A new model

On February 18–20, 2016, the Association of Theological Schools hosted a “New Educational Models and Practices Peer Group Forum,” in which more than 200 participants from 80 seminaries and theological schools came together to discuss innovative ways to provide theological education.

Among the keynote speakers was Charla Long, former dean of the College of Professional Studies at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee, who is now the executive director of the Competency-Based Education Network and a consultant in the relatively new field of competency-based education. On June 29 and 30, Long will co-lead workshops on competency-based education at the Biennial Meeting of the Association of Theological Schools in St. Louis.

Because competency-based education is likely to make significant inroads in theological education in the coming years, ATS and In Trust have collaborated to present this information about it to a wider audience. 

If you have read the Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed recently, you may have seen stories about competency-based education (CBE). A recent headline tells the story succinctly: “How a 40-year-old idea became higher education’s next big thing.” What is this big thing? It’s education based not on the hours spent in the classroom or laboratory, but on what students can demonstrate that they know and what they can do.

Over the past few years, interest in competency-based education has grown dramatically. Today, nearly 600 colleges and universities — including public, private nonprofit, and two-year and four-year for-profit institutions — are planning, building, implementing, and scaling competency-based programs, which are offered in fields like business, nursing, engineering, technology, and liberal studies. 

Is competency-based education coming to theological studies as well? The signs point to yes. One accredited seminary already offers a completely competency-based program. (For more information, see “No More Courses” in the New Year 2016 issue of In Trust.) As competency-based education becomes more common in higher education over all, more seminaries may want to consider it.

What is competency-based education?

Competency-based education means that students progress through their educational program by mastering certain prescribed skills, knowledge, abilities, and attitudes. Instead of being given a list of classes that must be passed in order to graduate, students in competency-based programs receive a résumé of competencies that must be mastered before earning their credential or degree.

Although competency-based programs vary greatly, most embrace key characteristics:

Definition of competencies. All CBE programs must define exactly which competencies are expected of someone who holds the credential that the program offers. “Competencies” are the attributes that someone who completes the program must be able to apply in a post-graduation setting (see Figure 1).

When designing a competency-based program, faculty and stakeholders need to answer questions like:

  • What do graduates of this program need to know?

  • What theories, ideas, or readings must graduates understand?

  • What does the graduate need to be able to do?

  • What are the typical tasks that graduates perform? 

  • What dispositions must they display?

  • In what settings do graduates typically apply their competencies?


Rigorous assessment is essential. Once the required competencies are identified, instruments of assessments must be designed, and then assessment must be rigorously and consistently administered to all students. As closely as possible, assessment should mirror the real-world environment in which graduates apply their competencies. 


For example, a seminarian might demonstrate competency through the design and delivery of a sermon, through role-playing activities with mock parishioners, via a service-learning project in a clinical setting, or in a discussion with someone of another faith. These assessments and their corresponding scoring rubrics should be tested for reliability and validity for predicting the learner’s future performance on the given competency. Rubrics may be validated by trained internal or external evaluators, although some institutions purchase pre-validated assessments.


Proficiency is required. Students must be able to demonstrate mastery of core competencies to earn a competency-based degree. In CBE programs, a learner either is proficient or is not proficient — there’s no way to fail in some areas and excel in others and to “average” out at an acceptable level. Each and every competency must be mastered at the designated level to progress.


Time is variable; learning is fixed. Students in CBE programs may progress as quickly or as slowly as needed. By contrast, in traditional semester-based programs, students have 15 weeks to learn a course’s content. At the end of this period, if the student has achieved what the professor assesses to be an average of 70-percent mastery of the content, the student receives a C grade and may enroll in the next course in sequence. 


In a competency-based program, students who can demonstrate mastery of the required competencies may move on with no reference to time. Although this may take one student five weeks and another 25 weeks, both achieve mastery of the required content before advancing in their studies.


The Competency-Based Education Network, comprised of representatives from 30 colleges and universities and public systems in Georgia, Kentucky, Texas, and Wisconsin, has incorporated these elements into its definition of competency-based education. The network defines it this way: 


A pedagogy that combines an intentional and transparent approach to curricular design with an academic model in which the time it takes to demonstrate competencies varies, but learning expectations are held constant. Students acquire and demonstrate their knowledge and skills by engaging in learning exercises, activities, and experiences, which align to clearly defined program-level outcomes, and they do so with proactive guidance and support from faculty members and staff. Learners earn credentials by demonstrating mastery through multiple forms of assessment, often at a personalized pace.


