poorly integrated programs. Adding up competencies doesn’t automatically result in an education. If anything, the structure of competency-based programs intensifies the need for big-picture outcomes. The more a school partitions the curriculum, the more imperative integrative factors become.


That’s why we believe that as educators, we need to think carefully about what outcome-based education actually means. In fact, outcome-based education theorists have long noted the peril of stopping short of the big picture—more than 20 years ago, William G. Spady warned educators not to confuse discrete skills and structured tasks with “higher order competencies and complex unstructured task performances.” It was these integrated outcomes, which were the most difficult to evaluate, that were the most important, Spady wrote in Educational Leadership in March 1994. 


To put our critique in a theological key: CBE methodology is teleological (i.e., focusing on the ultimate “end” or purpose). But it may not be teleological enough. Only a wide-angle view of God’s mission gets to the matter of how to bring the faithful to maturity, “unto the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). Our conviction is that in and of themselves, competency units are insufficient to propel a good degree program. Outcomes are the real telos, the real end — and thus they are the best beginning. 


To pursue true “backward design,” begin with outcomes and move backward into the discrete competencies.


Some practitioners of competency-based education may object to our critique. CBE programs, they may say, usually include integrative features, and many explicitly name “meta-competencies” or “integrative competencies.” These top-level competencies help to glue together the lower-order competencies, it is argued.


We commend schools for taking the extra step to ensure integration. Even so, doesn’t the nomenclature of “integrative competency” suggest that integration is an afterthought rather than a central principle? Doesn’t it suggest that integrative considerations follow the competency-units rather than lead them?


What’s happening at Sioux Falls Seminary


We write about outcomes not as triumphant educators but as those haunted by the big picture. At Sioux Falls Seminary, we designed our Kairos Project track with outcome-based education as the dominant paradigm while capitalizing on elements of competency-based programs. We developed the program with outcomes first, but we’re still refining it.


For those who are curious, a brief description of our curricular process: The faculty, administrators, and chief stakeholders (e.g. pastors, ministry leaders, and alumni) worked at the program outcomes, making sure they were interdisciplinary and representative of our highest values. 


From there, the faculty populated the curriculum with competencies, which we call “targets,” each with its own prescribed assignment. Currently we are working on summative evaluations to be taken by students at the end of their work in each outcome — evaluations that will demonstrate integrative proficiency. In other words, we have design and assessment components flowing from our top level goals. 


We continue to admire competency-based education. The superiority of systems built around competencies is evident when it comes to matters of clarity, accessibility, and portability. At the very least, CBE’s moment in the limelight can serve as an opportunity for each institution to rethink how much power it has given the credit hour. For instance, while our seminary’s CBE track fits within a common distance education structure complete with courses, credit hours, and traditional semesters, the credit hour does not govern faculty workload, student tuition and billing, course design, or even the student registration process.


Competency-based education opens up the opportunity to dream about structure after the credit hour, which means schools can reimagine almost every aspect of the educational enterprise. It may be that CBE is the catalyst to bring about conversations that have needed to happen for many years, but it’s just an opportunity. The schools that keep track of the outcomes along with competencies, the macro along with the micro, will be the true beneficiaries in this movement. 

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