Main Nav

Hallmarks of the Breakthrough Models, #4: Competency Approaches

Editor’s Note: This post is the last in a series from Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC). Each post highlights a distinguishing design characteristic of NGLC’s recently funded Breakthrough Postsecondary Models, as described in their profiles. This post originally appeared on the NGLC blog at

Memo from Real World Central: learners already know a thing or two. No one who enters a postsecondary degree program does so without some degree of prior knowledge and skill, and young adults who have already begun their working lives are even more likely than traditional-age students just out of high school to have learning and skills that meet or possibly even exceed postsecondary expectations. To require any learner to go back and re-study such areas of knowledge which he or she has already mastered is to waste that person’s time, zest for learning, and tuition dollars (with resulting financial aid implications). “Competency-based learning” is a shorthand way of referring to the innovative approaches that a few progressive institutions – notably including some in the NGLC Breakthrough Models cohort - are now taking. A benefit of these approaches is that students may demonstrate the knowledge and skills they already have and can count those existing abilities as part of their progress toward degrees.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of such a competency-based approach is “College for America” of Southern New Hampshire University. This breakthrough degree program is notable for the absence of courses, credit hours, traditional faculty, and grades. Instead of following pre-trodden learning paths based on these standardized marker and roles, a student in this two-year program works with a professional coach to develop an individual mastery plan outlining the key competencies that he or she will master throughout the course of the program. In all, the degree program requires 120 competencies arrayed across three mastery triads - foundational skills, personal and social skills, and content knowledge - aligned with the Lumina Degree Qualifications Profile.  Students show mastery of each of these 120 competencies not by taking standardized tests, but rather by completing tasks designed to be project-based, authentic, engaging, and relevant. The completed work is then scored by expert graders using rubrics. Both personally selected mentors and professionally qualified guides known as coaches help each student chart a path through the competencies, accessing curated learning resources that accompany each task. Once a student has satisfactorily completed a task, his or her progress is immediately reflected in a dynamic, online Knowledge Map. More information about SNHU’s College for America’s focus on competency is available in a two-page profile published by NGLC.

Basing learning around the demonstration of competencies is also a key aspect of the breakthrough model of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB), implemented at South Texas College, Texas A&M Commerce, and online. THECB uses full-time faculty in its program but has revamped their  role: partnering with industry experts, faculty develop the crucial course competencies as well as the assessments that determine mastery of the competencies within their online system. In lower-division courses, which are offered entirely online, students are supported both by individual coaches who provide feedback and support across disciplines and by tutors who provide on-demand, discipline-specific support. In lower-division and more traditionally delivered upper-division courses, student work is captured in an e-portfolio designed to be portable beyond the institution, providing graduates with a way to document the kinds of specific skills that are unlikely to appear on a transcript, such as experience in developing a business plan . Texas’s design for competencies in the affordable baccalaureate is further detailed in the NGLC profile on their program.

The Personalized Learning Division of Northern Arizona University has been developed specifically to serve the increasing number of Arizona citizens who don’t fit the usual full-time residential undergraduate mold but who have already begun their working lives and need learning pathways that will accommodate their schedules and enable them to progress at their own pace. Each of the three degree programs that will be available initially is grounded in learning outcomes defined by NAU faculty, who are also developing the modules and identifying the resources that will enable students to reach those outcomes.  The route from start to finish is completely flexible: students choose which modules to tackle first and also choose their preferred learning modalities. As they enroll in the program, students will receive credit for prior learning through assessments, proof of certifications or licenses, and student performance records from the military or their workplace. Once enrolled, they work in a pre- and post-test environment where they have the opportunity to “test out” of a lesson at the outset of the learning module. The pre-tests also ensure that students dive immediately into the areas where they show weakness rather than reviewing areas where they already show mastery. Intrigued? A more detailed picture of the flexible route to a degree in NAU’s Personalized Learning Division is available in their NGLC profile.