Why should theological educators consider competency-based education?

1.  Competency-based theological education can reach new markets.

Many theological schools face declining enrollments as their traditional student market shrinks. To survive, they may need to engage new markets of potential students — for example, by recruiting people who are not yet considering theological education. Some potential students are put off by preconceived notions of what graduate school is like, and for them, the differences between competency-based education and traditional education could make the former more appealing. 


Who might find competency-based education more appealing than traditional education?

  • People without formal theological credentials who are already in ministry.

  • Lay leaders (such as elders) and lay staff (such as directors of religious education).

  • Former students who enrolled but never completed degree programs (because of dissatisfaction, financial concerns, family challenges, or competing demands on time).

  • Others not well served by traditional models, including people with poor academic records.


Highly motivated students, or those who have pre-existing mastery in certain subjects, can move quickly through the competencies. On the other hand, students who need extra time may go more slowly (as long as they proceed at a minimal pace that is explained ahead of time). 


At the undergraduate level, some institutions have found that competency-based education re-engages people who are disenfranchised from higher education. It has the potential to do the same for graduate-level theological education.


2.  Competency-based education acknowledges non-classroom-based learning.


Competency-based programs may incorporate the assessment of previous learning into their designs. Prior learning assessment (PLA) isn’t haphazard; rather, it’s a systematic process for granting credit for knowledge, skills, and abilities earned outside a college classroom, provided that this knowledge, or these skills and abilities, are equivalent to college-level learning. 


For example, a church lay leader may have already developed expertise in organizational management, relationship building, and active listening — three essential competencies for theology program graduates. Likewise, a pastor with a bachelor’s degree and 15 years’ experience may already have gained significant mastery in biblical studies, presentation skills, and written communication, but may lack mastery in church history and change management. 


Through prior learning assessment, competency-based programs acknowledge what students already know and establish the relationship between student and school on a positive note. That pastor with 15 years’ experience begins by being told that the institution has a method of assessing and recognizing the competencies that he or she has developed over the course of a long ministry. In turn, this reduces the number of competencies that must be mastered to complete the program. 


3.  Competency-based programs help institutions reduce costs — maybe.


Institutions may reduce instructional costs through reduction of repetitive content, and standardization and consolidation of content into a few universally applied learning modules — content that has traditionally been delivered multiple times in multiple sections by multiple faculty. 


There are significant start-up costs for new learning platforms, technologies, and curricula. And competency-based education can be highly personalized, with plenty of attention from faculty and administrators. So the question of whether CBE will reduce overall costs in the long run is still unanswered. But after the first couple of years, as program development costs shrink and tuition revenue increases, we may find that CBE is cheaper to deliver than traditional education. 


4.  Competency-based programs may justify reduced tuition.


Institutions that save money on the delivery of competency-based programs typically pass these savings on to their students; by building programs to scale, the institution can make up the revenue lost by lowered tuition. Many competency-based programs operate under a different financial model than the rest of the school. For example, some offer a subscription model where students can learn as much as they can while paying a flat rate — perhaps $2,500 every six to 12 months. Other programs significantly discount their published tuition rates or offer a CBE-specific tuition rate. Price savings allow new students to access the system, which helps increase overall enrollment. It should be noted that the vast majority of current competency-based programs accept federal financial aid. 


5.  Competency-based education produces successful graduates.


Suppose the members of a congregation sat down together to list what they needed in their clergy. It is likely that they would include skills in conflict management and making effective presentations as well as traits like compassion and approachability. 


Yet many theological schools do not teach these competencies, focusing instead on expert knowledge in theology and biblical studies. In some seminaries, practical skills are relegated to clinical pastoral education and perhaps one additional course. 


Competency-based theological education prepares students for the environment in which they will actually minister, because it recognizes and requires mastery of a full range of competencies which are intentionally incorporated throughout the curriculum. 


6.  Competency-based programs customize degree offerings.


CBE programs are usually based on a modular platform, with discrete pieces of content available in small segments. This means that students take only those modules needed to help them develop competencies and demonstrate mastery. In the traditional academic model, a student must pass an entire three-hour course to receive credit. But in a competency-based program, if a student has credit (through prior learning assessment) for two of the course’s seven content areas and has demonstrated mastery in two additional areas, that student need only complete the remaining three areas before seeking to demonstrate mastery and receive course credit. This requires that the entire course be taught in smaller, stand-alone modules. 


