As Westminster College develops its competency-based education (CBE) programs, it looks at what students must be able to accomplish at the conclusion. Westminster’s CBE programs flip the classroom – outcomes drive projects, students take responsibility for learning, and faculty serve as mentors.
Westminster offers four CBE programs, the first being its Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) which began in 2008. It also offers a project-based Master of Business Administration, Master of Strategic Communication and RN to Bachelor of Science in Nursing. The competency-based programs consist of project sequences rather than semesters. Because time to completion is variable and is not based on seat time, students can gain the skill sets needed to advance their careers while maintaining personal and professional responsibilities.
Westminster is different than most CBE institutions in that it is a traditional campus offering CBE. Most CBE is found at CBE-exclusive institutions (such as the College of America) or separate entities within larger systems (for example, the University of Wisconsin Extension School). While there are some challenges – ensuring a seamless technology interface exists and getting buy-in from campus stakeholders – it allows students to receive the benefits of a flexible education along with Westminster’s high-touch learning experience in which students and faculty develop close relationships.
In CBE, learning is a constant, but time is variable, noted Westminster’s Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Cid Seidelman. Theoretically students can take as long as they like to complete a project sequence. Westminster has found, however, that completion rates are better if they hold students to some measure of accountability. Every student interaction is tracked which allows Westminster to follow up with those who have not checked in for a certain amount of time.
When learning is not measured by seat time, reimbursement and financial aid can be tricky. Westminster translates project sequences into credit hours. In the BBA program, students complete a project with five sequences, and each sequence is worth 12 credit hours even though the time to completion can vary.
Assessment closely mimics the real world. Students don’t receive grades but rather keep working on a project sequence until they meet the expectations. Even after meeting expectations students can work to exceed expectations. They move to the next project sequence when they have mastered the current one.
Seidelman would like to integrate CBE into more of Westminster’s programs because it creates meaningful interactions between faculty and students which stays true to the College’s culture. Feedback from BBA graduates indicates that students enjoyed having close relationships with faculty while being responsible for their own learning. The number of campus stakeholders who support CBE continues to increase over time.
Although Seidelman believes that CBE can be applied to all programs, there aren’t many models for how to do so. Westminster is a member of C-BEN, a national consortium funded by the Lumina Foundation that convenes regularly to advance the national conversation on CBE. The group hopes to deliver best practices for CBE.
Seidelman believes that CBE could help to address some of the concerns about the value of a higher education because it focuses on demonstrated learning rather than learning based on credit hours and seat time.
He noted, “It’s not what you know. It’s what you can do with what you know.”