Once a program’s content is reformatted into learning modules, it can be stacked into limitless combinations based on each student’s unique combination of pre-existing competencies. These competencies can also be stacked into new certificates and degrees, allowing the institution to reply quickly to new market demands or student needs at little cost to the institution. 


Want to learn more?

To learn more about competency-based education, visit the Competency-Based Education Network at www.cbenetwork.org. Also, consider attending CBExchange, an interactive workshop-style conference for leaders from all academic disciplines seeking to design, build, implement, and scale CBE programs. Visit the event’s website at www.cbexchange.org.


Charla Long is the executive director of the Competency-Based Education Network and leads Go Long Consulting, a firm specializing in CBE. She was formerly the founding dean of the College of Professional Studies at Lipscomb University and creator of their CBE program.

What does The Association of Theological Schools say about competency-based education? 

The Commission on Accrediting of The Association of Theological Schools (ATS) says that competency-based education (CBE) falls under the category of “exceptions and experiments” that the Board of Commissioners is willing to consider provided they fall within the guidelines outlined in the “Petition for an Educational Experiment or Exception.” 


Both the Board of Commissioners (which represents ATS member institutions) and the Commission staff recognize the place of CBE in theological education, and discussions about CBE are continuing. At the ATS Educational Models and Practices Peer Group Forum earlier this year, focused discussion groups addressed both prior learning and direct assessment. 


In Trust asked Lester Edwin J. Ruiz, senior director of accreditation and institutional evaluation at ATS, to comment. He wrote: “A growing number of schools are moving in the direction of competency-based education (CBE). The ATS Board of Commissioners is prepared to review any petitions requesting CBE programs."

Questions for Charla Long about competency-based education

Is competency-based education (CBE) “watered-down” education?

Charla Long: Far from it! In fact, when designed and implemented properly, competency-based programs are often tougher than traditional programs. CBE students must master all content in order to earn credit and proceed toward their degrees—there’s no getting by as a C student. You have to master everything.

Q  How does a seminary know which competencies need to be mastered? Is there a template that schools can follow or modify for their particular circumstances? 

Long: Competency selection is a rather complicated process, and schools typically use one of two models: a “deconstruct/reconstruct” model or a “build from the ground up” model.       

Under the “deconstruct/reconstruct” model, you take current courses and break them apart into the competencies you’d expect students to master. After validating the competencies and making sure no important competencies have been omitted, the faculty takes the list of competencies and reconstructs the program to be completely focused on the mastery of these competencies.

Other schools, especially those who have not undergone an external validation of the relevance of their curriculum, build their own competency models. In this case, you work with subject-matter experts to create a list of competencies that are expected of people with the particular degree you are offering. Many institutions prefer to make their own list of competencies based on their unique approach to higher education.  

Who does the student assessment? Does competency-based education require a seminary to eliminate or retrain faculty? 

Long: Competency-based education does not require an institution to fire its faculty. In fact, some CBE programs are staffed by the same faculty who lead traditional programs. Because competency-based education is so new for most faculty, institutions that develop competency-based programs train faculty in areas like coaching, assessment, and self-directed learning. Assessment of student learning is always overseen by the faculty, but some institutions have created faculty roles that specialize only in the assessment of learning.

Assuming that faculty are still involved in teaching, learning, and assessment at some level, how is faculty workload assessed? How does a school ensure that each faculty member has a comparable load?

Long: Each institution must determine how faculty work load is measured. If the CBE program is course based and credit-hour based, then most schools leave faculty workload requirements as they are. For direct-assessment programs (which eliminate courses altogether), faculty work with administration to determine what’s comparable to a traditional load.

Should a school do competency-based education on top of its traditional educational offerings? Or does it replace what the school is doing now? 

Long: This is an institutional choice. For most institutions, CBE is another model for reaching new, unserved students. For a few institutions, CBE replaces more traditional models of delivery. Some schools offer the same programs in CBE and non-CBE formats. Others offer CBE in new programs or credentials. This is a decision that should be made with careful consideration of market demands and a thorough analysis of the financial implications.            


— Jay Blossom

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